Menopause and body image: Meet the woman aiming to change the way we look at ourselves

We’ve all had the day when you’re feeling great about life and then you catch sight of yourself in a mirror and suddenly – as Christina Aguilera would say – it’s hard to breathe. Instead of the stunning sophisticated lady you feel, you see a jowl or a grey hair (or no hair) and bam! that good day has gone.

Body image has a huge impact on our mental health, but most of the time the headlines concentrate on the effect a low body image can have on young people. We all know the immense pressure from Instagram on our young people to look a certain (filtered) way – big bum, teeny waist and poutable lips – but what about the rest of us?

As with so many areas of life, the effect body image has on menopausal women is ignored. Body image was a key part of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week, but the reports all focussed on the under-25s or the over-55s. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation discussed body image in the workplace and pregnancy and post-pregnancy, but not a word about body image and menopausal women, or how women feel about the way menopause changes their shape (looks at waist, sighs), or our feelings as we see our hair falling out or receding.

But that is about to change – and you can help.

Mum-of-two Holly Young is researching this important and neglected aspect of the menopause as part of her Masters Psychology degree.

“I’m investigating whether self-compassion, which we can learn, can help to boost positive body image or protect against negative body image during this time, with the hope that it could potentially offer women a further option of how to deal with struggles during this stage of life,” she tells me.

“Research has been done on self-compassion in young women in relation to their body image, but, as ever, it seems that women who are menopausal or in midlife are simply not given any consideration – as if all worries or concerns we’ve ever had about our bodies magically disappear when we are no longer in our 20s or 30s.”

Menopause has made me love my body and all it can do, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are times when what I see in a mirror – or a photograph – doesn’t make me sigh.

If that hits me on a bad day, when the progesterone is King, I’m lost. I look at my younger friends and colleagues with envy and suddenly feel – hackit. And then I want nothing more to retreat into my Werther’s Original trousers with their elasticated waist and hide away in a corner.

Holly hopes her research, which has full ethical approval from her university, the University of Derby, will be published and picked up for further research into how we approach the changes to our body in menopause and the positive steps we can take to love ourselves – bingo wings and all.

Links to the survey are below – please grab a cup of coffee and give your opinions. It’s anonymous, simple and quick (no more than 15 mins, I promise.)

In the meantime, I asked Holly to explain more about self-compassion, how it could help menopausal women and how to get involved (spoiler: I love every one of her answers and was nodding like one of those nodding dogs – on speed.)

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is originally a Buddhist concept and is a way of thinking which includes three key elements:

  • self-kindness, or being kind and understanding to oneself as opposed to judgmental and critical;

  • mindfulness, or holding thoughts and feelings in a balanced awareness as opposed to over-identifying with them,

  • and common humanity, which is about viewing one’s own experience as part of the human condition as experienced by others, rather than something isolating and separate.

Self-compassion includes an understanding that failure and suffering are a normal part of being human and that we are all worthy of compassion – ourselves included.

It is not self-pity or self-absorption, rather it helps us to recognise the interconnectedness of our experiences and those of others. It helps to give a sense of perspective.

How important do you think self-compassion could be to menopausal women?

Very! I think it could be useful to everyone, but as menopause is potentially such a vulnerable time, I think it has even more potential to help women to some degree.

It is, unfortunately, very easy for women to put everyone else before themselves – spouses, children, colleagues, ageing parents and so on – especially when we are looking at the life-stage of women at the average age of menopause. I think that can be isolating and I think perhaps it can lead women to be unkind to themselves.

Also, when we think about the fact that half of the population are going to go through the menopause, seeing our experience as related to that of others should be something we can build upon to help ourselves.

Why do you think research so often ignores women over the age of 40?

Good question! There is some research out there, but not enough. And perhaps the media just don’t want to pick up what there is.

In terms of body image, I think a lot of research focusses on younger populations as they have traditionally been seen as more vulnerable due to the earlier stages of development, especially in terms of links to eating disorders and the danger around them, which has been a big research focus.

However, I do think there is a growing awareness that the physiological and psychological effects of menopause can make women just as vulnerable at this later life stage.

Holly Young

And I think that perhaps, sadly, as in society more widely, there is an underlying assumption that body image is more relevant to younger women. Society still perceives much of a woman’s value as based on her appearance and beauty, so perhaps as we age and move further away from culturally constructed ideals, women are seen to be of less value (rather than being judged in terms of intelligence, the work they do, wealth, power, etc., as men often are).

I think it is unfortunately a case of our society’s widely held beauty-ideal of youth and thinness being so pervasive. It is just so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice it. Women are praised – by women just as much as men – for not losing youthful looks, or for countering the biological tendency to gain weight.

Cosmetics companies – and myriad others – tell us that to look good we must look young, that we are succeeding if we beat the wrinkles and grey hair. What’s wrong with those things? Why must people look a certain way? Why do we all buy into this???!!!

So, as we age and depart from this cultural ideal, we are seen as less desirable, asexual, less attractive, of less value. Which is clearly nonsense!

Do you think the body positive movement talks to menopausal women?

I’m not sure it does particularly, not because of its aims, but perhaps because of its heavier presence on Instagram, for example. As that’s largely – but not exclusively, of course – populated by younger generations, they are the voices we hear and that is also who it speaks to.

Clearly it is commendable to champion bodies that aren’t seen as conventionally attractive and it is definitely a force for good when genuine, rather than when the term is hijacked to promote the diet and exercise industries.

But the focus on weight and shape, which seems to be the primary focus at the moment, is also only a small part of positive body image. Positive body image also includes things like an appreciation of body functionality.

I think there is still a big emphasis on objectifying women which needs to be addressed.

Many MENOPAUSAL women have HATED THEIR BODIES ALL THEIR LIVES. What do you think we can do to overcome that at a time when we become “invisible”?

Research has shown that although women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies remains stable throughout life, at the same time women’s body appreciation increases, ie we come to appreciate the body for all the things it allows us to do.

If we can focus on those kind of body positives, be aware of the cultural constructions of femininity that women are forced to try and live up to, be able to identify that and see it for what it is, then that’s a start.

Ageing is a natural process, as is menopause. There is nothing wrong with either of those things and we need a broader conceptualisation of beauty to include both these things in all their forms.

What changes do you hope your research will bring about?

If it is established that there is an association between self-compassion and positive body image, I hope it will encourage further research and provide direction for the development of cost effective, non-medical, interventions to help women with their body image during the menopausal transition – not just to reduce negative body image, but to encourage positive body image.

I also hope that it will help raise awareness of body image as an issue for menopausal and midlife women more generally.

How can women get involved?

The survey is live now, and women can take part by clicking through to it HERE!!! (you can tell how important I think it is! – 50Sense). It is online, anonymous and only takes 15 minutes.

All the information about the study and its objectives is there to read before taking part and any questions can be emailed to me at h.young2@derby.unimail.ac.uk.

How does your body image affect you? Are some days better than others? Or do you have strategies to avoid the pressure to look a certain way. I’d love to know in the comments below.

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