Loving your post-menopause body

The change of life can be a big transition for women and accepting the differences in how you look and feel may need some physical and mental re-adjusting.

By Sophia Auld
For some women, going through menopause feels like moving into an unrecognisable body.
This happened to strategy consultant Gabrielle Martinovich.
"It literally felt like I'd gained 10 kilos overnight," says the 53-year-old.
"Now I've got that unhealthy fat around my middle and I've gone up one or two dress sizes."
Like Gabrielle, many women experience weight gain at menopause, particularly around the abdomen.
Factors contributing to this include declining oestrogen levels, age-related loss of muscle tissue, diet, and insufficient exercise.
While it's important to maintain a healthy weight, preserving the same figure after menopause is usually unrealistic. But it is possible to love your post-menopause body – without resorting to unhealthy dieting or punishing exercise regimes.
While poor body image was previously seen as afflicting just teenagers and young women, we now know post-menopausal women are affected at the same rate, explains Sharryn Muir, a clinical psychologist at Jean Hailes for Women's Health.
In fact, a study published in 2011 in the journal Clinical Psychology Review indicated that many factors associated with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in middle-aged women are similar to those in younger women.
"Significant evidence suggests that body dissatisfaction is constant across a woman's lifespan," says Sharryn.
"Collectively, research indicates that 80 per cent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies."
She explains that western cultures generally equate beauty with youth and thinness. Therefore, as women's weight can increase with menopause, so does the discrepancy between actual and idealised body image.
"Fat redistribution can result in bigger waist and hips, again widening the gap between our actual and idealised female body shape," she says.
Ageing can also cause women to struggle with feeling 'invisible', as they no longer attract positive attention "from those who once might have noticed them for being sexually or generally attractive."
Clinical psychologist Ros Knight agrees that because women are still judged by their looks and sexuality, menopause can make them feel less attractive.
Skin dryness, body shape changes and reduced muscle tone can affect self-esteem and make women "feel like they're a has-been", says the Australian Psychological Society president.
She emphasises that menopause is natural, and some women find it very freeing.
"Let's face it – every woman who's survived into their fifties has to do it. It's an adjustment phase and it can be difficult depending on quite a few things."
This includes social factors like the health of your relationship, your partner's age, kids growing up, "or perhaps you never got to have kids and it's a real sign you never will."
Ros adds that women who've worked hard to maintain their looks may experience more trouble adjusting.
"It's much more anxiety-provoking when self-esteem is tied to your appearance rather than to other things," she says.
Research has uncovered other factors associated with a higher likelihood for experiencing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in midlife.
A study published in 2010 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that participants identified as probable eating disorder candidates had significantly higher BMI and importance of appearance scores, and much lower self-care scores, than their counterparts.
Ros explains that building your self-esteem on things other than your appearance is important.
"If we're lucky enough to live to 80 we're not going to look great," she says.
"It just doesn't come with the territory."
Instead, she recommends focusing on what you want for your life going forward, and viewing menopause as an opportunity "rather than feeling like it's the end".
Sharryn says that meditations on body acceptance can help. She recommends a free app called 'Insight Timer' which has more than 10,000 guided meditations.
"Choose a few, and when they ask you to 'set an intention' choose something like 'I accept my body as it is'," she says.
To see real improvements, do this for 15 minutes daily for six weeks.
The 'Loving kindness' meditations on the same app are good for self-acceptance.
"Also, cultivate perspective – what brings you peace, love, happiness and fulfillment in life – not a 'good' body?" she adds.
Both psychologists note the importance of friendships and loving relationships.
Ros points out that your friends are usually around your age and going through similar things. They can help by listening sympathetically to your concerns and sharing their own experiences.
Gabrielle says that many of her friends are struggling with similar issues, such as feeling less attractive and avoiding wearing a swimsuit.
Talking about their feelings helps, as does having a husband who "always makes me feel good".
Another excellent strategy is focusing on positives – like your overall health, vitality, strength and fitness – instead of body weight and shape, advises Sharryn.
"Out of all the literature on mindfulness and its virtues, gratitude is seen to be one of the most powerful cognitive tricks to lessen suffering," she says.
"That is, gratitude for what I have, rather than ruminate on what I don't have (a youthful, thin body). What do I have – love, safety, a home, health, fitness, friends etc? Embrace strengths, don't dwell on perceived negatives."
Gabrielle says that trying to stay positive is a "daily struggle", but she focuses on keeping her body strong with yoga and Pilates.
"If I gain extra weight, I don't want it to hold me back. It's about longevity, using your brain to keep it active, using your body to stay active and not just giving in."
She also practises gratitude: "I'm still healthy. I've got a husband who loves me. I've got a family. There's a lot of good things."
Ros adds that if you feel stuck, you might want to see a psychologist.
"You might need to talk about how to unpin your sense of self-esteem from being the 20-something-year-old woman," she says.
Strategies like cognitive-behaviour therapy can help with "changing self-talk from 'I look so ugly' into something more constructive."
This might be helpful if you are "torturing yourself" with questions such as whether you can still wear swimmers or jeans.
Studies have shown that psychological therapies can help midlife women deal with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.
A research review published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 2016 found that sustained improvements were achieved by three interventions that used a multisession, therapeutically-based, group treatment format.
Two of these used cognitive behaviour therapy to help the women recognise and challenge negative self-talk and focus on body acceptance. The other used acceptance and commitment therapy.
As Sharryn points out, it's hard to go against a culture with such a focus on appearance.
But as she says, "If we personally and collectively challenge this, change can happen!"

Tips to help you feel more positively about menopause

  • Get some exercise – research shows that it helps with mood and therefore improves quality of life and ability to face the change.
  • Do something regularly to help you relax, such as deep breathing or having a massage.
  • Consider changing your wardrobe. Get to know what looks good on your new body and you feel comfortable wearing.
  • Remember that menopause is not "secret women's business". If you don't have friends to talk to, consider talking to your GP or a psychologist.
  • Seek help from a professional if you're still struggling.
  • Consider getting involved with a group or community.
  • Foster loving relationships with people and/or animals.
  • Take up pursuits you enjoy, such as gardening, art or craft.
  • Practise kindness to others.
  • Avoid mass media images that idealise unobtainable youth.

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