If you have ever watched a Brazilian telenovela, you might notice that older women look unrealistically younger than the characters they portray, with the help of botox or other “medical miracles”. Older women in Brazil face pressure to look young, not gain weight, and maintain top physical appearance. As women age, their metabolism slows down and wrinkles tend to appear on their faces. This can lead to body image dissatisfaction, which is a distorted perception of appearance that leads an individual to unhealthy lifestyle, weight issues, and/or depression. Such distortion is common among older women in Brazil and having a negative impact on the mental and physical health of this population.
Body image dissatisfaction is often discussed in the context of teenage girls. It may cause eating disorders where girls may choose to eat less or vomit after eating, in an effort to maintain a certain physique. Thus, the choices made in adolescence can have a lifelong impact on the health of an individual. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are eating disorders that have been linked to low bone mineral density and osteoporosis in teenage years. Both disorders also impact older women. In fact, anorexia nervosa is more likely to cause death in women over 65 than girls or women under 65.
Body image dissatisfaction is a direct result of ageism in society, and the fear of getting older. Older adults may feel less relevant or unwanted if they do not maintain youthful appearances. In a population-based study in southern Brazil, researchers found that women over the age of 50 were most likely to be concerned that they weighed too much. Older men were also more likely to be dissatisfied with their weight than younger men, but the magnitude of the dissatisfaction was smaller than women.
The need to look young in aging women has its roots in an ageist society, where older women are not valued as much as their younger counterparts. Changes in skin and weight are a natural part of aging but in Brazil, many women fear any weight gain. While the solution to this problem is unclear, the media can play a great role by portraying older women who have aged naturally. This population should be able to feel comfortable with their appearance as this may challenge beauty stereotypes and reduce the stigma of growing older. Media, however, is only a small part of the problem and it is clear that older women need to be valued for their contributions to society.
Grace Mandel is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Health Systems and Policy at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.