Learn about how your body and eating habits change over time and how you can feel good about it in the process.
How Aging Affects your Mind and Body
“Lordy, Lordy! Look Who’s 40!” Or 50, or 60 . . . These birthday card slogans might simultaneously make you chuckle and fill you with dread. Then there are the jokes about needing the fire department to put out the candles on your cake. In a youth-obsessed culture, we don’t often see any upside to aging in the media, unless you have easy access to vast wealth and unlimited cosmetic procedures. We’re encouraged to fib about our age and our dress size, to pretend to be younger and slimmer than we really are.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of dreading the years stretching out before us or wishing we were younger, we can embrace maturity. Your body might be slowing down, but time is also giving you space for your mind, heart, and soul to blossom. It turns out there’s a lot to celebrate about aging.
Aging and Perception: How Men and Women are Judged Differently
Let’s start with the obvious: women are judged more harshly as we age. Across our lifetimes, women are judged more on looks and appearance than men are, with the “value of beauty” often stressed more highly than intelligence, competence, affability, or personal or professional accomplishments.
"Older women report feeling “invisible.” This “double standard of aging” means that men are considered “distinguished” as they age, while women are viewed as “less attractive” and “less feminine.”
A study from sociologists at the University of Lodz found that middle-age women feel pressure to maintain a youthful look, and that women feel judged for their appearance far later in life than their male counterparts. Older women report feeling “invisible.” This “double standard of aging” means that men are considered “distinguished” as they age, while women are viewed as “less attractive” and “less feminine.” Although we understand that from an evolutionary standpoint, perceived attractiveness is tied to fertility, this double standard still stinks. But this isn’t the only thing that happens with aging. If you are (or hope to one day be) an older woman, there is very good news going forward.
The Princess and Queen Archetype
When speaking with my patients about aging, I often reference the Princess archetype, which is an apt metaphor for aging. What do you think of when you think of a Princess? Perhaps you envision someone beautiful and sweet. It conjures the image of a young woman who is innocent and passive; dependent on others and shut away in a castle somewhere waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her. She is longing as she waits for her life to begin.In her youth, the Princess has a greater focus on material things, including her own beauty — which the world expects of her. There is also vibrance and fun here, but the Princess typically doesn’t have much agency in her own life. But when the Princess is challenged — through establishing her own household, running a business, or even hitting rock bottom — she has the opportunity to discover her own power. With time and experience, the Princess can transform into the Queen.
Who is the Queen, you ask? The Queen knows herself. She is the source of her own strength and is able to combine her passions with her wise and clear thinking. She is essentially unstoppable. A burgeoning Queen faces her challenges, even the really scary and painful ones, because these are her moments of potential transformation. A Queen trusts herself because she’s brutally honest with herself, and that includes cutting through superficial appearances to go deeper. Becoming a Queen means not being afraid to be alone and learning to enjoy your own company. When you can get out of your head and into your heart, you might be surprised to find the joys, dreams, and creativity still residing there.
With your new alignment of heart and mind, you’re ready to step into your power and into your queendom. No longer a Princess, a Queen sets her own boundaries. A Queen honors her personal history. She is balanced and steady, and she often inspires the same in others, simply by being who she is and leading by example. That sounds pretty great, right? This transformation is one of the magnificent gifts of aging.
How Your Body Changes as you Age
A big physical change that can come with age is difficulty losing or maintaining weight, or even gaining weight as the years go by. While this might seem frustrating, it’s entirely normal and might even be beneficial. "The process of aging affects our eating habits and weight because it naturally causes inflammation. Inflammation impacts our hormones, our hunger, and fullness levels as well as how our weight fluctuates,” says clinical nutritionist and exercise specialist Kelly Brock of All Things Wellness. “While we can practice healthy habits that lower inflammation like eating well, being active and [getting] restorative sleep, the act of maturing will influence our recovery response to inflammation."
Metabolism slows because muscle burns more calories than fat. Muscle loss is normal as time passes, and this process may be increased by conditions like arthritis or other circumstances that reduce physical activity. Adults over 30 may lose as much as 1-percent of lean muscle mass each year, and our bodies don’t require as much food anymore. Hormonal changes, in both men and women, also contribute to weight gain. Stress — and any emotional eating to cope with that stress — plays a role, too. The amount of water in your body is likely to decrease, and even pear-shaped women may notice they’re taking on more of an apple shape as body composition changes and fat beings to accumulate around the middle. Men also experience changes in distribution of body fat as they age. You might even get shorter.
Again, this is entirely normal. These changes won’t impact everyone the same way — your eating habits, physical activity, and inherited genetic makeup have their own influence. There are steps you can take to temper age-related weight gain or even lose weight, like increasing physical activity, staying hydrated, focusing on healthy foods, choosing smaller portions, learning constructive ways to deal with stress, and getting a better night’s sleep. Even octogenarians can increase their muscle mass through resistance training.
"Keeping an eye on your body as you grow older can have health benefits, like reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer."
Keeping an eye on your body as you grow older can have health benefits, like reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. For instance, a 2008 research review concluded that women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches were approximately twice as likely to die of heart disease and cancer as those with waists 28 inches or less. But something shifts around age 80, when risk factors for some of the leading causes of death in middle age — like type-2 diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease — start to decrease. This is also the time in life when the numbers on the scale start to go down, so the risk of frailty can be a problem if you’re too thin as you head into older age. Having some “extra padding” at this stage can offer protection against heart failure, weight loss due to digestive issues, and bone fractures if you fall.
How to Accept Your Body at Any Age
Both your mindset and your body are destined to change over time. How you carry this into your day-to-day living is up to you. A big shift — and it’s a very good one — is that you’re most likely to care a lot less about your weight or what your body looks like. According to a 2014 TODAY/AOL survey, we’re more accepting of our imperfections, physical and otherwise, as we age.
While we may retain the belief that our best-looking years are behind us — the same survey found that most people feel best about their bodies and appearance around the ages of 27 and 28 — age brings the realization that there’s more to life than looks and much more to care about than what anyone else thinks. The TODAY/AOL survey noted that, compared with younger people, respondents ages 50-68 said they “worried less about everything on the survey,” including finances, personal success, health, and physical appearance.
"Age brings the earned wisdom that we’re not defined by our looks."
Age brings the earned wisdom that we’re not defined by our looks. The appearance of new wrinkles and extra body fat really don’t bother us as much, or maybe not at all. We no longer engage in conversations about our looks, and we tend to treat ourselves more kindly, too. We find our happiness and enrichment elsewhere. Allana Pratt recommends appreciating your unique value in the world as the years go by. Just as wine improves with time, you can consider yourself an unequaled piece of art.
“Antiques are prized especially when they’ve been maintained well… the most valuable pieces of art, are one-of-a-kind, “ Pratt writes. “So you are clearly hands down a one-of-a-kind, yes? And if you maintain your self with loving kindness, eat relatively healthy foods and move your beautiful body, why don’t we adopt the point of view that your worth and [beauty] increases in value as you age? And that you are even more scrumptious to be around?”
How would you move through the world if you adopted this new attitude about your own value? How would you treat your body when you have this new appreciation and insight — and when you’ve stopped caring what anyone else thinks? Time brings more than wisdom and experience; it also bring happiness and perspective. How might you approach each new day in the second half of life when you’ve accepted the mantle of a Queen, instead of thinking of yourself as just another aging Princess?
“Aging is a great gift,” says author and body image expert Sarah Maria Dreisbach. “Always look for where your beauty is in each phase of your life.”