The Impact of Ageism on Body Image in Midlife with Deb Benfield, MEd, RDN
Entering midlife does not require a crisis. In fact, this season can come with a lot of perks. There’s the freedom in having grown kids, fewer financial obligations, and more time to invest in new -or old hobbies. It can be a sweet stage of growth and self-discovery.
But the health and wellness industry would love for you to turn a blind eye to all that. If you’re not in crisis, they’re not in business. So in this episode, I’ve invited Nutrition and Body Relationship Coach, Deb Benfield to help us tackle the harmful effects of ageism and why it’s robbing us of the opportunity to enjoy midlife and the gifts it offers.
Deb helps us unpack the concept of “internalized ageism” which is rarely addressed. It sneaks into our subconscious and influences so many of life’s priorities. The societal narrative praising eternal youth tempts us to chase unattainable beauty standards, which deeply impacts our relationship with food and our bodies. Deb advocates for the need to embrace aging as a natural process.
What makes Deb so qualified to speak on this subject is her awareness of the intersection of ageism and disordered eating. The societal pressures for a youthful appearance can lead to zeroing in on rigid diets and rigorous exercise. The conversation reminds us to honor our bodies' needs without falling prey to scare tactics or wellness trends.
We also dive into how stress and anxiety impact our health in big ways. This is yet another opportunity to practice body acceptance and advocate for a radical shift in viewing and treating aging bodies. It’s true that our bodies have different sizes and often frustrating limitations these days. But when we learn to name and grieve these limitations, we can get unstuck too.
In a culture obsessed with anti-aging, this conversation counters this narrative, promoting the power and freedom of growing older. If you really want to live these years free from regret, we have to do the work of unlearning negative beliefs about aging. This episode is the perfect place to start!
Jenn Salib Huber: 0:00
Hi and welcome to the Midlife Feast, the podcast for women who are hungry for more in this season of life. I'm Dr. JennSalib your host. I'm an intuitive eating dietitian and naturopathic doctor and I help women manage menopause without dieting and food rules. Come to my table, listen and learn from me trusted guest experts in women's health and interviews with women just like you. Each episode brings to the table juicy conversations designed to help you feast on midlife. And if you're looking for more information about menopause, nutrition and intuitive eating, check out the Midlife Feast community, my monthly membership that combines my no-nonsense approach that you all love to nutrition with community, so that you can learn from me and others who can relate to the cheers and challenges of midlife.
Hey there, welcome to this week's episode of the Midlife Feast. I was talking to someone the other week and they said man, this aging thing is complicated, and what they were talking about was that they were kind of loving this stage of life for lots of reasons. Their kids were grown, they felt like they had more independence, they had fewer financial obligations, their house was paid off, and yet they were starting to kind of feel this weight for lack of a better word of aging that they were kind of carrying around, kind of like I feel myself getting older, I feel myself slowing down. I'm eight year, and so I'm not sure how I feel about getting older.
So I think that you're going to really enjoy this conversation that I had with Deb Benfield. Deb is also known as her account is aging body liberation on Instagram, but she's also a fellow dietitian non-diet dietitian who has worked with people in the eating disorder and disorder dating spaces, and she's bringing a really refreshing conversation to the one around aging. So I hope you'll have a listen. I'd love to have more of these conversations because, as you'll learn, what we believe about getting older is one of the biggest influences on how we experience it. So have a listen and let me know what you think. Hi, deb, welcome to the Midlife Feast. Thank you, I'm delighted to be here. So, like I always say this about so many of my guests, we connected through Instagram and I have definitely admired your work and followed you for a while now, and we've exchanged a few messages over the last couple of years about things that we haven't common. But tell, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Deb Benfield: 2:40
Yeah Well, I just want to say right back at you I love what you're up to in the world. Yes, thank you. I'm a registered dietitian who has been in practice for almost 40 years now I'll be 65 in just a few weeks and I've been specializing in preventing and treating disorder, dating and dating disorders my entire career. I got very fortunate and my supervisor was a therapist and specialized in this, so I automatically went down this road and I'm very passionate about it. And when I turned 60, I got very upset, disappointed, angry, sad about the messages I'm hearing about aging and how it's also contaminated, in my opinion, by diet and wellness culture and the anti-aging messages and, I think, ageism in general. So I really pivoted and really focused on providing what I thought I needed at the time of what I hear from other women that they feel very much that they're internalized ageism is contributing to more difficulty, if not relapse, in their eating disorder. So that's what I'm up to.
