Menopause and Body Image

In this post, I want to suggest ways women can fight discouragement over their body during menopause. And more specifically, how Christian women can seek to honor the Lord while dealing with physical changes in menopause. After a short consideration of these changes, I’ll answer some related questions I've been asked in the past, then discuss body image in this season.


Admittedly, I’m not writing this post from experience with menopause. I want to cover the topic because I’ve been asked several similar questions about it over the years. Again, I do not pretend to fully understand the physical and psychological difficulties of this time. But as menopause is something that impacts the body, specifically female embodiment, I hope to address it in a helpful way.


Side note - Whether or not this post is directly pertinent to you, I still encourage you to read it. One day, you’ll either experience menopause yourself or will likely support your spouse as she deals with it.

Menopause

On average, menopause begins around age 50 and lasts seven years. It's officially diagnosed after 12 consecutive months without a period. In this time, the body slowly stops producing estrogen and progesterone, two important female hormones. It is largely the decreasing levels of estrogen that cause many of the concerns I hear from women. I’ll briefly attempt to explain why.


Estrogen and abdominal fat

Women have higher levels of estrogen, and men have higher levels of testosterone. These function in a variety of ways. One, in particular, is the way in which bodies store fat. Essentially, estrogen causes women to put weight on in their hips and thighs, while men are more likely to carry fat in their stomachs. As estrogen decreases with menopause, adipose tissue (fat) collects around the abdomen first, instead of hips and thighs as it once did. This simply means it can be easier to put on weight after menopause.


Estrogen and heart health

Estrogen guards against heart disease in two main ways. First, it keeps blood vessels flexible and aids blood flow. Estrogen also helps maintain good cholesterol levels. HDL is good cholesterol, and LDL is bad cholesterol. High HDL numbers indicate good heart health. But as estrogen lessens, HDL levels can decrease while LDL increases. This bad cholesterol sticks to blood vessel walls, which means higher chances of heart attack or stroke. It is important to monitor cholesterol, especially LDL, after menopause.


Estrogen and weak bones

Estrogen keeps bones strong by supporting calcium absorption. As estrogen lessens, bone density decreases. In other words, bones weaken and become porous. This raises the risk of osteoporosis and makes bones more likely to fracture.

Having established some physical changes in menopause, I'll try to answer some of the questions I've been previously asked.


My body looks different after menopause, but nothing about my diet or activity has changed. Why is this?

The body is naturally beginning to, in a sense, reshape itself. It doesn't necessarily mean that your eating and exercise habits have failed. The truth of the matter is your eating and exercise habits may not be as effective in keeping weight off because your body is simply making its own alterations.


I know bones can weaken during menopause, so how can I protect them?

Women can best protect against weakening bones and maintain bone density by lifting weights. I believe strength training to be a necessity for all people but especially before, during, and after menopause. This is an extremely important topic, and I’ve written on previously that you can read here.


What is the best diet or exercise program during menopause?

Your doctor may have specific recommendations, but overall, special diets or exercise routines aren’t necessary. Eat a balanced diet of whole grains, good fats, lean proteins, vegetables, low sugar fruit, and water, while avoiding processed and fried foods. For exercise, definitely lift weights and do interval cardio work. A total body strength routine 2-3 times a week, plus along with 15-20 minutes of any kind of interval cardiovascular exercise 3-4 times a week is a great place to start.


Menopause caused me to gain weight in my stomach. How can I get this off?

Sadly, you can’t spot reduce at any age. Even before menopause, if your body naturally puts on weight in specific areas, it will be challenging to undo this. Good nutrition and regular exercise may help but don’t set your hopes on negating what your body is trying to do.

Now, let’s consider body image in menopausal women.

Bodily change is natural as we get older. Age brings shifts in one’s former physical appearance such as weight fluctuations, a decrease in hearing and eyesight efficiency, skin wrinkles, hair loss, and muscle atrophy, along with general aches and pains that limit motion, balance, and normal everyday activities. If adults do not alter their appearance and body expectations, negative body image will likely result. This is especially important for menopausal women.


Most women generally express displeasure with their weight and body shape. Overall, the same areas that frustrate younger women are still troublesome to older women – areas like the stomach, hips, and thighs. As women age, weight gain is a significant determinant of body image.


One research study showed most women associate weight gain with “lack of self-control and reduced physical activity,” both of which factor into body image. But I would add menopause as a significant contributor to weight gain. In this case, extra pounds on the scale are not always within a woman’s control.


Interestingly, some studies have shown women over age 70 (those well past menopause) have more appropriate body expectations, ones that are realistic and less culturally defined than their younger counterparts. An older woman’s identity begins to shift from her looks to her family and social activities. It seems most women become less invested in their outward appearance later in their 60s. This means thoughts about her body - the way it looks, how it doesn’t meet societal ideals, and what she wants to change about it - no longer flood her mind.


When this type of protective thinking is absent, negative body image, low self-esteem, and depressed mood may result. To think rightly about the body, it seems younger women, should adopt the same type of wise mindset towards their bodies older women express.


Were younger adult women to learn from the approach of acceptance in older women, perhaps the experience of a negative body image would lessen and lead to greater quality of life - one where happiness and contentment do not revolve around the pursuit of adhering to a physical ideal.


Easier said than done, right? Trust me, I get it. Women of all ages struggle with body image. But in the midst of a stressful, physical transition like menopause, cling to solid truths. These will become a refuge and produce thoughts to fuel a right body image that glorifies God.


Here are some truths to hold onto...

- God designed the female body to experience menopause.

- It is a natural occurrence. Not one to be ashamed of or apologized for.

- Your physical body does not define you.

- Assessing the value of your body from a sense of lack or inability is not helpful to you, nor does it honor the Lord.

- Give yourself grace. Be patient during this once-in-a-lifetime season, which God lovingly intended as part of your embodied experience as a woman.


Finally, rather than focusing on the ways your body is different, fight to ask questions like…

- How can I honor the Lord in this season of life?

- Am I thinking in ways that disparage my body during menopause?

- How should I respond to these bodily changes?

- Is menopause revealing that my body is more important to me than it ought to be?


I pray something in this post was helpful. In this season, I hope you will strive to live out the command for all believers in 1 Corinthians 6:20 and glorify God in your body...even in your menopausal body.