Motherhood, Body Image, and Disordered Eating in Middle Age

I remember going to my first ObGyn visit when I was pregnant. The Doctor put “AMA” in my chart. Having worked in treatment settings for eating disorder recovery for many years, I thought she meant “Against Medical Advice,” the term clinicians use when a client is choosing to leave treatment despite their providers’ recommendations. I quickly said to my Doctor:

“I just want you to know am willing to implement any medical advice that you give me regarding my pregnancy!”

She gave me a blank stare.

I explained that I noticed she had written “AMA.”

She smiled. That means “Advanced Maternal Age.”

“Oh.” Long pause. “Oh.”

Being a mother of “advanced maternal age” is becoming more and more common in developed nations, as women work toward completing higher education, solidifying their careers, finding the right partner, and doing personal growth work prior to having children. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports:

Delayed childbearing in the United States is evident in the 3.6-year increase in the average age at first birth between 1970 and 2006…The dramatic increase in women having their first birth at the age of 35 years and over has played the largest role in the increased average age of first-time mothers…many other developed nations have observed increases in average age at first birth with some now averaging near 30.0 years of age. 1

What does this phenomena have to do with disordered eating and body image?

Although data regarding body image in middle aged and older women remains sparse, a study published just this past month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness do not diminish with age. In a survey of 715 women just out, of which 76.5% were married with children, 4.6% met full diagnostic criteria for an Eating Disorder and 4.8% met criteria for Subthreshold Eating Disorder (SED). 2 Together, that makes roughly 10%. So that means 71 of those women with children are suffering with disordered eating.

And yet the myth persists that eating disorders primarily affect adolescents. Why?

There is a reason why the myth that eating disorders affect young women in adolescence exists. According to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD): Over one-half of teenage girls…use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.3 Adolescence is a huge rite of passage for a woman. When a rite of passage is not celebrated, ritualized, or supported, the growth required to complete crossing the threshold of this rite of passage goes underground. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (2005), writes:

“I think anorexia is a metaphor. It is a young woman’s statement that she will become what the culture asks of its women, which is that they be thin and nonthreatening…Anorexic women signal with their bodies “I will take up only a small amount of space. I won’t get in the way.” They signal, “I won’t be intimidating or threatening. (Who is afraid of a seventy-pound adult?)” 4

Similar to adolescence, both parenting and middle age are rites of passage in a woman’s life. When not honored, seen, and embraced, these can also turn into eating disorders and body image distress. Ageing women also face the cultural taboos of not taking up too much space, speaking too loudly, or being seen and valued. They face the task of loving themselves and embracing aspects of the beauty of mortality, power, and wisdom that western media culture is terrified of in women: wrinkles, thick middles, saggy boobs, gray hair. I remember reading one article on “objectification theory” in my doctoral research that linked media and female body image obsession with western culture’s fear of mortality. Female body objectification may veil unconscious existential fears. 5 Other stress factors that affect women in middle age that are similar to adolescence are hormonal changes. However, middle age women also face different stressors such as: medical scares, death of a parent or a spouse, divorce, and career challenges. 6 Margo Maine, co-author of The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to be Perfect, writes:

Women in their 30s, 40s and beyond face increasing pressure to look slender and youthful despite years of childbearing, hormonal changes at menopause and the demands of careers, parenting and caring for aging relatives…Some researchers call it the ‘Desperate Housewives effect,’ referring to the cultural influence of the hit TV series, in which improbably thin women in their 40s prance around in short shorts. 7

It is an interesting journey being “advanced maternal age.” Sometimes I look at young(er) women or young(er) mothers and I think You look so not tired. Or Wow your stomach looks so not stretched. I remember that. That feels like a long time ago. Or I envy younger moms who are more likely to have their grandparents be present for their children’s growing up. My child will already never meet one of his Grandpas. He died before my baby was born. However, there are gifts I have being “middle aged” that I couldn’t have come by earlier in my journey. I had not yet solidified my eating disorder recovery in my twenties. I had not earned a doctoral degree in Psychology in my twenties. I had lots of ideas and lots of difficulty with follow-through. I thought being earnest would pay the rent. The concept of income needing to match or be greater than outgoing expenditures was not a concept I truly understood or felt applied to me. Because I now have financial clarity, I don’t have to “deprive,” “restrict” or  “binge” or “purge” with money, like I used to do with food in my twenties. Interestingly, though I hated my (flatter) stomach in my twenties, I now love my (stretched) stomach in my early middle age. I also have much more capacity to pause and come back to difficult interactions in relationships rather than avoid, hide, or leave. I would not have been ready for marriage in my twenties. I would not have had the “distress tolerance” skills to go toward a young child and stay emotionally present through individuation-attempting tantrums. I would have been inadvertently shaming or stuffed the discomfort with food. I can tolerate it now. I would not have been a good, or frankly even good-enough, mother in my twenties. I wasn’t ready. I remember studying for the Psychologist licensure exam learning that the executive function of the brain (the part that fully understand cause and effect and is able to therefore pause impulsive actions) is not fully developed until the late twenties, or even 30. Does that mean all women should only have children after age 35? Or that only women over 35 are good (enough) mothers? Of course not. And not all women are able to. One always has the potential to become a good (enough) mother. In fact, the eating disorder recovery process mirrors the journey of becoming a good enough mother to one’s self: allowing and embracing imperfection, listening to and honoring emotions, communicating clearly, getting enough sleep, eating in a balanced way, practicing mindfulness or spirituality, connecting with support. And THAT is always possible and always a work-in-process, regardless of one’s chronological age.

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Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe is a Mom and Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works with women recovering from Eating Disorders, Body image difficulty, Depression/Anxiety, Perinatal Mood Disorders, and New Mommy “boot camp.”You can read about her work professionally at www.drlindashanti.com

Resources:

1. T.J. Mathews, T.J. and Brady E. Hamilton, “Delayed Childbearing: More Women Are Having Their
First Child Later in Life,” Center for Disease Control NCHS Data Brief, Number 21, August 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db21.htm

2. Mangweth-Matzek, Barbara, Hoek, Hans W. et al, “Prevalence of eating Disorders in Middle-Aged Women,” International Journal of Eating Disorders2014; 47:320-324.

3. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders websitehttp://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

4. Pipher, Mary, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (2005).

5. Grabe, Shelly, Routledge, Clay, Cook, Alison, Anderson, Christie, and Arndt, Jamie “In defense of the Body: The Effect of Salience on Female Body Objectification”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol 29, 2005.

6. Harding, Anne Eating disorders: Not just for the young, CNNHealth.com, June 27, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/26/health/mental-health/eating-disorders-not-just-for-young/

7. Barton, Adriana, “Are middle-aged women succumbing to ‘Desperate Housewives syndrome’?” The Globe and Mail, March 6, 2013.http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/are-middle-aged-women-succumbing-to-desperate-housewives-syndrome/article578178/

8. Tiggemann M., “Body image across the adult life span: Stability and change,”Body Image 2004; 1:29-41. 9. Slevec JH, Tiggemann M., “Predictors of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in middle-aged women,” Clinical Psychology Review 2011; 31: 515-524.

One response

  1. A friend who’s around my age (I haven’t seen 50 yet) got this when she had her first and only child … at 26.

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