Older physically active women's perceptions and experiences of body self-compassion


The physical realities of growing older such as grey hair, sagging skin, weight gain, and wrinkles negatively influence the body image and identities of older women (Hurd Clarke, 2010). As such, self-compassion (Neff, 2003) may assist older women in managing their aging body related experiences. A hermeneutic phenomenological analysis of a series of semi-structured interviews with 21 women (42 interviews) aged 65 to 94 was employed to investigate the lived experience of body image and self-compassion in later life. Findings revealed that women experienced a sense of freedom in late life, as they no longer felt pressure to appear feminine, which they equated with the ability to be sexually attractive to the male, masculine other. However, participants simultaneously expressed disappointment and frustration as they perceived to no longer be able to conform to the young, thin, and physically active cultural female ideal. This ambivalence fostered self-criticism, self-doubt, and feelings of isolation, often rendering self-compassion for the aging body difficult and idealistic. At the same time, some women perceived that their embodiment of self-compassion enabled them to manage the inevitable age-related physical and social declines. Others, however, perceived that being critical of their body's appearance and function kept them motivated to be physically and socially active. The participants resisted self-compassion as they feared it would render them complacent and act as a barrier to their ability to stave off the aging process. Findings will be considered in relation to the extant literature on aging, body image, physical activity, and self-compassion.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.