Body Image, Body Neutrality, and Aging: Your Relationship with Yourself Matters

Body Image, Body Neutrality, and Aging: Your Relationship with Yourself Matters

The most important and enduring relationship that we have in our lives is our relationship with ourselves.

It’s the first relationship that we are born with, and it’s the only one that we will never have to be without. Our relationship with ourselves also directly influences how we relate to others. And yet, many of us hardly even consider it a relationship at all or give it the weight that it deserves.

A key part of relationships is that they inevitably change over time. People grow and change with life experience, meeting challenges, encountering grief and strife, and reevaluating priorities and aspirations. Your relationship with yourself is no different.

It all sounds good on paper, but where many of us can sometimes get stuck and stumble is in our relationship with the physical part of ourselves: our appearance and our relationship with our body.

Our society is becoming increasingly fixated on physical appearance, youth, and beauty, and this can make the natural and inevitable process of aging and changing bodies daunting for many of us. Just as we need to continually allow our relationship with ourselves to shift as we age, we need to accept the changes in our body and physical appearance as well. But many of the positive aspects of aging we associate with self, such as gaining more knowledge, wisdom, and experience, don’t seem to translate to what society values in appearance and the emphasis that we put on productivity.

Something that I find myself often discussing with clients is that we don’t have to become the “best” version of ourselves at all–and sometimes setting this as the goal just amounts to never-ending self-criticism and disappointment–because who decides what being the best version means? Who’s to say you can’t do more or better? It’s ok instead to just be your favorite version of yourself…for the time being…when you’re able to. Make choices that will make you feel good about yourself as much as possible and that are in line with your personal values–not anyone else’s.

The same concept could be applied to being comfortable with the changes in our bodies over time. Rather than setting the goal of having the “best” body possible, it might be more achievable to aim to feel “good enough” about your body as much as possible. The focus is more so on how you feel about yourself, rather than how others feel about you or how “objectively” good you are–as if there is any such thing.

This is known as “body neutrality”. As opposed to body positivity, which emphasizes unconditional love and acceptance of one’s body and physical appearance, body neutrality instead detaches value judgments from physical appearance altogether and instead focuses on what our bodies can do for us and the experiences they can provide.

Our body doesn’t need to be beautiful to us no matter what it looks like–but instead to feel valued and precious to us as a vessel that makes us ourselves, regardless of how it looks aesthetically.

In a culture that often equates beauty and goodness with youthfulness, embracing body neutrality can be a revolutionary act, especially as we age. By shifting our focus from appearance to functionality, from judgment to acceptance, we can embody a relationship with ourselves that’s truly loving and evolving.

Aging and changes in our bodies isn’t something that only happens to “old people”, either. It happens to everyone throughout their lives. Our bodies stretch and shrink, we get exposed to a bit too much sun, we give birth and feed babies, we gain muscle and lose it. This is all a natural process of wear-and-tear that simply means we have lived our life.

Bodies may become less functional as they age, or they may need different care than they used to. What used to feel good in your body could change, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Rather than getting down on yourself for not being the amazing runner that you used to be, for example, maybe consider that your body may just need something different at this time in your life. This is very contrary to the old idea of “no pain, no gain”: what if instead we seek to make ourselves feel good, and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that if something feels painful it may just not be right for us?

Our society tends to under-value people who are not young and in line with whatever the current beauty standard is and elevates the idea that more is always better, that we should always be improving ourselves rather than accepting ourselves as we are.

Particularly since the pandemic, older people have been made to feel that their lives are less important and more expendable. Ageism, which is discrimination against older people, is really just a specialized form of ableism that dismisses someone’s existence as less valuable because they don’t have what’s considered a fully-able (or youthful) body. And, unfortunately, this is often applied at a higher standard to women, who are expected to be youthful and attractive as a prerequisite to being valued.

Older people are often stereotyped as useless or non-contributing members of society, but not only is the ableist and dismissive, it’s simply reflective of a society that sees value as directly tied to productivity that shows up in a very particular way (are you making money? Are you able and willing to withstand discomfort and contort yourself to fit our standards?)
As Becca Levy puts it: “In American society, old age is presented as something to be feared and avoided. Aging individuals are portrayed as fragile, forgetful, and a burden on society. The elderly are marginalized, ignored, and “put out to pasture.” This seems to be the attitude that we take with chronic illness, disability, or any form of aging or nontraditional body types as well.
It’s also been shown through research that many health problems formerly considered to be entirely due to the aging process, such as dementia, are actually due to negative beliefs about aging and old age that dominate in our culture.One study even showed that those that had positive beliefs about aging had a 43.6% lower risk of developing dementia over the course of 4 years compared to those that had negative beliefs related to aging.

People who held favorable attitudes about aging enjoyed better memory benefits, were more likely to recover from severe disability, had lower stress levels, and even lived an average of 7.5 years longer. Maybe aging isn’t actually the problem–maybe it’s actually the beliefs that our society has about aging!

And this is great news: because we have control over how we want to view our relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and our aging process.

Ready to take the next step towards cultivating a positive relationship with yourself and embracing body neutrality? I’m here to support you on your journey. Whether you’re struggling with body image issues, age-related concerns, or simply seeking guidance on self-acceptance, I’m here to help. Contact me today to schedule a confidential therapy session and start prioritizing your mental and emotional well-being.

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite
Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long You and Well You Live by Becca Levy, PhD
National Library of Medicine Study: Positive age beliefs protect against dementia even among elders with high-risk gene (2018)

Additional Resources:
Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It by Tracey Gendron, PhD
Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America by Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age By Mary Pipher
The Way Out: A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain By Alan Gorden, LCSW, Founder and Director of the Pain Psychology Center with Alon Ziv.