What Happens to Body Image as We Age

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Body image is constructed slowly over time and is dependent on the responses we receive from our culture, subcultures, and life histories. Studies show that female body dissatisfaction does not increase with age but tends to stay the same or decline throughout our lifetime. More than any o

Body image appears between 25 and 36 months when we first waddle over to the mirror and recognize our image. What a milestone!

Body image refers to our imagined body, how we picture ourselves in our mind’s eye. It includes three things: your estimate of your actual body proportions, your positive or negative feelings about your appearance, and your general beliefs about body shape and appearance.

Body image is “constructed” slowly over time and is very dependent on the responses we receive from our particular culture, subcultures, and life history.

Body Image Versus Body Sense

Another important aspect of our body experience that I call body sense must be distinguished from body image. Body sense refers to the ability to feel and experience our internal bodily sensations––to sense ourselves from within.

Our body sense emerges out of the physiological process of interoception, the ongoing processing and mapping of our internal somatic sensations responsible for maintaining our body's physiological condition.

A strong body sense does not just “happen:”; it must be actively attended to and cultivated. Together, body image and body sense provide the foundation of our sense of personal identity and overall well-being.

They are also powerfully interrelated. Without a well-developed body sense, our body image will not feel real and connected to our full being and will be more of an abstract and often inaccurate idea of who we are. When grounded in body awareness, however, body image is more stable and positive and fits like a comfortable suit.

How does our body image change as we age?

Most of us probably imagine that it becomes harder to maintain a positive body image as we age–given our youth-obsessed, media-saturated culture, looking “good” means looking “young.” We would guess that our levels of “body dissatisfaction” would increase. But this is not the case.

Studies show that female body dissatisfaction does not increase with age but tends to stay pretty much the same or even decline a bit over our lifetime.

What is most unexpected and exciting is that older women actually have higher levels of “body appreciation.” We tend to accept and respect our bodies more and can more easily reject the “thin ideal” promoted by the media. We appreciate our body’s functions—for example, our body’s ability to stay strong and healthy. More than any other measure of body image, body appreciation is correlated with feelings of well-being!

Strong body awareness helps maintain a healthy body image.

There is also crucial evidence from neuroimaging and questionnaires that people with a stronger body sense–a greater ability to sense internal body signals–have a more accurate and stable body image and greater body satisfaction. Having good interoceptive awareness appears to be a necessary condition for an accurate and stable body image.

This means that there is something we can do to improve how we feel about how we look. We can purposefully work on increasing our body awareness by consciously sinking into our bodies and sensing ourselves from within and by engaging in meditative practices like breathwork, mindfulness, and yoga.

It is also true that the more aware we are of our internal sensations, the less influenced we are by external stimulation. This exciting research makes it clear how deepening our body awareness can help us resist the insidious visual brainwashing of our ageist society.