Jenn Salib Huber: 3:55
So you said something that I think we need to clarify, because I'm sure that some people are going to think wait a minute, did she just say internalized ageism? Yeah, what is that?
Understanding the Role of Internalized Ageism
Deb Benfield: 4:06
It's when. Well, let me just say we all are ages. Those are our cultures, depending on where you live. I think it's particularly hard in the USA and parts of Europe where there's such a push and a loud diet and wellness culture. We've all internalized that it's bad to be older and good to be younger, just like in the same way, we think thinner is always better and bigger is always bad. It's very, very intertwined and sometimes it's hard to separate them. But, starting when we were kids, we were hearing stories about older women and they were never, never good, they were usually scary.
And there's also all of this mythology around when you get older, you get stuck in your ways and air quotes and like trail and forgetful, and the mythology around aging is unquestioned by a lot of people and I think the data actually supports a very different reality and it's helpful to get to know that, because we know and I don't know how far you want me to go with this answer, but we know that beliefs about aging that are very, very negative actually alter your health and your longevity, even all the way to the point of the belief is research and we can link all this, if you'd like, that you live seven and a half years longer if you have a positive attitude around your own.
So what I'm so interested in is that the way we start to want to white knuckle around our body is like controlling aging contributes to real difficulty with how we nourish ourselves and how we move and all the things that you talk about.
Jenn Salib Huber: 6:13
And it's so true. I mean, you know how we, how we think and feel about ourselves as individuals moving through this world. How can it not impact our experience of living in this world? I heard it once described about, you know, the, this mask of age that people will have, almost like an out of body experience of like I don't feel the way that I look, or I feel that I look so much older than I feel when I'm living my body. Is it because of this internalized ageism that we have that disconnect between what we see and what we feel?
Deb Benfield: 6:56
Sure, I think part of what I'm hearing and what you're saying is, if we attribute older to like all these negative things, then perhaps that contributes to the disconnects because you don't feel what you believe older actually is. If we really dismantle our internalized ages and look at the fact that we're all so unique, we're the most heterogeneous group of people on the planet. The older, the longer we live, the more unique you are, that's you know dad and son, that's so true.
Yeah, so for your particular experience, to really get to know what's the truth for you, versus a story that you're carrying around, what an older person is, maybe that would be helpful and a disconnect. But I think that disconnect is very, very common and probably very intertwined with some of the other things we know about what we perceive about our bodies. I think it's a very complicated experience. I think we don't really know the answer to that question, but this could be a piece, yeah.
Jenn Salib Huber: 8:10
Yeah, and I mean it is complicated because we're also, I think you know our generation and you know kind of give or take. You know 10, 15 years where I think unique and that we're really pushing for a life well lived beyond our reproductive years. You know we're really pushing for wanting to stay active in whatever it is that you do Like this is really just like a season of life. I mean, statistics have come out that you know we're going to spend 30 to 40% of our life and post menopause you know I was menopausal before my 45th birthday. I'm kind of hoping for 50% at least. And you know like a shift beliefs around what it looks like and what it feels like to be a post menopausal woman in my 40s. You know it definitely required some reflections around like what did I, what did I think this was going to look like? What were my expectations? Yeah, and a lot of self.
Why It's Still Hard to Support the Pro-Aging Efforts
Deb Benfield: 9:18
Yeah, so much that we've been through our lives with that awareness, like everything else, about our bodies. Right, there's only one way to look, and I just have to say I'm not particularly comfortable with the way that pro aging community is portraying older, especially women, and there's an awful lot of the same beauty, ideal per, trained, the same fitness, the same fitness being amplified with sober hair. It's just, it feels like the pressure just won't let up and you know the sports illustrated cover.
Jenn Salib Huber: 9:58
Yeah, I think I was just thinking of the same cover yeah, sweetheart, and it was very polarized because there was some people who saw it as such a positive rep, a good thing that hey, look, here's this older person who you know is still worthy of being on the cover. And then there was the rest of us who were like, okay, but it's just another ideal that no one can well, most people aren't naturally going to age like that, look like that, and so it's not actually holding up any kind of inspiration. It's just another comparison where most people are going to feel like they fall short, like to me. Immediately you had a visceral reaction to like, really, come on, like, come on.
