An obsession with looking Fab at Fifty and the rise of older women with eating disorders
By JEANETTE KUPFERMANN
21:45 GMT, 18 July 2012
21:45 GMT, 18 July 2012
The picture of the long-limbed blonde with perfect proportions, a hand-span waist, perky breasts and honey-coloured skin caught my eye immediately.
With not an ounce of excess fat or trace of cellulite anywhere on her body, the photograph of her in a tiny bikini and jaunty straw hat conjured up images of carefree youth and sun-kissed beaches. Then I looked again. No, it wasn’t a 20-year-old starlet, but the 48-year-old supermodel Elle Macpherson.
Few could have missed the stunning pictures of her on holiday in Ibiza this week. She looked barely a day older than she did 30 years ago. But while she’s undeniably beautiful, there’s something questionable — ugly, if you like — about the cult among older women that pressures them to stay looking young for ever.
Bikini bodies: Elle Macpherson, left, and Marie Helvin defy their years
Because for all the women who applaud the ageless beauty of those like Elle, or 60-year-old Marie Helvin, whose recent photos in a bikini could only make you gasp, there will be equal numbers in my age group (the over-50s) for whom women like this are less of an inspiration than a hopeless ideal.
It’s generally agreed that the never-ending stream of air-brushed images of size zero celebrities is damaging to young women, contributing towards eating disorders, body dysmorphia and problems with self-esteem.
But what about older women I believe we, too, are being done a disservice by our obsession with any celebrity nearing or past her half-century who can maintain the contours of a 16-year-old and appear in a bikini looking a vision of perfection.
Are we seeing a new kind of myth-making that is damaging the older woman’s confidence and, worse still, her health
A desire to emulate these impossibly beautiful women can drive us to excessive dieting and exercise.
At the very least, I believe it creates anxiety and discontent with the normal processes previous generations accepted as inevitable aspects of ageing.
Far-fetched The statistics seem to suggest not: for, alarmingly, we’re seeing more and more older women — in their 50s, 60s and even 70s — with serious body issues. Eating disorders in older women have increased by 42 per cent in the past 11 years — leading to all kinds of health problems such as osteoporosis, heart, liver, digestive and gastro-intestinal problems, not to mention depression.
Surprisingly, women over 50 — average age 69 — comprise 78 per cent of all deaths from anorexia.
I know at least half-a-dozen women over 50 with eating disorders, two of whom are showing signs of osteoporosis. All of them restrict their food intake to a dangerous level, taking in few fats or carbohydrates.
One, who is approaching 70, began a low GI diet — excluding refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, cakes and so on, which raise blood sugar — in her 50s after discovering her husband was cheating on her.
Fab in their fifties and sixties: Madonna, left, and Helen Mirren always look glamorous but it's hard for other women to follow suit
She was also having financial problems and her daughter had gone off the rails. The dieting was a desperate bid to hang onto the little bit of control she had over her life.
As the pounds dropped off — and her face became lined and wizened — anorexia took hold. She ended up having a minor stroke, and though now recovered, she’s extremely anxious about her health.
Another friend, widowed in her late 40s and with a history of yo-yo dieting, started to pick at her food after her husband died.
She took up running and at first was delighted when she could wear clothes she hadn’t been able to fit into for years. But she didn’t eat more to compensate for the energy she was burning.
The weight kept falling off, and as she approached her 50s the twinge in her hip turned into something more debilitating and she required a replacement just before her 50th birthday.
The cartilage had been virtually worn away — ground down by her excessive daily exercise and exacerbated by her inadequate diet.
She’s regained a little weight, having been forced to stop exercising so frantically, but is still careful about her calorie intake. She goes down with every virus going, but certainly does not relate it to being under-nourished.
More seriously still, society’s twin obsessions with obesity and youth mean we’re not telling women that even if they’re not anorexic, being too thin is a major risk factor for osteoporosis: the thinning of the bones that can lead to fatal fractures and disability.
Under pressure: It's good to keep fit but some older women are pushing their bodies to dangerous extremes (posed by model)
The statistics are shocking: half of all women will suffer from fractures after the age of 50 (compared with one in five men). Women are more likely to suffer a hip fracture than develop breast cancer. Hip fractures cause 1,150 premature deaths a month in the UK.
So while we continue to worship at the altar of slimness, are we not hiding a brutal truth from women — that while being thin at 40 may be healthier than being overweight, ten years on it may be better to be plump.
Contrary to popular myth, recent research has found that carrying a few extra pounds makes for better health. We also tend to forget that over-exercising can cause problems ranging from damaged tendons and ligaments to arthritis as we age.
More than 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders
I discovered this after some over-enthusiastic flamenco dancing lessons, while Jane Fonda, 74, the queen of keep-fit, has had hip and knee replacements.
So why have we been seduced by this myth that women can remain svelte and youthful for ever
Images of beautiful women are nothing new. Before photographs there were statues and paintings of everyone from goddesses and queens to courtesans.
But the camera has created an unprecedented anxiety. The constant drip-feed of images of preternaturally thin women ups the ante.
We look at older women such as Madonna, Sharon Stone, Cher, Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren — looking fabulous — and compare ourselves unfavourably.
By contrast, our mothers at the same age would have slipped into a skirt with an elasticated waist and indulged in another cake.
As we age, we should feel better in our own skins, not worse, able to let go and indulge a little, but where are our role models
No one is suggesting women in their 50s should dress and act like Nora Batty. But couldn’t we see a few more older women who have style, character and have accomplished something other than a flat stomach