In 2017, Zibby interviewed and polled her two grandmothers and many other women at their retirement communities to see if body image issues go away with age. Hear what a generation of older ladies taught her in her essay, “How to Love Your Body at Any Age,” published in Redbook.


How to love your body at any age

Did you skimp on cake at your last birthday? What’ll your slice look like when you’re 90? Zibby Right worried that she’d be turning down dessert forever, so she decided to find out when, exactly, we get to stop obsessing over those last 10 pounds.

The other day I called Gagy, my 90-year-old grandmother.

“I can’t talk now, lovey,” she said. “I’m off to Curves.”

It got me thinking. There she is, in her 10th decade, dragging herself to the gym, weighing herself regularly, and routinely dieting. After ordering cake at a restaurant, she says, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have done that.” She often points to other women and quietly asks, “Does she look heavier than me?” For her latest attempt to “take off a few pounds,” she vowed to cut chocolate out of her life.

“How long did that last?” I asked.

“A day.”

My mother, Gagy’s daughter, sees nothing unusual. In fact, she applauds Gagy’s weight-loss successes. “Doesn’t Gagy look great?” my mom gushed at a recent family gathering. “She’s lost 15 pounds!”

Honestly, it was hard to tell. To me, Gagy always looks fantastic. She’s huggable and soft, yes, but always dressed chicly, silver hair elegantly done, a smile on her face, a witty comment on its way out of her mouth. I never think about her weight. But she does.

I relate: I’ve spent the past couple decades fighting off an extra 10 to 20 pounds. But the thought of obsessing over my pant size until the day I die is terrifying. I’d always assumed that when I got older, I would be able to exhale and stop fretting. In fact, I’d really been looking forward to it. It had never occurred to me that elderly women still cling to their body image issues. But when I broached the topic with my friends, many said that their grandmothers were the same way, obsessing over French toast or muttering “I can’t eat that” about treats.

“I want to shout, ‘Yes, you can have a piece of cake!’” my friend Betsey Katz says about her 92-year-old grandmother. “‘Who cares? Just enjoy it! If not now, when?’”

When was exactly what I wanted to know. So — in what was, admittedly, a not particularly scientific research study — I put together a body image survey, determined to find out if Gagy was an anomaly or the baseline. And to be honest, I wanted to learn something about what’s ahead for my friends and me. Will we ever feel at peace with our bodies?

I sent dozens of copies to both Gagy (who does have a real name: Carol) and my paternal grandmother, Arline, age 92, and asked them to distribute them around their retirement communities in Palm Beach, FL, and Philadelphia, respectively. I got 27 forms back from women ages 74 to 97. Average age: 88.

Gagy is hardly alone, it seems. Sixty-three percent of the ladies weighed themselves regularly, and 30 percent felt guilty eating dessert. “Last night at dinner, I had the lobster roll,” reported Marilyn Gans, age 83. “Delicious. But I didn’t order the key lime pie because I didn’t need the calories.” At 83, life definitely seems too short to skip the pie.

Turns out, my tiny sample of ladies reflects the population at large. A study of 1,200 adults from the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of English sites an “epidemic of self-consciousness”: Ninety percent of the women polled, including those in their 70s and 80s, suffer from some form of body image anxiety. It’s not a new feeling; it’s just an extension of that old “I need to lose five pounds” malaise that hangs over so many of us from the moment we start to pay attention to our bodies. “It’s a cradle-to-grave-obsession,” confirms Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., author of Midlife Eating Disorders.

There’s a reason our habits about weight — and our unhappiness around it — are so hard to break, says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Once you establish neural pathways around dieting (like how you react to certain foods, and how you feel about yourself after healthy and unhealthy choices), they “get grooved in your brain,” he says. In other words, if you have a life full of diets, you will diet all your life. But you can change those neural pathways no matter how ingrained they are or what you age is, Duhigg adds. He suggests trying to create new associations with food. For instance, if you regularly commiserate with friends over eating your way through the brownie pan, find a new topic that bonds you — it’s the human connection you’re really seeking. Another idea is to track the choices you make each day that make you feel good about your body, says Ann Kearney-Cookie, Ph.D., of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and author of Change Your Mind, Change Your Body. “It’ll free you.”

That freedom, in turn, lets more happiness in. “We can focus on the scale and our weight, or we can focus on things that are meaningful,” says Tom Hildebrandt, Psy.D., director of the eating and weight disorders program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “You need to have a gravestone you’re proud of. Would you want it to say, “I loved my life in a five-pound range? No.”

God, no. I know that firsthand, having lost several close friends at a young age, two of whom had spent a large percentage of what ended up being very short lives worrying about their bodies. It felt like such a waste. I wish I’d appreciated how youthful my body was when I was in my teens and 20’s, but I was so busy worrying about my weight that I didn’t notice how wrinkle-and-pain-free I was. What smooth skin I had! How easy it was to run without having to ice my knees! “Aging is not for sissies,” noted one of the woman I polled. Compared with serious health issues, reduced mobility, and the like, slightly larger thighs sound like nothing.

Which brings me to another, more hopeful finding from my mini-study: Despite the hawk-like attention to the scale and the guilt over eating dessert, 74 percent of the women were at peace with how they looked. Grace Kagan, 92, said, “I felt all right when I was younger, but now I look well!” And that, too, reflects an overall gratitude for our bodies that many gain as we age. A recent Gallup poll of 80,000 adults found that 66 percent of those age 65 or older feel good about their physical appearance, while only 54 percent of 35- to 64-year-olds do.

When I’m 70, I’ll probably look back at my current 37-year-old body fondly. Getting to that mind-set now is harder. I had a brief moment in front of the full-length mirror in my closet the other day when I turned around and was slightly horrified by what I saw in the “rear view.” I started getting upset, that hopeless, doomed, panicky feeling bubbling up. But then I thought about Gagy and her friends and their long — and, in some cases, unending — journeys to self-acceptance, and I said to myself, Wait. If I always hate what I look like from behind in the mirror, maybe I should just stop looking! Maybe I’ll only look at the view from the front (and possibly the side). I’ll focus on the body parts I’m fond of, like my kind eyes or my dimples when I smile. I know what it takes for me to have a tiny tush. I’ve been there. It’s not worth it. I need to stay fit — eating well and being active is part of what helped my grandmothers get to their golden years — and I want to be able to dance with my great-grandkids at their weddings. But viewing every tempting corn muffin as some sort of measure of my own self-worth is simply too exhausting. “We have a need for pleasure no matter what out age, and dessert is a source of pleasure,” Kearney-Cooke says. “Have dessert sometimes! Enjoy it. But don’t obsess over it.”

I thought back to Gagy. Although she says she won’t stop caring about her weight “as long as I’m alert, alive, and mobile,” she also agrees, “for my age, my body does very well. I’m at peace. I love to laugh.” And, unsurprisingly, she has a grandmotherly nugget of sage advice: “If you feel good about your whole self, you feel better about your body.” I plan to pass Gagy’s message down to my own children and grandchildren — along with my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.


How to love your body at any age by Zibby Owens

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