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Body ImAGE: A Literature Review on Body Image and Aging

 Christie Russo


In pursuit of determining a relationship between body image and age, several research studies were investigated to institute a theoretical construct as to how young women perceive the role body image will play as they grow into old age.  The majority of the studies supported evidence that the psychological significance of the body changes over the course of a woman’s life.  Results indicated that most college-aged women believe that the physical signs of aging will have a negative impact on shaping their future body satisfaction whereas the older subjects were predominantly less concerned with their body image.  It was concluded that although there are many relevant studies corresponding to this subject matter, further studies ought to be conducted in order to gain more insight and accuracy in order to incorporate cultural and familial influence.


The continuing popularity of how one is supposed to act, look, and think is a trend that has grown over time—it is historical and cultural in origin (Schlundt D, 1/28/02).  Although the ideal body image has metamorphosed with each passing decade, with each passing decade the ideal body image has become more and more impractical for the average female.  Legs are supposed to be longer, bust lines bustier, wrinkles and gray hair non-existent, and bodies thinner.  It is physically not possible for most females to conform to such ideals that constitute contemporary beauty (Moxom M, 2000).  Thus, the female population as a whole has become an extremely successful cohort group as they have generated an immense market for anti-aging products and procedures.  They, in essence, contribute to the cyclical nature of commodity and consumer.  The producer would not create the merchandise unless a profit was being made.  Frequently the products do not prompt the desired results and the female turns to more serious procedures (i.e. chemical peels, cosmetic surgery, botox injections, lipoplasty, etc.) in order to acquire such effects (Thompson JK, 1999). 

Within the last thirty years, plastic surgery has grown exponentially and reveals no indication of decelerating.  The cosmetic surgery industry is worth well over eleven billion dollars, however, as their profit gets bigger, the age of their clients is getting smaller.   Little or unsuccessful effort to put a stop to such indulgence seems to be perpetuating the cycle (Moxom M, 2000).  Such reinforced behaviors suggest a fairly lucid message to females: Do everything possible to stay young, thin, and beautiful—this is what society expects of you.

            The purpose of expounding on the correlation between age and body image is to determine whether or not older-elderly women express the feelings college-aged women anticipate they will feel about their bodies and what variables have an effect on this expectancy. 

Aging is a slow, abiding, and natural process that every living being must endure.  It is not random and will inevitably result in physical and mental changes.  In the past, this appears to have been more acceptable.  However, presently there are additional factors with which one must contend.  For example, aging results in transformations that are incompatible with today’s standard of beauty, the life expectancy rate is greater than precedents and therefore is accompanied by greater signs of aging, and contemporary society is more obsessed with thinness and beauty than ever before (Tantleff-Dunn S, 2001).

            The examined studies discuss the perceptions older-elderly women maintain in relation to their bodies in comparison to how college-aged females expect to feel about their bodies when they reach an equivalent age.  The majority of the studies not only expressed the female college-students’ concerns and acuity in regard to aging, but also projected strategies to manage such feelings.  Therefore, the degree to which the younger females accept or reject the process of aging is more discernible. 



The results of the evaluated studies demonstrated an inconsistency between the manners in which females approach old age.   A large majority of 202 students who completed a Body Image and Aging Survey (BIAS) revealed that physical symptoms of aging would play a principal role in the establishment of their future body image. 

HAIR LOSS………………………………...92.5%

SAGGING BREASTS……………………...88.6%




BIAS also indicated that the college students were anxious about loss of self-confidence (65.5%), diminished sex-drive (67.3%), and substandard affect (51.3%).  Each statistic from the BIAS survey portrays over half of the given sample of college-aged students as apprehensive toward pending old age. 

This sentiment was also exhibited in the results of the questionnaire that this study administered in addition to the survey.  The questionnaire was ten pages and integrated measures of diet, exercise, depression, concerns related to aging, and body image attitudes. The results of the questionnaire conveyed most strongly the disparate responses between the two age groups.  Older-elderly females reported changes in their bodies over time were not as significant nor were negative experiences as prevalent as the college females reported to expect. 

