Research is revealing that more and more women are falling prey to eating disorders later in life. These may be relapses of eating disorders from years gone by, or they may be unique to midlife issues. Nevertheless, this ‘significant minority’ is growing, and the problem needs attention.
An online survey as part of the Gender and Body Image Study (GABI), published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found eating disorder symptoms in 13% of women 50 and above, with over 70% reporting they were attempting to lose weight. The study found that 62% of women felt their weight or shape had a negative impact on their life.
(source: National Eating Disorders Association)
If you thought eating disorders were strictly a teenage or young adult problem, you’re not alone. The truth is, no woman – no matter her age or life stage – is immune to the dangers of body image issues.
Why do older women struggle with eating disorders?
Regardless of her age, the reason any woman suffers from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, is rooted in psychological issues. The manifestation of body image issues such as eating disorders become a concrete way to deal with an abstract pain.
NEDA says some of that psychological pain comes from the following:
Contemporary women experience unprecedented stress due to: their rapidly changing role in a globalized consumer culture; the strict cultural standards regarding women, weight, and appearance; unattainable media images; and the current fear of obesity. They [believe] that the right appearance, weight, and eating can mitigate their stress and answer their relentless questions about their worth to self and to others.
Eating disorders are very serious and tragic in young women, but the effects, diagnosis, and treatment of eating disorders in older women can be even more grave. For instance, aging bodies are less resilient and have a tougher time bouncing back from the damage caused by eating disorders. And as we addressed in a previous post, most doctors are not trained to spot eating disorder symptoms at all, let alone in older women who may appear to just be “getting healthy”.
Judith Shaw wanted to lose weight after having children. She said she was hoping to find some way to ‘validate herself’. At 40, she started dieting and exercising. But what began as healthy living quickly escalated to an unhealthy obsession.
“Somehow, the weight loss, and getting harder and firmer and trimmer and fitter, and then getting recognized for that, was fulfilling a need,” she said. Judith got down to 85 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame.
After two falls, a broken elbow, and a broken pelvis, Judith’s yoga instructor cautioned, “There’s nothing left of you. Only you can decide if you’re going to change that by feeding yourself.”
Judith checked herself into a treatment program for her eating disorder. Now 58 and a yoga instructor herself, Judith has not only regained some weight, but the sense of emotional well-being that she had lost somewhere along the way.
Eating Disorders: Not Just a Teenage Problem
Like Judith, many women in their midlife stage are undergoing serious and stressful transitions including menopause, aging, health problems, sexual changes, empty nest, divorce or an unfulfilling marriage, career changes, and caring for elderly parents. They are looking for something to call their own – an identity of their own, perhaps – after having devoted much of their lives to others.
As these changes unfold, these women are left with some deep holes and a pile of hefty emotional baggage, and many become fixated on food to avoid the difficult feelings they need to confront.
So what do we do?
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, there is hope! Find a practitioner who specializes in eating disorders and someone you feel comfortable with. Treatment is available – it’s not easy, but it could save your life.
If you are a spouse, family member, or friend of someone you suspect has an eating disorder, share your concerns with them. Be specific about your concerns, yet gentle and supportive. If they don’t respond favorably right away, be patient and extend an open door.
IntrinPsych Woman offers counseling for all types of eating disorders and destructive eating patterns, including individual therapy, group therapy, and meal support therapy in New York City.
(917) 750-1330; firstname.lastname@example.org