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Body Image in the Second Half of Life

Mid-Life Crisis or Mid-Life Transition?


It’s a short trip from planning my next vacation to thinking about my midlife relationship to my body. The most direct route to the heart of the matter is through the swimsuit section at the department store. I’ve got Spring Fever, an annual reminder of my youthful heart’s love of new clothes and more time in the sun. I’ve also got a not-so-youthful body. The combination leaves me reflecting on existential questions in the dressing room while the clerk cheerfully raps at the door, asking “Are you doing okay?”  It’s such a good question. Am I really okay with this body, aging and menopausal but still influenced by the magazines I peeked into this morning while in the grocery store checkout line? It’s here, in a  “Come to The Mirror” moment that the task of this life-stage (between youth and old age) once again (hot) flashes before me. I’m at a familiar crossroad: Midlife Crisis or Life Transition? 


Both roads start with inevitable losses: we aren’t likely to have another child (or have our first if we didn’t do it earlier) or be centrally engaged in the role of mothering, we aren’t likely to be considered as sexually desirable by the culture we live in, nor will we be as valued for our appearance. The onramp to Midlife Crisis is marked by denial of those losses, leaving us vulnerable to depression, bitterness, feelings of emptiness and worthlessness or questing for better surgical fixes. Psychological studies tell us that in order to transit mid-life with positive self-esteem intact, to choose life transition over mid-life crisis, we need to move in the direction of  “perspective transformation.” We need to grieve the ending of one life stage and discover our identity in the next. A central issue in this movement is our relationship to our body.


Body image is a key component of our sense of self and the development of identity within each life stage. In adolescence, we take in (without critical assessment) societal norms and values regarding body image. We then use these internalized images as important guidelines of who we think we should be, how we should look in order to measure up, and what we must do to foster self worth and desirability. As adults we can look at teen culture and see the obvious power of these influences. As teens, we couldn’t avoid being influenced by them.


Midlife is the time to tip the balance of influence regarding body image from externally originated images of “Who should I be?” to internally referenced values and experiences that answer the question “Who am I and how can I bring out that which is within me?” In moving more toward self-referencing than outer-referencing, it’s helpful to ask ourselves questions like:


“On what am I basing my sense of personal worth in this moment?”

“How much is my self esteem dependant on the regard of others?”

“Is my sense of myself informed more by internal factors or external images?” 

“How often am I engaging in comparison?”

“Which do I need to invest more time in, my self image or my soul?”

“Is my relationship to my body informed more by what feels healthy than what I “ought” to look like to be culturally valued?”

“In what ways have I not yet brought out what is within me?”


Mid-life is neither youth nor old age. It’s simultaneously the beginning of a new journey and a time of change and ambivalence, uncertainty and adjustment. In one moment we may feel youthful, willing to try a new trend for the fun of it, make use of an anti-aging procedure or start a new diet. In another moment we are facing the loss of parents or a partner and the reality of our mortality. Our focus is in living from the capabilities we have developed in earlier stages, seeing how we can be of service, developing skills and talents that satisfy us, putting more of our energy into our own personal ideals; we dare to engage in activities that make us feel generative.


By mid life we increasingly pay more attention to our inner life, to personal qualities that can grow in and with us into future stages of life, regardless of the decline of the body. From this place we hold more love and concern for others in our hearts, find courage to hope for more than we’ve assumed possible, and forged the strength to accept and endure what we cannot change.


We are moving from self-as-body to self-as-soul. We are preparing for the moment when the body is no longer relevant and we let it go. Granted we are not there yet. So, each experience at this critical crossroad is a chance to redefine what is meaningful, to discover our individual ways of knowing, thinking and doing, and more fully inhabit self-as-soul.


As I take another look in the dressing room mirror, finishing my moment of existential self-reflection, I remember the voice of my high school Home Economics teacher who regularly admonished us to “Do the best you can with what you’ve got.” I feel a wave of appreciation—I’ve internalized many wonderful things during my life and her voice is one I choose to value in this moment. “I’m doing fine,” I tell the clerk as I grab the swimsuit with the “tummy firming” material and the attractive cover up. I’m ready for fun in the sun!