The college females stated a strong interest in preventing the negative effects of aging.  Such activities include: purchasing anti-aging products (most were willing to spend $700+/year), dieting, and cosmetic surgery.  The younger group was more willing to take drastic measures to postpone the signs of aging.  It was the older group who was more prone to take the natural route to self-betterment.  Their strategies included: staying out of the sun, eating healthy, and exercise.

            By means of survey and self-reporting data, hypotheses concerning age-related incongruities in body consciousness were observed in a familial and cultural context.  The presence and effects of three standards of objectified body consciousness were observed: surveillance, body shame, and control beliefs.  The standards were defined as the following (McKinley M, 1999).

Surveillance: the ability to view one’s body as an outside observer

Body Shame: measurement of the degree to which a woman has internalized cultural body standards

Control Beliefs: belief one can control appearance





Via the Body Esteem Scale, the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, and Scales of Psychological Well-Being, the aforementioned standards were evaluated in the family and culture environment.  The mother was target family member studied in association with the daughter.  The young woman indicated the degree to which she believed her family approves of her body size followed by her opinion of her mother.  The goal was to find a correlation between daughters with low body image and mothers with a strong disapproval of her daughter’s appearance or daughters with low body image and mother’s with a high self-body image. 

The results of the surveys illustrated that young women and older women experience their bodies in different manners to maintain consistency with cultural standards of appearance.  Cultural contexts were the main incentive for the young women to examine their bodies as an outside viewer.  Determining the internalization of cultural standards for the body resulted in trace dissimilarity between the two cohorts.  Both groups related body shame to self-concept.   Younger women had a higher level of body surveillance and body shame than their older counterparts, signifying middle aged women do not objectify their bodies as much.

The familial study exhibits a strong relationship between a mother’s body experience and her daughter’s.  This presumably is in consequence of the mother existing as a potential model for her daughter.         

Overall conclusions of these data suggest that cultural and familial contexts have an effect on body consciousness.  What is of greater consequence is determining how cultural and familial context interact to shape a woman’s body image as positive or negative.  It is via determining this relationship that a greater understanding of body image can be realized.



            Although the studies indicate that, as a majority, young adult females display misgivings when dealing with pending old age and, in addition, cultural and familial variables may have an effect, and in deed they may, however, the results are not conclusive.  As with most research studies, there is the likelihood of error and there is always room for improvement in the methodology of the experiments.  For example, the majority of the studies employed survey studies and self-report data.  Both techniques are very practical and undemanding to execute, however what they make up for in performance feasibility they lack in reliability.  Furthermore, the studies were not performed over an extensive period of time.  A longitudinal study in which meta-analysis is conducted would yield more accurate and dependable results.  Finally, the experiments were not highly representative of the population.  The college- aged subjects in each study were chosen from universities in the southeastern division of the United States and the older-elderly subjects were from one of three states, also located in the southeast.  Therefore the sample was not sufficiently random geographically.  The ethnic and socio-economic status of the subjects was not representative of the population as a whole either.  The majority of the subjects were Caucasian and members of the middle to upper-middle classes.  In order to conduct a more truthful study, these discrepancies need to be remedied.



            The studies pose an interesting solution to an interesting and prevalent conundrum—why are we intent on preserving our youth and conforming to societal ideals?  The studies target a population that is obviously affected by such a struggle.  Body image is not always associated with idyllic body weight and being overweight is not always correlated with poor body image.  There are many other factors that come into play.  Familial and cultural pressures appear to have an outcome as well as the natural process of aging.  Although many artificial routes are being traveled to achieve the ideal image—propagated by print and visual media, it seems safe to conclude that good old Mother Nature is a contributor to this cyclical quest as well.


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