Every client I work with is a unique individual with his or her own unique story, struggles, and strengths. But I can't help but notice trends that pop up, and one of those trends is seeing clients in my office who are going through transition periods in life - and also struggling with food and body image.
Both developmental and life transitions are sticky because we're faced with both changes to our body, and external stressors that are out of our control. Think of aging. Hair grays, midsections soften and round, hormones shift. At the same time, society starts overlooking older people, especially women, whose value is often judged based on conventional beauty standards (thanks a lot, society 🙄 ). We don't have much control over these changes, which is uncomfortable, especially for those whose sense of self relies heavily on how others view them. So it makes total sense that many would turn to food and trying to change their body to gain back that sense of control, especially when there is a multi-billion dollar diet industry telling them it's possible.
As uncomfortable as it might be, change is both inevitable, and important. Here's some common body image struggles at different transition periods of life:
Teenagers // Puberty is a period of rapid body change, and for both boys and girls, gaining weight before growing taller is common. But because it's a time when hormones are raging, popularity is becoming a thing, the opposite (or same) sex no longer has cooties, AND because we live in a world where childhood "obesity" is feared, this normal, healthy weight gain can be quite traumatic. For young girls, this is often the first time they experience their body being objectified and sexualized. With teen magazines and social media, teenagers are being bombarded with images of beauty ideals.
Early 20s // Many women will find their body matures into their "adult" body in their twenties. On top of that, the life change/emotional stress of going from college to "the real world" can trigger weight gain or weight loss. I haven't really studied it, but one theme that comes up with my clients at this age is the discomfort of having peers who are at all different stages of life - some still in college party mode, some getting married and having kids, some professionally successful, some still in school, some living at home. They're just trying to figure out their place, and their future, while also trying to keep up with their peers. I don't know about you, but personally, I'd rather go back to middle school than live through my early twenties again.
Becoming parents // For women who choose to have kids, pregnancy is a time of HUGE changes to their body in a relatively short (9 month) period of time. Like, you literally grow and pop out a tiny human. And afterwards, despite what celebrity magazines imply, your body does not go back to exactly how it was before. Plus, with young kids, there's less time for self care, sleep, movement and cooking. From the new parents I work with, I hear a lot of anxiety about losing their pre-baby appearance, mixed with uncertainties and fears about being/becoming a mom. And while men don't necessarily deal with biologically based body changes, they're still coping with a major life transition.
50-60s // For women heading into menopause, it's natural to gain weight, especially around the midsection. It's actually healthy and protective against the side effects of menopause. That said, the body changes can be difficult to cope with, coming at a time when society tends to start ignoring women as they no longer fit in with conventional youthful beauty standards. At the same time, many men and women are first coming to grips with mortality, often with their first medical diagnosis or losing their first friends to diseases we associate with age.
And of course, none of this touches on the other life changes and hardships like breakups/divorces, moving, financial difficulties, loss of a parent/spouse, etc that can trigger body image concerns.
If you're in a transition phase and also struggling with food/body image, I think it's important to take a step back and realize that it's the transition fueling the discomfort, NOT something that's wrong with your body. Changing your body might temporarily relieve some of the anxiety of the unknown, but at the end of the day, those biological changes are still going to happen and those external stressors are still there.
As my hair grays and wrinkles pop up, it's been helpful to remind myself I'm just changing with getting older, something I've been doing for all 33 and 3/4ths years on this earth. Trying to stay twenty forever would be the same as me trying to stay an infant forever.
Change is inescapable, so getting too attached to appearance as a source of your identity and worth doesn't seem like a very good decision. I think building a self identity outside of our outer appearance, and learning to just sit with discomfort is a much healthier and happier alternative.
If we're being 100% honest here (you guys won't tell, right?), if it were possible, I would be more than happy to stay in my twenty-something year old body forever. But the last thing I want to do is stay in my twenty-something year old mind. If getting wiser and more confident means dealing with frizzy gray hairs that stick out and seemingly pop up overnight, a softer midsection, and lines around my eyes, I'll take that.
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