Yeah, but it's also because you do have people you know again, you know our generation. I think we're pushing a lot of boundaries around what we can do, how we can I'm not going to use the word pro aging, because I don't love it either, but just kind of age well and gracefully, like you know, just in terms of and by well I mean like maintaining mobility, maintaining activity, independence, like all of those things. I think that we are far more aware of how those contributions can really impact our life. And so there are people, I think, who are looking different than our grandmothers did in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, who are doing things in those age groups that our grandmothers would never have driven to come, and so I think that there's a lot of positive role modeling that's happening there, but I still see so much of it based on looks. I still see so much of it based on holding up the thin ideal, the you know, the inspiration of, like the fit, athletic, muscley 65 year old in the gym is what we should all be working towards. I'd love to kind of talk about that a little bit.
Deb Benfield: 12:13
Yeah, and I think, with that lifting up and the constant puzzles, I mean there's literally zoo biodiversity in this movement. I just keep looking for it. I just keep looking for it. Please show me, tell me that I'm wrong. Is there diversity anywhere where we have older bodies? With any diversity? I think there may be a little bit more in Europe than there is in the US. I think there's a lot more to learn. I think we're behind when it comes to this conversation that I think, with that amplification of fitness and what I think are the outliers, the marathon runners and the things that I see lifted up, yes, I see that's exciting and I'm inspired and it feels like pressure. And with that pressure there's also pressure about our diets and how we nourish ourselves. It's right in there, right there. I just posted yesterday about this hard message we're receiving about very high protein intake and how ridiculous that is. I know you probably talked about it plenty, so I'll just drop it right there, but it's right in there.
Why Gentle Nutrition Needs to Be Prioritized in Midlife
Jenn Salib Huber: 13:40
Enforced. It always needs to be reinforced Because it is definitely, I think, the most confusing thing, because there is, at least in my opinion there is the truth of slightly increased protein needs and the benefit of bringing some gentle nutrition to the conversations about it, versus the prioritizing at all costs and by all means necessary.
Deb Benfield: 14:08
Those are two very different conversations, thank, you and what I know happens in myself and my clients and my friends. When you get all in your heads about getting the grams right, you cannot really honor your own body's response.
Jenn Salib Huber: 14:33
So I'm just going to insert a little bit of how I talk about it, because many people have told me that this has been helpful. I talk about protein as a starring role, a supporting role or a cameo. So in my community we've got a whole module on how to undiet your beliefs about protein and also how to add it in through gentle nutrition, and we just have visuals of these are starring roles. These can hold their own on your plate as the protein. These are supporting roles. You might need a couple and these are cameos.
You're going to need four or five to make it up and just kind of bringing in that common sense of you don't have to know whether you have 22 grams or 26 grams of protein, that makes a difference. But if you can know what is generally about five, generally about 25, you can make decisions easily, intuitively, without having to worry and count and measure and track. And that is a huge thing that people need to realize is that you don't have to count, measure and track every bite of anything, especially protein.
Your Body Doesn't Need You To Measure Every Bite
Deb Benfield: 15:47
Yeah, and there are a couple of things I want to add to that. One is your body's not running on one like. You must get it right every day. Your body has the capacity to adapt and roll with it. Believe me, you will not be punished. If you have a day that, like whoa, where was the protein today, it can be totally, completely fine. It doesn't have to be like every day. And what I hear from women on Instagram the comments I'm going to post yesterday, there are so many women and of course, I get lots of DMs and lots of people contacting me about the fact that they have been eating disorder earlier in their lives.
They've fought really hard to recover, to mend, to heal their relationship with food and eating and their bodies, and now it's really hard. So if there is any talk about a dogmatic message about should that just really triggers them really, because there are some brains that are wired to have more Velcro for the details. You have to try to get it exactly right all the time and to be driven by some rules. It feels simple, feel safer when they're following the rules and being good, so to be aware of that about yourself and to really, really protect yourself as much as you can about this dogma, because it's very hard, it's very triggering.
Understanding How Ageism and Disordered Eating Are Connected
Jenn Salib Huber: 17:32
Let's talk a little bit about the intersection of ageism and disordered eating. So we've talked on this podcast before with Valchon Berg about the eating disorder risk that increases in midlife. That seems to be appearing in the research pretty clearly that this is like a window of vulnerability, and especially people who have maybe already had a eating disorder at any point in their life. How is that intersecting with this ageism?
