“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is an unalienable right we Americans have. For many women experiencing midlife weight gain, the pursuit of happiness seems to have been replaced by the “prison of perfection.”
I’m often asked by women who are experiencing symptoms of the menopause transition what’s the secret to the “battle of the bulge” – you know that increasing waistline that never used to be a problem? My answer is that the key to success is about making appropriate lifestyle changes that manage the effects of aging and declining hormones (keep reading to learn more about those). I know, I know! Not a very sexy answer, especially for the woman who is desperate and has already made significant attempts at “eating well” and “exercising regularly.”
The problem, I learn after more questions, is not just about what she needs to do to stay healthy through her midlife transition, but really this: “what’s the perfect diet to get thin/stay thin (you know like I was in my 20’s)… and remain ageless?” After all, we’ve been bombarded by messages from media, marketers and society that have seemingly convinced us that “healthy and happy” is found in perfection – the perfect body, job, husband, house, kids, food, skin…
Consider the fact that the number of cosmetic procedures using Botox (botulinum toxin which is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum) have increased a whopping 750% from 2000 to 2014, according to a report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Somehow, cosmetic surgery and these types of procedures have become “normalized” for remaining ageless. We’ve become convinced that challenging the imperfection of aging is the key to happiness.
In fact, the battle with midlife weight gain may actually be a “perfect” problem, as well. The struggle many midlife women have over gaining a few pounds during the menopause transition can become quite intense; resulting in restrictive eating, diet cycling, disordered eating and excessive, compulsive exercise…if not a pathological eating disorder.
“The perfect problem,” according to Margo Maine, PhD, in her book Pursuing Perfection: Eating Disorders, Body Myths and Women at Midlife and Beyond, “promotes the myth that we can find life’s meaning and the answer to every challenge in the shape of our bodies.” Dr. Maine’s book eloquently points out that midlife women are not immune to the cultural pressure to attain a perfect body and may mistakenly underestimate the power of dabbling in pathological behaviors like these. She challenges the reader to many questions, but this one stood out to me:
“When was the last time we were part of an all-woman conversation where no one brought up weight, food, or personal appearance?”
Okay, time out. I’m a born and raised perfectionist, so I’m not here to throw any stones. In fact, my perfectionism has been a gift in many ways – pushing me to academic achievement, career success, and fiscal and financial stability. But, sadly it also got me into a lot of trouble (a prison as Dr. Maine refers to in her book), especially in my 20’s and 30’s as I sought out to have the perfect body, house…you know the list. I was desperate. Desperate to fit in at a time when I didn’t really know who I was. Without going into the gory details, the point is that no matter how hard I tried, it never felt “good enough”. Someone else always had “it” better. Let’s just say my 30’s didn’t end well.
I’ve come a long way since those days (with a lot of hard work, therapy, faith, and good family and friends), thus the reason I am passionate about helping women of all ages feel confident and at peace with food, exercise and weight – no matter what their size. I want women to know it’s okay to age imperfectly! You are not your body. Wrinkles are normal. Skin will sag. Fat prefers to be stored in the belly after menopause… and, this: “There is no greater power in the world today than the zest of a postmenopausal woman.” ~ Margaret Mead.
So, do we just need to surrender to mediocrity? Absolutely NOT!
Don’t get me wrong. I want to age as healthfully and gracefully as I can. I want to be strong, energetic and healthy enough to bike the country, travel the world, and chase grandchildren around. The difference is that the pursuit of health is different that the pursuit of perfection. Getting sucked into following the latest trends with food, exercise, skincare, surgery, etc. actually contributes to more stress and anxiety. There will always be something better. Something more “right” and the cycle just continues. Ultimately, none of these behaviors will help you achieve those important life-long goals.
So, the point is this: Do we need to give in to the multi-billion dollar diet, supplement and cosmetic industries – who are working hard to convince women we aren’t good enough the way we are, by the way – to be happy?
No, we don’t! But, what can we do?
Most people I know and work with want to feel in control. Life often feels out of control, so, it’s helpful to know what we CAN control and know it will make a difference. Spoiler alert: The following list is not “sexy.” You’ve probably heard all this before. But, here’s the deal. These behaviors DO matter. When done consistently, you can be and feel strong, healthy, confident and energetic.
Stay active. Find things you enjoy doing and participate in those activities daily – hiking, gardening, biking, running, golfing, playing volleyball, and lifting something heavier than a soup can!
Cook at home. As we get older, have more money or even more time, eating out can become an all-too-frequent pastime. Change it up. Invite your friends over, explore new recipes, cook with new foods, or just learn to cook if you need to. We know that eating more nutrient dense (versus calorie dense foods) provides more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. and helps with weight management and overall health. Eating at home provides more control over what you are eating – saves money and can be a lot of fun too!
Eat more fruits and vegetables. I know this point may sound cliche, but the reality is that over 80% of Americans do NOT get the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, while 60 to 75% of Americans eat more than the recommended servings of grains and protein. So, it wouldn’t hurt to work on eating more of these wholesome nutrient dense foods which will naturally replace over-consumption of other foods. (What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2010.)
Eliminate restrictive eating and diet cycling. I can’t say enough about this. But whether intentional or unintentional, restrictive eating sends a powerful message to the body to become very efficient with metabolic processes; use less energy; and, store more fat to protect the body from a state of famine. Thus, although weight loss may happen initially, anything you can’t sustain will backfire with weight regain and likely even more weight stored as fat – in the abdomen! Thus the feeling midlife women have that “their old tricks don’t work anymore.”
Drink less alcohol. Any of the reported benefits associated with alcohol intake are based on drinking in moderation or less than one serving of wine or beer per day and less than three servings at a time. Research demonstrates that women who drink heavily are more prone to central obesity while increasing the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, women at menopause are especially vulnerable to depression, and heavy drinking can just make that worse.
Get good quality sleep. This can be tough for midlife women experiencing shifting hormones that may interfere with sleep. Maintaining a regular bedtime routine and practicing good sleep hygiene (i.e. turn off electronics one hour before bed) may be helpful.
And, let us not forget:
- Don’t smoke – ever. Enough said.
- Brush and floss your teeth regularly.
- Wear sunscreen daily
There is a strong psychological association between taking important steps to take care of yourself and improving body image. For many women, just a week of eating well and regular exercise promotes positive thoughts about their body – even if they didn’t lose weight. There are many reasons for this, but the challenge is to remember that behavior change takes time. Getting support from friends or even a professional, such as a Licensed Psychologist or Registered Dietitian, may be critical to declaring your freedom.
You have a “right” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t let the “prison of perfection” take that away!