Self-Perceptions of Older Women in the Age of the Waif

by Kate Angell

Note: The present paper is a synopsis of my college thesis, written over a seven-month period from 2005-2006. While editing the thesis for publication in RE/VISIONIST, I reflected that some of the material from this study has the potential to be outdated. As a social scientist, my immediate rationalization was to delve into articles published in the past five years and consequently update the study. However, I decided against this option, and chose to submit it to RE/VISIONIST as a historical document reflecting inhabitants of a very specific temporal and social location – New England senior women of the mid-2000s.

Attribution: “old woman” by Lauren Gledhill

Over the past couple decades, numerous psychological studies have been conducted to examine whether the exposure of girls and young women to images of thin, glamorized women in popular media, such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, results in disordered eating and/or poor self-regard. Some researchers (Champion & Furnham, 1999; Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Martin & Kennedy, 1993) maintain that this particular relationship does not lead young women to internalize these socially imposed norms.  However, other studies have concluded the opposite, positing that exposure to such photographs can cause an increase in body dissatisfaction, depression, and low self-esteem (Morrison, Kalin, & Morrison, 2004; Pinhas, Toner, Ali, Garfinkel, & Stuckless, 1999; Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood, & Dwyer, 1997).

The majority of these studies, however, have focused on girls and young women. Senior females (65+) are rarely found in such literature, despite the fact that they inhabit the same youth-and-beauty obsessed society as younger women. This is not entirely surprising, as seniors are often placed on the fringes of society and suffer from a number of socially constructed stereotypes, including the depiction of old age as “a period beset with psychological, social, financial, and physical problems.”  Seniors are “frequently characterized as isolated, withdrawn, lacking energy and initiative…” (Wearing, 1995, p. 267). In the context of this particular paper, a few researchers found that although many women retain some level of body image dissatisfaction across their lifetimes, their manner of dealing with appearance-related anxiety becomes healthier as they age (Johnston, Reilly, & Kremer, 2004; Webster & Tiggemann, 2003).  They are less likely to engage in negative thoughts and behaviors, such as self-objectification, habitual body monitoring, appearance anxiety, and disordered eating symptoms (Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001).

Another study, however, suggests that the internalization of cultural beauty norms is hard to avoid, no matter a women’s age.  Hurd (2000) interviewed twenty-two senior women and discovered that fifteen used derogatory terms such as “ugly” and “awful” to describe the bodies of seniors. These same participants also vocalized that the greatest body-related challenge aging people face is loss of health. One 72-year-old participant in Hurd’s study sums it up nicely, stating, “Keeping well is the thing you worry about when you’re 70.  Not so much how it looks as how well it is functioning” (p. 89).

In 2005, this senior thesis project commenced in order to investigate whether, like their younger peers, older women’s psychological well-being is significantly altered by current portrayals of the female body in popular media.  Twenty-four women ages 60+ were recruited, with a mean age of 80. Thirty-minute appointments were arranged for women who signed up to participate in the study.  Participants were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: advertisements featuring spry, attractive senior women; advertisements from Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines featuring young models; and advertisements for cars and cleaning products. Each participant was then given the inventories of depression (Beck, 1961), self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965), body-esteem (Mendelson, 2001), and body image (Angell, 2005).

Statistical analyses were conducted to determine whether self-esteem, body esteem, and depression levels would be negatively affected in older women if shown photographs of either the young or senior models. Because the majority of previous research done with younger women on the same topic suggests that such advertisements do have a pejorative influence, it was hypothesized that the present study would yield similar results. However, the statistical analyses revealed insufficient evidence to support this hypothesis, as there was no positive relationship between viewing photographs of either group of women and increases in depression, decreases in body esteem, and decreases in self-esteem.

Attribution: "Old Woman" By Edwin M Escobar

This study suggests that as women age, they are less likely to allow media representations of the female body to negatively affect their physical and mental health. Several possible explanations can be extrapolated from the results of this study. To begin with, senior women have the wisdom of age on their side. In other words, although older women may not be delighted with their bodies, their ways of negotiating discomfort are generally healthier (Johnston et al., 2004; Rizvi, Stice, & Agras, 1999). Older women have had ample time to live in and make peace with their bodies, as well as develop greater awareness that cultural standards of beauty are unattainable for most women and unessential to their overall contentment. Illustrating this idea, one 75-year-old woman in this thesis study explained, “For my age [my body] is fine… I’m 75, I’d have to work out for 3 hours a day to be in tone!”  This participant is one of many to exemplify that at her age, physical attractiveness is eclipsed by physical ability. While younger women often have the luxury of taking their physical health for granted, seniors understand its precious value from first-hand experience, as functionality diminishes with age. Poignantly cementing this thought, one 87-year-old woman stated, “Physically I am not as strong as I was. It makes me feel very sad—my mind is willing to do things, but physically I can’t.  I want to go rake leaves, but I get so tired.”

Despite this evident appreciation of physical health, over half of the participants nonetheless claimed that they either need to or would like to lose weight. However, further inquiry into this apparent desire to slim down revealed that although many participants wished to lose weight, when queried about exercise habits only one claimed she kept fit solely to enhance her appearance. Over two-thirds of the other participants reported that they exercised for various combinations of health, appearance, and doctor-ordered reasons. From this data it can again be inferred that cosmetic concerns are greatly superseded by remaining healthy and active in senior populations.

In terms of socially imposed body norms, between 75-80% of participants reported that the opinions of friends/family or the media do not factor greatly into their physical appearance and eating habits.  This is validated by the fact that only one person out of the twenty-four participants claimed that watching television or reading magazines made her feel badly about her body.  When queried about their feelings regarding the treatment of women’s bodies by the media, almost all of the participants agreed that there is now an obsession with thinness that was not present during their young adulthood. Twenty-two people agreed that the “ideal” female body shape has changed over the years. Most remarked that women of the 1930s and 1940s desired a curvy “Coca-Cola” body shape. One 70-year-old participant recalled, “We wanted more of an average body…not extreme in any sense.  I don’t remember as heavy an emphasis on being thin…anorexia wasn’t really known about.”

Although this study suggests that older women are generally less affected by the portrayal of the ideal female body in the media, there are a number of limiting factors, including time constraints and budgetary concerns, which could have influenced the results.   The small number of study participants contained only two women of color and was not large enough (twenty-four in total) to explore in depth other factors such as class and sexual orientation.  Despite these limitations, it is not impossible to suggest that healthier methods of dealing with body dissatisfaction that come with life experience—and physical problems that downplay appearance anxieties—contribute to the conclusion that older women seem to be less affected by the media’s portrayal of the female body. However, other parts of this study show that advanced age does not function as a complete protective factor against negative feeling in this regard. Although senior females may have the strength and wisdom of age, they are still residents in a patriarchal society where dominant media equate youth and thinness with beauty.

Kate Angell is a reference librarian at Sarah Lawrence College. She would like to dedicate this paper to the memory of her wonderful Grandma Evie Angell, who participated in the thesis’s pilot study.


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