Midlife women’s satisfaction with body size takes effort

Oct. 15, 2013

A new study of middle-aged women finds that those who report being satisfied with their body size are healthier and better-functioning but still may be dissatisfied with other aspects of their appearance, especially those affected by aging.
The study, co-authored by Cynthia Bulik, PhD, professor of nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, examines responses from the 12.2 percent of women in Bulik and colleagues’ Gender and Body Image (GABI) study who reported satisfaction with their size.
Bulik is director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and distinguished professor of psychiatry in UNC’s School of Medicine.
The women who expressed being satisfied with body size (N = 1,789) were age 50 and older. As compared to other respondents in the GABI study, they had lower body mass index, better overall functioning, and reported fewer eating disorder symptoms, dieting behaviors, and weight and appearance dissatisfaction.
However, weight and shape still played a primary role in the self-evaluations of women who were satisfied with their body size. Nearly half of these women reported they would be moderately to extremely upset if they gained even five pounds, and they engaged in weight monitoring and appearance-altering behaviors, such as cosmetic surgery, as frequently as those women with body-size dissatisfaction. They also  exercised more than women with body dissatisfaction, which may indicate that these women make considerable effort to achieve and maintain satisfaction with their bodies.
They did report dissatisfaction with other aspects of their physical appearance, especially those affected by aging. Despite reporting that the size they are is the size they prefer to be, a sizeable number still reported dissatisfaction with their stomachs (56.2 percent), their faces (53.8 percent) and their skin (78.8 percent).
“Of course the fact that so few women are satisfied with their body size is concerning,” said Cristin Runfola, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry in the medical school and first author of the study. “But we were interested in how some women remain happy with their size and shape, given ubiquitous social pressures to retain a youthful thin appearance, and the influence of a multibillion dollar anti-aging cosmetics industry.
The GABI study asked participants to respond to a wide array of questions about their history with dieting and weight control, current eating disorder symptoms, current weight and shape concerns, and quality of life.
The study was published online Oct. 11, 2013 by the Journal of Women & Aging.
“Our findings underscore the need for a multifaceted approach to studying and assessing body image in women as they mature, as their bodies undergo constant age-related change,” Bulik said.

In addition to Runfola and Bulik, study co-authors are Ann von Holle, MS, epidemiology doctoral student at the Gillings School and student assistant in the psychiatry department, and Christine M. Peat, PhD, postdoctoral fellow Danielle A. Gagne; Kimberly A. Brownley, PhD, assistant professor; and Sara M. Hofmeier, MS, clinical assistant professor, all in the UNC Department of Psychiatry.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.