Midlife: Keeping up appearances as we age

Feeling good and looking good is Leanne James’ goal. In fact Leanne spends more time than she thinks she should pounding the floors of the local gym and thinking about what she should, or more often, shouldn’t, eat.

Leanne -who wishes to keep her real name private – is much like the rest of us. She works on looking good in the hopes that this will make her feel good. But Leanne understands that her goal is not really related to physical health or vanity.

“Achieving that extra set of crunches or watching yet another pound sweat off feels good. Like I’m doing something right” says the working mother of three adult children. “I want to compensate for other faults that I have, like not being smart enough, or irritating people so regularly, or my fear of being completely on my own.”

Merryl Bear, director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (www.nedic.ca) understands this kind of thinking. “Today, women are under such pressure to be ‘perfect’. We’re not allowed to age gracefully, or be comfortable in our own skin. We are not encouraged to be confident in our maturity. Everywhere, we are bombarded with the ime of the perfect woman – and she is always youthful looking, thin and toned” she says.

“Being thin and toned for many women is seen as a sign of self control and overall well-being. Rigorous exercise and eating rules may be seen as adaptive and healthy, rather than an attempt to feel control in at least one area of one’s life.”

Bear says this kind of attitude is “in line with our cultural obsession with our bodies as ‘self-improvement’ projects”.

“Rather than explore the bigger social reasons why people eat, diet and exercise obsessively and feel bad about themselves so often, we are bombarded by books and TV shows which say it is our fault . but that we – as individuals – can buy our way out of this by taking control of ourselves through some self-improvement scheme.”

The result of this obsession with food and exercise says Bear, is the rise in eating disorders and food and weight preoccupation among women in midlife.

These eating disorders may be the result of long- standing problems that were never dealt with, relapses to earlier strategies for ‘coping’ with stress, or a new behaviour in an attempt to cope with the challenges of midlife.

Midlife challenges may include changing parental roles as children leave home, or even the stress of adapting to adult children returning to live at home. Added to this is the pressure of coping with work, planning for retirement, and the needs of aging parents.

These competing demands on time and consideration often deplete energy and lead to a sense of incompetence or inability to cope.

An advantage for women in midlife who are experiencing problems says Bear, is that “we have many years of life experience which allows us to be real about the values that we hold dear, and we’re resourceful about getting help. We just need to believe that we are worth it.”

For more information contact: National Eating Disorder Information Centre at 1-866-633-4220 or www.nedic.ca.