HOW BODY IMAGE STRUGGLES EVOLVE OVER OUR LIFETIME

Go with the flow and understand why our bodies and body image are meant to change.
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There’s only one certainty in life, and that’s the process of aging. Go with the flow and understand why our bodies are meant to change.


BY: RACHAEL HARTLEY, RD, LD, CDE

Everyone is a unique individual with his or her own unique story, struggles, and strengths. But no matter how different we all are, a common trend always pops up when someone is going through a transition period in life –

They also tend to struggle with food and body image.

Both developmental and life transitions are sticky because we’re faced with both changes to our body, and external stressors that are out of our control. Think of aging: hair grays, midsections soften and round, hormones shift.

At the same time, society starts overlooking older people, especially women, whose value is often judged based on conventional beauty standards. We don’t have much control over these changes, which can be especially uncomfortable for those whose sense of self relies heavily on how others view them in the world. So it makes total sense that many would turn to food and try to change their body to gain back that sense of control, especially when there is a multi-billion dollar diet industry telling them it’s possible.

As uncomfortable as it might be, change is both inevitable and important.

Here are some common body image struggles to understand at different transition periods of life:

TEENAGERS

Puberty is a period of rapid body change, and for both boys and girls, gaining weight before growing taller is common. It also happens to be a time when hormones are raging, popularity is becoming a thing, the opposite (or same) sex no longer has cooties, and we live in a world where childhood “obesity” is feared.

That means this normal, healthy weight gain can be quite traumatic. For young girls, this is often the first time they experience their body being objectified and sexualized. With teen magazines and social media, teenagers are being bombarded with images of beauty ideals.

EARLY 20s

Many women will find their body matures into their “adult” body in their twenties. On top of that, the life change and emotional stress of going from college to “the real world” can trigger weight gain or weight loss.

They may also experience discomfort of having peers who are at all different stages of life – some still in college party mode, some getting married and having kids, some professionally successful, some still in school, some living at home. They’re just trying to figure out their place, and their future, while also trying to keep up with their peers. That comparison trap can naturally contribute to body image struggles at this age.

BECOMING PARENTS

For women who choose to have kids, pregnancy is a time of HUGE changes to their body in a relatively short (9 month) period of time. Having to literally grow and pop out a tiny human is no small feat.  

And afterwards, despite what celebrity magazines imply, your body does not (nor does it need to) go back to exactly how it was before. Plus, with young kids, there’s less time for self-care, sleep, movement and cooking. All of that coupled with anxiety about losing their pre-baby appearance, plus uncertainties and fears about becoming a mom can be overwhelming. And while men don’t necessarily deal with biologically-based body changes, they’re also coping with a major life transition.

50-60s

For women heading into menopause, it’s natural to gain weight, especially around the midsection. It’s actually healthy and may be protective against the side effects of menopause. With that said, the body changes can be difficult to cope with, coming at a time when society tends to start ignoring women as they no longer fit in with conventional, youthful beauty standards. At the same time, many men and women are coming to grips with mortality, often with their first medical diagnosis or losing their first friends to diseases we associate with age.

And of course, none of this even touches on the other life changes and hardships, such as breakups and divorces, moving, financial difficulties, and the loss of a parent or spouse that can trigger body image concerns.

If you find yourself in a transition phase and also struggling with food or body image, it’s important to take a step back and realize that the transition is fueling the discomfort, and there’s nothing wrong with your body. Changing your body may temporarily relieve some anxiety of the unknown, but at the end of the day, those biological changes will still happen and external stressors will remain.

As your hair grays and wrinkles pop up, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you’re doing what you’ve been doing since being born on this earth: getting older.

Trying to stay twenty forever would be the same as you trying to stay an infant forever.

Adapted from the original article.

Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE is a private practice dietitian, food enthusiast, and nutrition expert based in Columbia, SC.  By guiding others to rediscover the joy of nourishment rather than deprivation, Rachael helps men and women alike improve their health and well-being through delicious whole food recipes and practical advice through intuitive eating.

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