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by Thea Wood (edited, originally published July 2016)
This is a loaded question that we can dissect into thousands of angles. An Internet search of “midlife women and self image” and “midlife women body image” queries yields just over 663,00 + results combined. Those results aren’t even close to the amount of information available for “teen girls self image,” which yielded 12,800,000 results (January 2018). That leads one to question: Why aren’t sociologists, psychologists, and professors learning more about the most influential and wealthy demographic’s introspective attitudes?
Doing the research left me almost debilitated, and with conflicting reports. Here are a few statistics that stood out:
54 The age females are least satisfied with their bodies (source)
92% Botox users who are women (source)
40 The age when women start taking less selfies than men (source)
What An Expert on Self Image Says
Dr. Carol Parker Walsh received her PhD in human development and social systems and studied the impact of media images and other social determinants on the health, identity, and well being of women. Her knowledge and pre-existing love of fashion inspired her to become a professional image consultant. “I put two and two together. For me image consulting is about helping individuals, particularly women, feel confident, empowered, strong, and beautiful internally so it can be reflected externally. When that’s accomplished, then we help position their authentic image in a way to advance their lives and businesses.”
Dr. Walsh works daily with women who are looking for a path to more self confidence when it comes to their appearance. She answered a few questions for SheSpark.
Thea: What is the most common negative self image issue that your clients experience? How do you help them move past it?
Dr. Walsh: The most common is not loving their bodies. The second is this very interesting phenomena of wanting to blend in and not stand out. I’ve created a workbook for clients that serves to help them reframe their thinking about their bodies. I give them exercises to quiet the negative voices that reinforce feelings of unworthiness. This is NOT an overnight process, but when we uncover these issues and address them openly while dressing them in ways that lets them see themselves in a new light, I see their self-image changes. It’s even more substantial when they start receiving positive feedback from others around them.
Thea: You have two short-read books out. “The Second Act: Styling YOU From The Inside Out” talks mostly about self worth and body image. Good Morning America reported that most women don’t see themselves accurately and 80 percent overestimate their size and feel unhappy when they look in the mirror. Why is that?
Dr. Walsh: It because of the images we see in the media particularly in magazines. There appears to be a consistent message to women that says “you’re not good enough,” meaning you’re not tall enough or short enough, blond enough or brunette enough, thin enough or curvy enough, etc. It’s like you just can’t win, because once you think you’ve achieved one of their mythical standards, they change the rules and create more. However, I’m loving the campaigns by Dove on loving and embracing yourself, and the body positive movements, and age confidence movements because they are giving voice to the every-day woman and proclaiming whoever you are is perfect!
Thea: What are 2 to 3 things women can do to improve their self worth and body image?
Dr. Walsh: Looking at yourself in the mirror and repeating positive words of encouragement and affirmation can never be underestimated. Second, our clothes influence how we feel, so taking the time either the night before or earlier in the morning to carefully select an outfit you love and feel fabulous in on a daily basis will go a long way!
Thea: Your second book (An Amazon Best-Seller) deals with how your clothes speak about who you are as a person. When a woman walks into a store, what are the top 3 things to consider when purchasing a wardrobe?
Dr. Walsh: She must first consider how she feels in the outfit. You should never buy something because you think you “should” have it in your closet but only because it makes you feel amazing. Second, don’t get hung up over sizing. It’s about fit so if you have to go up or down in a size know it’s not YOU it just how the manufacturers cut and created the garment. Finally, only purchase those pieces that you know you can wear in at least 3 different ways. You want to build a versatile wardrobe which is hard to do with a closet filled with items that can only be worn in one particular way.
Wearing clothes to flatter your body shape is an acceptable discussion now, but buying them based on a particular “age” is still taboo.
Is “Over 40” the Kiss of Death?
The Wall Street Journal covered a story about the new web site apprecier.com, founded by Cynthia Weber-Cleary and Stephanie Stahl. Stahl is quoted as saying “Age is where the opportunity is… the kiss of death is to be labeled as the site for 45 and over. The only place on our site that mentions age is our bios.”
Stahl has good reason to say that. MORE Magazine discontinued its print magazine due to luxury advertisers that prefer targeting millennials. It re-launched its web site is now inspired by “that savvy, supportive and genuine friend every young woman needs.” The Gap’s attempt to reach the over-35 market with Forth & Towne crashed after a $40 million investment.
It seems over-40 women are looking for brands who design for their tastes and needs (consider the fact that a fashion model’s prime age range is 16 to 18), but we don’t want boring, stuffy, or dowdy fashion. Nor do we want to be publicly “branded” as an older woman by walking into a specialty shop that caters to an older demographic. In fact, Fast Company reports that department stores have experienced a resurgence, giving partial credit to the ability to blend in as a shopper at any age.
Studies show that women respond more intensely to negative feedback than men do. Blending in can be a natural defense mechanism to minimize painful comments or reactions to our appearance versus being a visual statement of who we are. And while over-40 women may be making great strides in the workplace, education, and overall societal contributions, we may still fear serious repercussions if we take risks with our personal style after a certain age.
Midlife Women Are Stepping UP
Yet, look at how staying true to (or creating) your own style can result in big opportunities at any age. Ellen DeGeneres, 58, is a Cover Girl. Jennifer Aniston, 47, is Aveeno’s celebrity brand ambassador. Rhianna became Dior’s first black spokesmodel at age 27. These women all have different styles that resonate with the modern midlife woman. The more we see women like these in advertising, films, and TV, the more comfortable we’ll feel in our own skin.
Social media may be the most effective tool in breaking midlife women self image stereotypes. Thanks to style blogs like Catherine Summers’ NotDressedAsLamb.com, Sylvia van de Logt’s 40PlusStyle.com, and Annette Holrich’s LadyOfStyle.com, women are embracing a positive over-40 self image. Not only is it “okay” to be our age, but it’s the time when we can wear our personalities on our sleeves.
So take a selfie— and post it. Most of all, wear the outfit that makes you feel good about yourself. Use your visual voice to scream (or whisper) who you are. However you do it, OWN it!
About The Author
Thea Wood is the co-publisher of SheSpark.com and a certified image consultant from Austin, TX. She co-authored the book Socially Smart & Savvy and shares styling advice at TheaWood.com, helping women create a signature style that says who they are and where they’re going.