Deb Benfield: 18:06
Yeah, I think the reality and the truth and normalcy, please. This is normal for your body to change and we just say life is long for lucky. Your body changes over time and it's okay. That's not one of my big big Methodist and a lot of that is about fear of what happens when you aid.
I think the storyline around frailty and dementia and Dependency all the fears that I hear people really using like, really, in my opinion, manipulating us to Be afraid that we're gonna fall if we don't keep our protein intake high and go to strength training and I'm not saying it's not okay to pay attention to your movement and your nourishment, but to use your fear of aging as a way to manipulate people back into Regility and dogmatic relationship with eating and movements. That's where I have a problem and I think we need to educate ourselves around Real aging, because my platform is aging is not a problem. It's ageism. That's the problem. It's what we believe. It's what we believe is. Just like you know, fat is not a problem, it's fat phobia. That's the problem. It's the same thing. It's the same exact thing. They're both threads, it's like if you start thinking about it in those terms, it's very helpful. It's not your aging body, that's the problem. It's your beliefs and your thoughts about your aging body that you've inherited. So dismantling all that will really empower you to move into this sacred, beautiful time of life. And so I have some recommendations. I have some reading and tech talk recommendations.
My favorite book is and I'm not at all getting anything out of this, I just think what I did when I started all of this work I'm very nerdy, so it was fun for me to read all these books and do all this research and to pitch the things that I was hearing died. A well was called for math, so this is vetted. Everything I'm saying has been done it. So there are only a couple of things. It's really sad there are only a couple of things to say as far as resources, but Tracia gendron's book ages among us, exploring age bias and how to end it so helpful I'm gonna have it to me packed full of information. And we talked about Becka Levy's book, breaking the age code, where she does research on our beliefs and how that really alters our actual health outcomes. So those two books are my faves.
Jenn Salib Huber: 21:06
Those are great, I'm a lot willing, those in the show notes too, and I think that you know this is another layer, that Is, you know, just kind of starting to have its moment, because you know, the anti-aging and the body aging have been really loud voices and often under the umbrella of wellness culture and diet culture. Like do this? Oh, I'm not doing intermittent fasting to lose weight, I'm doing it to age well.
Deb Benfield: 21:37
Thank you, thank you. Yeah, so I do love.
Jenn Salib Huber: 21:40
I love myth busting, I love belief busting and I think that anything that we can do to shift our beliefs, you know. You know in a way that feels safer. Because what I tell people about making decisions out of fear is that if you make a decision out of fear, it is gonna feel urgent and it is gonna feel like your survival, like you need it to survive, and that's never a great place to make a decision. We make the best decisions when we feel safe, and you can't do that if you're always making a decision to avoid something.
Why Fear Is Not Your Friend in Midlife
Deb Benfield: 22:16
Right and like what we're talking about now, this fear mongering around what happens when you age and what you just said about specific kinds of diets and what people are starting to believe, not based on good data and really potentially toxic. Those kinds of things set off a nervous system dysregulation. That in and of itself is. I mean, we know that stress and anxiety contributed Sorry to put into the fun, so wait a minute and we know that permanent pause, menopause, which is when I think the aging and we're safer, the fear of aging, starts to pickle into your brain.
I mean, really, women in their 30s are contacting me right and left. It's mind blowing to me. I mean, botox starts in your 20s. I think I'm not even gonna go there, but that kind of fear really does change the function of your brain and we know that when you're going through permanent pause, menopause, you already have one. I mean, that's one of the symptoms that most of us experienced, or experienced in my case. So really not feeding your brain under, nourishing your body so that you have an under brain. This is the very same symptoms. I'm sure you've talked about this. So yeah, and I'd like to also bring into this conversation it just occurred to me I'd like to also bring into this conversation.
Jenn Salib Huber: 23:48
It just occurred to me, you know, one of the I don't know what to call it. It's not an obstacle, but so, for example, in my community, we often, you know, we're talking about body acceptance. It's a huge part of what we're working on and just kind of accepting your body. Word is, you don't have to love it, you don't have to like it, but you do need to be able to treat it with kindness and respect because it is the only one you have right. So you know. But one of the things that often comes up is like, I get what you're saying, but, man, it was a lot easier to love my body when my knees didn't hurt and, man, it was a lot easier when I was like 20 years young and didn't have this.
