Whether you are a teen or over 60, your body undergoes constant physical change. And as these changes occur, they evoke a set of emotional responses that relate not only to your age, but to the circumstances associated with your stage of life.
The psychology behind our ever-changing bodies is the topic I'll be discussing at the Massachusetts Conference for Women with two other panelists: orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vonda Write and nutritionist and dietician Chrissy Wellington. We will be approaching this issue from different perspectives, but we all agree on one thing: with so much media attention on beauty, youth and 'anti-aging' (an oxymoron of sorts), embracing our naturally evolving bodies is all too often overlooked.
Below are the physical challenges women face at various stages of life and some suggestions about how to best manage them.
Teens: Typically, the onset of puberty is the first major challenge young girls face in terms of their changing bodies. Sometimes they breeze through their shifting hormones and the changes to their skin, hair and breasts, but most become hyper-aware of -- if not preoccupied by -- the internal and external changes they experience. A normal part of adolescence includes increases in body fat (especially on hips and thighs), resulting in maturing figures that often don't meet the standards set by our beauty culture. While media images are unrealistic and unattainable, 7 out of 10 teenage girls start dieting as they strive to look like them. With their budding interest in relationships and sexuality, being 'pretty' or 'skinny' suddenly becomes all-important, even to those who, up until then, were barely aware of their appearance.
Challenge: Teens today are confronted by the vast difference between the ideal images that surround them and their own naturally imperfect ones. The way girls learn to deal with their body issues during adolescence sets the stage for how future changes will be navigated. The ability to adjust to the shifts that naturally occur at this time is a skill that will continually be tapped throughout life.
20-Somethings: Outside of those 20-somethings who opt to have children early -- the average age of first-time mothers continues to rise -- for most others, this stage is relatively stable when it comes to body image. Twenty-somethings tend to grow into their adult shape and size by the time they hit 30. Many establish regular exercise, health and grooming routines that become lifelong habits. With 8 out of 10 women over 21 feeling dissatisfied with they see in the mirror, many struggle to define a 'look' they believe is attractive and their own. Today, most 20-somethings believe there is rarely an acceptable time for wearing no makeup, a simple t-shirt and sweat pants. The pressure to look attractive is 24-7. There are stylish workout clothes worn at the gym. It's Victoria Secret at bedtime. Even at work, wearing fashionable outfits and high heels have become an expected practice.
Challenge: Defining what feels uniquely attractive about oneself and staying true to that definition is challenging to the 20-something. It's hard not to fall victim at this stage to style trends and the ubiquitous pressure to look great at all times.
30's-40's: Women in this age group are often focused on having or raising children and are challenged by the changes their bodies undergo in the process. Some are fearful of losing their shape during pregnancy. Some obsess over losing the baby weight after having their children. Many also face their first "uh-oh moment" -- when fine lines and wrinkles signal an aging appearance. Whether changes to the menstrual cycles begin or not, the anticipation of perimenopause and menopause does. This is the stage when women tend to consider -- or undergo -- plastic surgery for the first time. Some women begin cosmetic routines that include Botox and fillers to stave off looking older, while other just worry about what comes next.
Challenge: Since these are often the child-rearing years, the biggest physical challenge for most women at this age is finding time and energy to pay attention to themselves. While juggling kids, relationships and jobs, many women neglect their bodies. They may be well aware that their looks are changing, but they struggle to find the right balance between caring for others while also caring for themselves.
40's-50's: By the time women hit their mid 40's, "uh-oh" moments have morphed into 'uh-oh' weeks and years. For most, the hormonal shifts that come with menopause have now taken hold. While perimenopause and menopause impact women in different ways, every female at some point confronts the feeling that something fundamental about who she is has changed -- and will never be the same -- an awareness clearly tied to the end of fertility. As in adolescence, some coast through this hormonal wave, while others find themselves on an emotional roller coaster. Few women talk openly about their menopausal experience, so many are surprised by how bumpy the ride is. Some gain weight (especially around their middle) and struggle with an unrelenting urge to eat. Others lose their appetite, not only for food, but for sex and other activities. Almost all experience changes to their skin, hair, nails and bones. The menopausal symptom list is long and varied, but the one constant at this age is change.
Challenge: Outside of adolescence, these years are considered by many women the most physically and emotionally daunting. Staying steady while on this unexpected hormonal rocky road requires extra support from family, friends and sometimes, even professionals. Joining with others goes a long way to mollify "the midlife crisis."
50's-60's: This age group is faced with how to prevent the 'disappearing act' as physical changes are now in full gear. Women at this stage of life -- whether they are married or single, with children or not -- often talk about the fear of being overlooked and discarded. As more women today are unwilling to accept invisibility, they realize it's up to them to 'reinvent' themselves -- a buzz word that has become popular among this group. They move from being overly concerned about the visible changes they can't stop and focus more on the internal ones that require their attention. They begin to work on body maintenance -- staying strong and flexible -- moving from jogging to walking, playing doubles instead of singles, choosing yoga over vigorous calisthenics. They become aware that chronic aches and pains will keep them from being as active as they had once been or would like to be in the future, so they make the necessary adjustments.
Challenge: With kids leaving (and sometimes returning) home and elderly parents in need of extra care, the most challenging issue for women at this stage of life is remaining cognizant of their own needs. Staying vital and attractive requires placing importance on health and beauty routines that are appropriate for this age. The challenge is to have the wherewithal to figure out what those are and keep at them.
60's-70's: Some say if you live past 70, it's mostly good genes that get you there. How well you live these years is likely related to how well you've taken care of yourself until then. Alcohol abuse, drug use, poor nutrition and stress impact the aging process. Few women at this point take their health and physical well-being for granted. When faced with serious or chronic illnesses at this stage of life -- e.g. heart disease or cancer -- it trumps caring about anything else. Those who are healthy, relish in it. Those who aren't, know that time and effort must go toward recovery.
Challenge: As women face the physical limitations that comes with this stage of life, the challenge is about making the necessary adjustments needed to enjoy healthy aging. 60 is not the new 40 or even the new 50. These years require a new definition of what it means to look and feel attractive.
70's-80's: By this time, it seems women become more accustomed to the natural changes that occur with age. Many seem to feel less anxious about looking older and face physical changes with more grace and equanimity. Instead of holding onto one's past or trying to stop the clock, many look ahead hoping to make the most of the time they have left. While the role models may seem few, women like Betty White, Dame Maggie Smith and others have paved the way for living life fully and passionately at this stage.
Challenge: For most women at this stage of life, fulfillment means remaining mentally active and staying healthy. While looks may matter, spending energy and time on family, friends and activities take precedence over all else. The challenge at this age is to let beauty reflect from inside, out.
We all age. We all change. There is no easy answer to how to embrace our ever-changing bodies as we move on in years. But it helps to know that each chapter is filled not only with challenges, but with new opportunities as well. And it always helps to know that you are not alone.
What physical changes have you found most challenging as you have aged?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.