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Virtuous Aging and Body Image

I heard someone in her 40s say that, being middle-age, she was worried about her aging body. For some people, aging automatically brings about a shedding of body image concerns, while for others, it amplifies them. Did you know that there’s an increase in eating disorders among aging women? Forget culture and the media, we have it in our power to decide how we want to view the inevitable changes in our bodies, so, for goodness sake, let’s choose a viewpoint that is positive and healthy.

According to Joann M. Montepare, director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell College in Massachusetts,
the view of “researchers may be part of the problem—that focusing on how to mediate and mitigate the ravages of growing old can fuel negative self-perceptions among those of us engaged in graying…Ultimately, we need to figure out how to make peace with our bodies. I think it’s time we made changing these views the next age battle.” (“On ‘virtuous aging’ and the freedom to fail” by Barbara Peters Smith, Sarasota Herald-Tribune,11/18/14, page 8E).

Hanne Laceulle of the University of Humanistics in the Netherlands describes the “false choices” we have when aging: “staying young” or “giving in to the inevitable decline.” She says, “These age-defying narratives and decline narratives are problematic, as if there is no value of its own in later life. The age-defying narratives in particular are a self-effacing strategy, because ultimately they are doomed to fail.”

Instead of “active, positive or anti-aging,” she’s coined the phrase “virtuous aging”— embracing aging for all that it involves. It’s neither a triumph over mind and body nor a failure to overcome a natural process. Virtuous aging focuses on the virtues that develop in us as time passes. We are wiser, more focused on what’s important, more knowledgeable about who we are as well as who we are not, less pressured to succeed, achieve, and conquer. At 68, I will personally attest to all that!

How do you feel about your aging body? Whether your attitude has been to try to hold on to youth or control the aging process or to feel like a failure because you can’t stop it, how can you start to appreciate the benefits of aging? What is the downside of feeling like a failure (when, after all, it’s a set up: we all age and eventually die)? What is the downside of battling age even when you’re succeeding in minor ways? What would it feel like to embrace your aging body and gracefully, graciously go with the flow?