How do you and I mean I'm in this case, tear a couple of years ago, that was, you know, aging and wear and tear how do we like find that safe spot when we're maybe kind of working through some of the normal natural consequences of an aging body and feeling like, well, if I had tried harder, if I had done more, maybe it wouldn't, I wouldn't be in this place. That's where I find it's hard to really live the body acceptance, because it can't help it sometimes. Well, I could have done something differently. It's my fault, or it was easier when I was younger.
The Need to Name and Heal Aging Body Grief
Deb Benfield: 25:08
I'm thinking like 16 things, so it's really hard to contain my excitement. But one of the things that I think is important is self-compulsive, and you have to practice this. This is not naturally-etering experience. You have to practice the fact that you did not cause these issues and these changes. These are not for us to normalize how our bodies change, and I think we need to hold up. It's okay to grieve the loss of your younger body. It's okay and it's necessary.
I call it aging body grief. You have to experience that. You have to let yourself feel it in order to move into acceptance and the next chapter. You have to let yourself feel and acknowledge yes, there's loss. There's loss of my knees that could do these things. There is loss of a waistline that you could wear this size. I mean. All those things are normal and natural to feel. It's interesting to hold the contradiction of feeling possible about aging and it's okay to grieve the loss of your younger body. Holding both of those. It's confusing for people, but necessary.
Jenn Salib Huber: 26:28
And statements are one of my favorite tools to use personally and with the people that I work with, because it keeps you out of the all or nothing thinking. It keeps you out of the it has to be one or the other, like we're humans and we're messy, and we're gonna have two sometimes messy emotions happening at the same time and being able to you know together is helpful. I think that's such a great reminder that it's okay to feel like I wish I had my 25 year old knees, while also, you know, being grateful that you still have knees.
Deb Benfield: 27:03
Yeah, there's a lot of privilege in aging and really remembering that huge privilege.
Jenn Salib Huber: 27:09
Is there anything else that you would like to share about ageism and the work that you're doing, because I feel like this is a topic that really needs to be. We need to hear about this more, because there's so many other voices that are getting airtime and this is an important one.
Deb Benfield: 27:30
Okay. Well, I think people, especially women, need to really educate themselves, as I've said, but I also think surrounding yourself with folktales where the chrome image is the wise, strong, like amazing leader that the chrome can be Like, to really give yourself the time and the attention around, embracing a different story, a different hero or shero for your life Well, aging can be amazingly powerful. My experience on the other side of Paranormal Palsing on the cost is, I feel, amazing, and I know that that could change today. But I have a lot of energy, I have a lot of focus, I have capacity for a very full life right now. I'm telling you this is my favorite time. I'm excited about it. I say the same thing.
Jenn Salib Huber: 28:30
I wouldn't change, I wouldn't go back, I wouldn't change anything. I'm so excited about this stage of my life and I feel good. Yeah, sometimes things are a bit more, but I feel good.
Deb Benfield: 28:42
Yeah, I think that needs to be spoken frequently. Awesome, let's start shouting that from the rooftops, Absolutely every chance I get.
Jenn Salib Huber: 28:55
So, Deb, I always ask my guests what do you think is the missing ingredient in midlife?
The Missing Ingredient in Midlife According to Deb
Deb Benfield: 29:01
Understanding that this bridge, this transition, is an amazing opportunity to get to know your, what I think was your girlhood authentic, brave and courageous, full of creativity stuff. So really see this as an opportunity to emerge. That's how I feel about it. I wanna hear more of that yeah, I love it Awesome.
Jenn Salib Huber: 29:29
so I know that people are gonna wanna hear more from you, so where can they find you in the work that you do?
Deb Benfield: 29:35
Well, my handle on Instagram is A Jean Body Liberation and if you go there you can find everything else, so I do. It's probably the easiest thing to do. My name is debraubrabenfieldcom. I mean, I'm sorry, that's my website, it's my name, so you can find all of my offerings. I do one-on-one coaching workshops three or four times a year and ongoing small group coaching, coaching with a membership of people who have been through that coaching.
So it's a by invitation only membership. So what's going on? But I'm very active on Instagram. And we'll put those links in the show notes too. So thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom today. Deb, Thank you for inviting me.
Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of the Midlife Feast For more non-diet, health, hormone and general midlife support. Click the link in the show notes to learn how you can work and learn from me. And if you enjoyed this episode and found it helpful, please consider leaving a review or subscribing, because it helps other women just like you find us and feel supported in midlife.
Grab my Menopause Nutrition Guide
Learn how to support your menopause and midlife journey with some of my best tips and recipes.
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.