By: Ashley Hemrich, MA, Regional Director of Clinical Partnerships
There are many misconceptions regarding eating disorders; one of the most common is that they typically occur in affluent, Caucasian females, between the ages of 18-25. While this population appears to be highly vulnerable for eating disorders, we know eating disorders occur across all demographics. Eating disorders are actually on the rise in middle-aged women.
Why are eating disorders on the rise in this population?
Growing research suggests that more women in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s are coming forward with intense feelings of negative body image, drive for thinness, and the belief that their self-concept is weight driven. According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, more than 70% of women 50 years of age and older are unhappy about their weight, shape, and size and are actively trying to lose weight. Some of these women indicate struggling for several years, but not fully understanding that these struggles were clinically identified as an eating disorder. Some report an acute onset resulting from a recent trauma or life event and still, while others have been treated for what appeared to be an eating disorder at a younger age. Nevertheless, let’s explore why middle-aged women may be vulnerable to struggling with an eating disorder.
- Divorce/Separation: Given that divorce rates continue to be on the rise, it is difficult to not to mention divorce or separation as a vulnerability for developing an eating disorder. Devoting a lifetime to a life partner who is no longer a part of your life can be quite difficult and overwhelming to overcome. Women may struggle with anxiety and insecurities with returning to the dating world or have an overwhelming fear that they will spend their lives alone.
- Empty Nest: Children leaving the home to build a life on their own can be quite traumatic for mothers. For some, this transitional time may be difficult especially if she is defined by her children and her primary identity is that of being a mother. Without her children in the home to validate her role or without shifting her role to accommodate for her grown children, she may feel without a purpose. Therefore, obsessively focusing on lack of identity and insecurities may be a precursor to developing eating disorder behaviors.
- Aging/Weight Stigma: Daily, we are bombarded with messages about discovering the fountain of youth. New creams, serums, medications, procedures, etc. to make us look younger, when we know that the aging process is inevitable. Rather than embracing aging for what it is, we try to defy it and put an extra amount of pressure on women. Remaining thin, dieting, and “having that pre-pregnancy body back” are creating a culture that is obsessed with weight loss. The necessity to maintain a certain weight is synonymous with a woman’s identity, in which her self-esteem is conjoined with her appearance. In order to maintain these unrealistic societal ideals, women regularly buy into the unhealthy behaviors to drive continued youth.
- Death of a Parent: Death in any sense of the word is not easy on anyone, especially with the death of a parent and when that someone has had a history of an eating disorder. Couple this with sudden death and ill preparation for loss, the stages of grief may feel too overwhelming to work through and overcome. In predisposed women, an eating disorder may re-emerge as a way to cope with those intense feelings, much like a preoccupation or escape from reality.
- Illness/Medical Complication: An unexpected diagnosis can be quite difficult to manage, especially if it is that of a terminal illness. Breast cancer, in particular, can result in adjusting to a new body and lifestyle, which can be difficult in middle-aged women. Looking at a diagnosis of high blood pressure or diabetes can also prove to provide a lifestyle adjustment, in which women may turn to drastic dieting methods to lose weight, rather than rely on safe methods of healthy living.
Regardless of the reason behind them, life transitions pose several challenges in which eating disorders find ways to thrive. So often, this severe mental health diagnosis can provide a sense of control when everything else feels out of control and a preoccupation with a drive for thinness, rather than the situation at hand. With the continued pressure on women to have their self-esteem be defined by their weight, it is inevitable that middle-aged women are finding unhealthy ways to fit into these unrealistic expectations.
Treating Middle-Aged Women at Selah House
At Selah House, we understand that middle-aged women have unique struggles, which is why we tailor our treatment program to meet your needs. As a Christ-Centered, clinically excellent program, we meet our clients exactly where they are in their recovery and walk alongside them in their journey to freedom. By applying evidence-based treatment modalities that treat each woman wholeheartedly, we have shown the impact of our Selah Difference within each individual client.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact Selah House today at 866-324-8081 or complete our contact form. Our staff would be honored to guide you in the process of reclaiming your freedom.
She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. – Proverbs 31:25