How Does Ageism Impact Body Image?

April 19, 2024

woman looking in the mirror at her body

Ageism is discrimination that arises from common stereotypes about age. People might make certain (usually negative) assumptions about others based solely on their age. While these stereotypes can impact older people in various ways, poor body image is one of the most common problems associated with ageism. A study by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that one in five older adults experienced anxiety or depression due to poor body image.

The portrayal of older people in the media can exacerbate negative feelings about body image. For instance, the American Society on Aging highlights stereotypes in the media that often make older people appear physically incapable and vulnerable while ignoring any individual characteristics.

Here’s a closer look at how portrayals in the media and culture and the overall stereotypes of aging in society can affect body image.

1. Disproportionate Pressure on Women

An article from Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication points out that aging is often portrayed negatively in the media, and the negativity disproportionately targets older females. The article points out that older males are often viewed as “distinguished,” with their appearance often seen as an extension of attractive qualities like experience and confidence.

However, women are not often seen in the same ways. Signs of aging are often associated with diminished attractiveness and decreased sex appeal in a society that values both.

AARP cited a 2021 study that found that women over 50 feel unrepresented in advertising and that the targeted ads they do see misrepresent them. They often feel that aging is represented as a negative decline rather than a natural process that happens to everyone.

While some advertisers are starting to present female aging more positively, most marketing still focuses on placing value on youthful appearance.

2. Pressure To Maintain a Youthful Appearance

In many societies, media, culture, and marketing combine to create the impression that people with a youthful appearance are more valued. This dynamic goes beyond the media and social interactions. Some studies have found that people with youthful and traditionally attractive appearances get more opportunities in the workplace.

In many cases, the value of physical appearance puts pressure on people to maintain a youthful appearance for as long as possible. However, this issue is nuanced. For instance, maintaining a youthful appearance is more important for those in higher economic and social classes.

Different cultures have different impressions of older generations. For instance, in Taiwan, an older appearance is associated with wisdom, experience, and emotional intelligence. On the other hand, Western culture often associates capability with a younger appearance. However, most modern cultures link youth with physical attractiveness, increasing the pressure on aging people to maintain younger physical characteristics.

3. Influence of Advertisements

Older people are typically underrepresented in advertising. There could be various reasons for this, such as younger people’s willingness to adopt new products or discuss purchases over social media. However, the commercials often reinforce the idea that society values younger people and their physical characteristics more than older people.

AARP points out that many ads use older people for comic effects, making fun of mental or physical decline or showing them as out of touch or incapable. At the same time, the organization mentions that consumers over 55 make more than 50% of purchases in the automotive, home improvement, and personal care industries.

In other words, the advertising sector, which many people would argue reflects the values and desires of society, values youthful appearance even more than purchasing power.

4. Poor Representation of Older People in Media

Research published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications found that a majority of older people did not identify with how their peers were presented in the media. These inaccurate portrayals are only part of the issue. Often media and ads celebrate older people who look younger or do things younger people would do.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that only 7% of characters in selected ads were above 60 years old — even though this demographic makes up one-fifth of the overall population.

The absence of older characters is even more stark in top-grossing movies. Less than one-quarter of the characters in these films are over 50. Of this already small group, only 25% of older characters in feature films were female.

The lack of representation could lead older people to feel that someone with their physical characteristics doesn’t have a place in mainstream society or doesn’t have value in modern culture.

5. Stereotypes About Older People

As AARP pointed out, older people are often used as comic relief in the media and not celebrated unless they successfully mask their aging characteristics. The Guardian noticed an uptick in humor targeting older people, and everything from t-shirts to birthday cards poke fun at aging individuals.

These jokes may be made without malice, but they reinforce long-held stereotypes of people within older age groups. People may recognize these stereotypical characteristics in themselves and develop a negative self-image, even if they are otherwise healthy and have a high quality of life.

Negative Mental Effects

The American Psychological Association (APA) calls ageism “one of the last socially acceptable prejudices” and says the resulting negative body and self-images may have a significant negative impact on mental health.

The negative effects people might experience include:

  • Anxiety about how they are perceived in social situations;
  • Depression from the inability to change physical appearance or make significant body improvements;
  • Avoidance of social situations due to poor body image or fear of ageism.

Mental health problems like increased anxiety could cause or exacerbate physical health problems like high blood pressure.

How To Improve Body Image as an Older Adult

Older adults can take physical and mental steps to improve their body image. Here are effective ways to do this.

  • Adopt a realistic mindset about physical abilities and take incremental steps to improve fitness and overall health.
  • Seek peer groups in the same age range who can offer support and advice about aging, physical health, and struggles.
  • Seek counseling to deal with any mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, related to a poor body image.

Cosmetic surgery is another option for people who are unhappy with a specific body part. One study by the Penn School of Medicine found that 87% of people who had an aesthetic procedure were satisfied and had an improved body image for at least a year afterward.

Common options include body contouring and breast augmentation. People who are older and are concerned about the visible effects of aging might consider a face and neck lift or an eyelid lift. These options can offer a way to improve body image and counteract the mental health issues associated with ageism.

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