A new study published in the Journal of Women and Aging shows that only 12 percent of nearly 2,000 older women—age 50 and older— feel satisfied with their body size. Our Bodies, Our Blog goes through some more stats from the study: A third of the women surveyed say they think about their weight every day, half said they were envious of the way younger women looked, and 77.1 percent said their body size played a primary role in their self-evaluation.
This all sounds depressing at first glance. The cliché is you’re supposed to be less weight-obsessed as you age, so the notion that women in their late middle and old age (the average age of women surveyed was 59) are still not that happy with their bodies is kind of a bummer. But if you look at other studies—about how younger women feel about their weight and about how age affects self-esteem—two things emerge. One, women are always going to be dissatisfied with their bodes, regardless of age. And two, body size does start to matter less to overall self-esteem as you get older, even if it doesn’t totally disappear as a concern.
Women start hating their bodies really young. Eighty-one percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. A Glamour survey of young women showed that 97 percent had at least one negative thought about their bodies every day—which suggests that they hate their bodies even more than their grandmas do. An Oprah magazine survey showed that body satisfaction stays about even from adolescence through your 60s: 64 percent of women in their 60s said they like their appearance, compared with 69 percent of teens, while 46 percent of women in their 60s said they were “satisfied with their bodies,” compared with around 43 percent of teens. Which is all to say, it’s pretty much a wash. Women never feel that awesome about their bodies.
But there is some evidence that body satisfaction may start to matter less to women as they age. A big longitudinal study of 3,617 people aged 25-104 published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2010 showed that self-esteem among women goes on an huge upward trajectory until they reach very old age—depending on marital status, health, and fitness levels, self-esteem may not begin to decline until women are in their 80s and 90s. While women might still be dissatisfied with their bodies as they age, it doesn’t seem to detract from overall feelings of worth in the same way it does when women are in their 20s and 30s. And the self-esteem decline in very old age is partially affected by waning physical health, the study’s authors posit.
So it does get better, just not entirely. It will be interesting to see how the next generation ages, bombarded with even more images of skinny women as the standard of beauty and a consistent pressure to put their sexiest selfies online, but also raised in the era of “you are beautiful just the way you are.” I’d like to think that the 59-year-old me will be just fine as my breasts sag and my metabolism changes and that my daughter will never worry about her body to begin with, but I can’t say I’m hopeful.