How we perceive our body, and how we imagine others perceive our body, is our body image. But perception isn't always reality. In my practice, I've met attractive and fit men and women who don't like the way they look and, as a result, they imagine others see them negatively too.
Accepting Your Aging Body
Body image issues are often thought of as a problem for younger people, and for women and girls in particular. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Age-related shame and our culture's obsession with looking young has become so fanatical that many people are taking radical measures to maintain a youthful appearance.
Aging is a natural process and something we all go through. Yet, for many, especially those who choose to focus on the physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles, soft skin, age spots and gray hair, aging can take on negative connotations.
Do an Internet search on "aging." You'll find tons of articles on aging gracefully. At first glance, this may appear to be helpful advice. However, the notion that there are ways to age gracefully implies that there is something bad about aging, and that aging needs to be navigated with finesse. Statements like You look great for your age reveal our culture's underlying perception about growing older.
For different reasons, divorce and death of a spouse among them, many of us who are 60 and older are returning to the dating scene. Chances are, at some point we'll be intimate with -- and naked in front of -- our new partner. But, rather than enjoying the excitement, many of us are fraught with worry about how our aging bodies will be perceived.
As time passes, we all experience visible signs of aging.
Take Melanie, a 62-year-old divorcée and client of mine, who half-jokingly told me: "It's fine with the lights off, but he's still able to feel how flabby I am when he touches me." Her tone had a touch of humor, but I could tell by the worry in her eyes she wasn't just jesting. Though physically fit, Melanie talked longingly about her younger body. "As a wife and a mother, getting older never bothered me much. A little extra flab seemed normal. But after Henry and I divorced and I started dating, I started to see myself differently. I wondered if the man I was dating expected, and maybe even wanted, to experience the body of a younger woman."
As time passes, we all experience visible signs of aging. Even the most physically fit among us have hip replacement surgeries, knee surgeries, and take supplements for conditions like arthritis and other medications to sustain our physical and mental health. The more we accept aging as a natural progression, and embrace growing older with a positive attitude, the easier our life transitions will be.
As for Melanie, it turns out the new man in her life shared the same insecurities about his body as she did. Slipping into a comfortable relationship, the two even shared some laughs about their disrobing-angst. And Melanie now reports feeling fantastic when she's alone with him.
Editor's note: Melanie and Henry's names were changed to protect their anonymity.
Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.
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