Tag Archives: middle age

Midlife Mid-Drift

I had one of those moments today. As I was pulling on my jeans, I could feel they were too tight. My midriff was mid-drifting. And that first automatic thought – “I’ve gained weight!”- was quickly followed by a shitload of culturally conditioned fat-shaming judgements. The good news is that then I took a deep breath. And remembered this voice comes in when I am suffering in some way that needs tending. That I have over twenty years of eating disorder recovery behind my back (and in my stomach). That this fearful voice doesn’t pop up very much any more and I have another way of being with myself now. Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-voice kicked back in.

Might these jeans be tight because they just came out of the drier?

If you did gain weight, so what?

Here’s how the rest of that conversation went down:

Anxious-part-of-self: What do you mean so what? SO WHAT? My body is supposed to stay the same. This is my recovery body and it’s not supposed to change.

Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-Self: Interesting. Where did you hear that? Actually, your body has changed many times over the past two decades. Most people’s bodies do. Who told you your body is supposed to stay the same? I think I remember your very first recovery mentor telling you twenty years ago (when I was a young adult and she was middle-aged) two things:

1) The size of your body is not your business.

2) The only constant is change.

When I work with women on body image suffering, often there is a correlation with the uncertainty that come with the life-passage transformations such as young adulthood, marriage, pregnancy, postpartum, middle age, and elderhood- and body image. Life transitions can be challenging, and the culture we live in doesn’t have a container for women traveling through these rites of passage. We do have a body-shaming culture that tells us there is something wrong (with our bodies) and it is our responsibility to fix/change them (our bodies). In the absence of community, and of rituals that assist us in crossing these thresholds, a fearful body-shaming voice can come in to keep us “safe.” Safe from what? Safe from the scary changes of the unknown by assuring us that If you can keep your body from changing, then this (life-change) will not be distressing. Safe from having to go through it alone. Safe from facing all the mixed messages in a culture that feels ambivalent at best, and actively disdainful at worst, about supporting women through the rites of passage into adulthood, motherhood, middle age, and becoming a crone. But in practicing hating our bodies, we miss out on appreciating how wise they are in leading and guiding us through these life transformations.

Midlife Mid-Drift (and other women’s body/life changes)

In perimenopause, the ovaries produce less estrogen, which can cause the body to store extra fat (because fat cells can produce estrogen, which offers the body a safety net). Interesting. Thus the thickening around the middle. Pretty smart, body!

In adolescence, a hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) is released, and then forms two new hormones that signal the body to gain weight and become fertile. Smart body!

In pregnancy, weight gain is distributed in all kinds of useful ways, including: increased

jadebeall mothers belly

Photo by Jade Beall, A Beautiful Body Project, http://www.jadebeall.com

blood, breast tissue, fat stores for future breast feeding, amniotic fluid, the placenta, oh, and the actual baby! Wise body. 

Just like postpartum, when the stomach carries shapes and marks that show it grew to hold a child. Successful body!

My body is  changing again.  It’s what happens for women throughout the life cycle. By the way, when I was researching reasons why a woman’s body changes in adolescence, the perinatal period, and midlife, guess what popped up on Google? You got it: 10 Ways to Diet That Away. (“That” being the inevitable changes in your body.)

A Recovery Reminder

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or any form of body image hatred (aka if you live in this culture), DO NOT visit Dr. Google for your answers to questions about life transitions. Dr. Google will always tell you that losing weight is the answer to complex life problems. Stop dieting, start rioting, and find your people. Find your support team of friends, professional help, and spiritual sustenance to help midwife you through your life transitions. Listen to the wise, fiercely compassionate and sometimes as* kicking part-of-you-that-knows and act on that voice. Now is not the time to let the weight on your stomach go. Now is the time to let the weight of holding up unrealistic expectations of who-you-are-supposed-to-be vs. who-you-actually-are go. Or, as Brené Brown so eloquently states about midlife:

I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders (or your midriff), pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:

I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.

Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
That about sums it up: Show up and be seen, midlife midriff mid-drift-ing over your jeans and all.

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.

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