Eating Disorders on the Rise Amongst Elderly Women: Why Am I Surprised?

In a culture so increasingly body- and appearance-obsessed, one should not expect that the women who have spent their lives battling with body image issues would one day wake up cleansed of these worries simply because a certain number of years have passed.
Publish date:
June 11, 2012
eating disorders, aging

One of my great-great-(great?) fat aunts on my father's side, and her husband. Sometimes I wonder if she felt like crap about her appearance. I really hope she didn't.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but for a long time, I was carrying around this erroneous notion that as people get older, they inevitably spend less time obsessing over their appearance.

It seemed like a natural evolution; one can only avoid age for so long before it takes an unavoidable toll on both appearance and health, and so that’s when the elderly stop being regular people and start becoming “wise,” their final contributions to culture ideas to please the mind rather than visions to please the eye.

I should have known better: My own grandmother worried about her appearance well into her 90s, something that seemed inexplicable to me -- she was old, who cares! -- and so I chose to ignore it.

This assumption itself is formed by ageism -- the idea that older women must necessarily give up on aspirational beauty ideals once they become even more obviously impossible than they were for their younger selves is based on the notion that older women “know better” than to put too much stock in appearance-based concerns.

But the idea that older women are somehow made immune to youth-focused beauty standards is ridiculous, in the same vein as suggesting that women of color are somehow inured against the cultural effects of beauty standards that heavily favor whiteness -- just because the ideal doesn't look like you does not mean you are not impacted by it.

And let's be fair: Nobody looks like the ideal. That's the point.

According to a recent study out of the UK, elderly women are facing an “epidemic” of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Professor Nichola Rumsey, co-director of the University of the West of England's centre for appearance research, reports on a survey of 1,200 people that found body image issues can persist even into one’s 80s:

...“At an age where most healthcare professionals focus on controlling pain and body functionality, many patients feel the way they look is as much of a concern, but isn't a legitimate topic of conversation.

"It can cause substantial distress to look in the mirror and see an ageing body, especially if they have very visible conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or an obvious skin condition, for example, yet in the UK we can be very dismissive of what is often construed as vanity... It is a myth that older people don't care what they look like: the 'normal' signs of ageing can prove very depressing and many people find it hard to see themselves in a positive light when they see a wrinkled face and a sagging body looking back in the mirror. We are now at a point where there is a social stigma around the effects of the natural ageing process, and this can lead to very low self-esteem and the classic signs of body dysmorphic disorder."

That's a cheerful future for you.

On the one hand, this seems obvious: women are thoroughly conditioned to fear aging to the point of seeking all manner of intervention -- from the superficial to the surgical -- to stave it off. Celebrities are publicly chastised for daring to look their age, which sets up an expectation that aging is something one can temporarily elude, if not outrun altogether. And yet, there is also an assumption that once a woman gets to be a certain age -- what that is, who can say; older than Madonna, but younger than Maggie Smith? -- she will slip gracefully into older-ness with quiet acceptance, because even if we don’t like to acknowledge it, at some point the physical effects of advancing years becomes inevitable. (Except for Joan Rivers, bless her plastic-enhanced soul.)

On this side of the pond, Good Morning America has a slightly different take on this under-discussed phenomenon, acknowledging that while eating disorders are often assumed to be exclusively about food and weight -- and in part, they definitely are -- there is often more at stake when they surface in women past the “traditional” eating-disorder era of the teen and young adult years:

...Whether there is more awareness and diagnoses remains unclear, but many clinical experts said they have seen a spike in women over 40 seeking treatment in recent years.

The triggers may be different among different age groups, but traumatic life events tend to trigger or contribute to eating disorders, no matter the age, said Susie Roman, program coordinator at the National Eating Disorders Association. When older women experience eating disorders, most of the time it is due to an earlier eating disorder that has resurfaced, but not always. New cases and those that resurface can be triggered by divorce, death of a loved one or children moving away.

Given that beauty culture so heavily values youth, we don’t often see representation of older women who have not gone to great lengths to preserve their younger appearance. The broader effect of this is to make older women somewhat invisible on a social level -- I am only in my mid-30s but even I have noticed that the older I get, the less likely I am to be harrassed by mouthy teens, who no longer see me as a peer, or as anything, really.

Culturally, age erases our relevance, and it makes sense that those who want to continue to feel seen and valued would try to avert this erasure by whatever means at their disposal.

Unfortunately, this creates a cycle in which unrealistic (for most women, anyway) expectations about aging’s effect on appearance persist: women make efforts to forestall these changes and are often lauded for their ability to stave off the ravages of time, which means our idea of what a “normal” 60-something-year-old woman looks like gets skewed by Botox and possibly even undiagnosed anorexia.

Elderly women who can’t keep up are likely to feel even worse about themselves, which can have negative effects beyond low self-esteem, and can influence whole body health, to the extent that, according to Nichola Rumsey, it “can even affect their treatment in hospital when their health choices are influenced by aesthetics."

None of this should come as a suprise: In a culture so increasingly body- and appearance-obsessed, one should not expect that the women who have spent their lives battling with body image issues would one day wake up cleansed of these worries simply because a certain number of years have passed. Indeed, it seems that a lifetime of such obsessing is having far more profound effects than we realize, especially if it is impacting women’s late-life health decisions.

And sadly, odds are good it is only going to get worse unless beauty culture changes to accomodate the diversity of human existence.