All the TV shows and Hollywood celebrities seem to convey the message that thin is beautiful.
Experts agree that the way celebrities portray themselves on screens is putting pressure on ordinary older women to look just as good.
There’s been an increase in the number of women experiencing eating disorders in middle age according to Professor Phillipa Hay, Foundation Chair of Mental Health at the University of Western Sydney.
Hay blames the rise in body image and weight and shape concerns for the disorders.
“There may be more pressures on older women to retain the appearance of youth,” a major newspaper quoted her as saying.
“there may be more pressures to be a ‘super woman’ – successful in the workplace and at home and ‘looking good’ as well,” she side.
Celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, “appear to ‘prove’ that thinness in midlife bestows many real-life benefits, for example, sexual desirability, happiness, and wealth that may be particularly persuasive,” said a recent study in Psychology of Women Quarterly co-authored by Professor Marika Tiggemann, a psychologist and body image expert at Flinders University.
The research, which looked at the influence of television shows such as Desperate Housewives on women aged between 35 and 55 concluded that “exposure to thin idealised images in media content may have an adverse impact on body image and eating practices in midlife.”
“It used to be that older women were not depicted in the media,” Tiggemann said.
“Real older women were able to get off the body image and appearance treadmill. But now this depiction of beautiful older women make it seem like everyone should look like that, and that women should keep up their appearance no matter what their age,” Tiggemann said.
Dr Chris Basten, a clinical psychologist at Basten ‘n’ Associates in Sydney, who treats women with eating disorders, agrees.
“I do think that television shows and movies have an impact on how women see themselves,” he said.
“There’s nothing quite like Desperate Housewives,” he said.
Basten believes that the pressure to look good is no longer just for those in their teens or twenties.
“There is greater pressure than ever for women in their thirties to fifties to confirm to certain body ideals. This pressure has always been there but most would agree that it is increasing,” he said.
But while the majority of women diet at some stage in their lives and many women may feel dissatisfied by seeing images of slim and attractive women on television only a minority will go on to develop a serious eating disorder.
“Generally, eating disorders develop when external triggers coincide with internal vulnerability factors,” Basten said.
“An external trigger could be a comment from someone about weight or seeing oneself in a photo and judging that badly. The internal vulnerabilities are anything that makes the person more likely to focus excessively on weight, shape and physical appearance.
“Classic examples include a person having a low opinion of themselves or having profound doubts that anyone will like them as they are. Women who internalise strong beliefs about the special importance of attractiveness also find it harder. Finally, we also know that personality traits like perfectionism and competitiveness are a part of the vulnerability state for many people who end up with an eating disorder,” he said.
Of the women Basten sees who are over 35, he says nearly all developed an eating disorder in early adulthood and either still have the problems or are experiencing a relapse after years of being well.
An eating disorder usually develops because of a series of very reinforcing feedback loops, says Basten.
Thankfully, Basten said, “most women get wise to the ploys and techniques of the media, as they get older.”
They know that the celebrities we see on television have hours of make-up, hair and special lighting to look as good as they do but “what they don’t always realise is that the actors on television who seem thin are probably unable to enjoy themselves day-to-day socialising with friends because of their unhealthy dieting.