Last summer, I was walking the dog around my neighbourhood. It was one of those sweltering, 38-degree days in downtown Toronto, a day to swathe yourself in linen and hope no one notices the rivulets of sweat streaming down the back of your legs.
At the park, flesh was on full display. Everywhere I looked, there were young women lounging and laughing, unbothered by the heat. Some were sunbathing in string bikinis; some were playing softball; some were sprawled on picnic blankets, swigging beer from tall cans.
What struck me most, though, was their ease. Jiggling thighs, boobs spilling out of bra tops, clingy short shorts—in their many-sized bodies, these young women seemed to move so comfortably through the world. Cellulite, big butts, belly rolls? The more cropped the top, the better! Body positivity was writ large across the grass, and suddenly I was hit with a wave of envy.
At 50, I’m still mercilessly self-critical, still struggling against the voice in my head that tells me I’d be way hotter if only I lost a few pounds. I want what those young women at the park have. But why is body positivity so hard to find for women my age?
“I don’t expect to see my personal body package reflected in the media anytime soon”
As someone whose sense of confidence was shaped (badly) by the fatphobic ’80s and ’90s, I’m thrilled that the body positivity movement has grown so much over the past several years. Led by a critical mass of activists, social media influencers, creatives and changemakers, the current BoPo movement seems to have finally driven brands towards greater size inclusivity and representation.
But as much as I love to see the ongoing success of body positivity icons like Precious Lee, Ashley Graham, Enam Asiama, Nadia Aboulhosn and Barbie Ferreira, I can’t help but wonder where my over-40 ladies are at. I decide to reach out to a couple of wise, size-aware friends to see if I’m alone in this observation. Apparently not.
“I think some clothing lines are getting better at taking pictures of models of varying sizes, but they’re all very young and tight,” remarks my pal Amanda, an occupational therapist and plus-size dancer. “I’ve never seen an older plus-size model in any realm—not in the media, not on television, not in the movies. I don’t know if [businesses] realize what a big market we are!”
I email Anastasia, an elementary school teacher I’ve known since we were teens, to ask if she’s noticed, too.
“For the first 40 years of my life, I failed to see anyone who looked remotely like me in ads or print media—no one was short, no one was dark brown, no one had huge boobs,” she writes back. “It would be absurd for me to add ‘over 50’ to that list. I don’t expect to see my personal body package reflected in the media anytime soon.”
It seems that inclusivity has its limits. Fashion brands like Knix, Cuup and Universal Standard are built on the notion that they’re for everyone, but their campaigns rarely include middle-aged women—and if they’re present at all, they’re generally conventionally beautiful, rail-thin and white.
“My impression is that the media is better at representing women of different sizes than including imagery of older women,” says Samantha Brennan, dean of the College of Arts and professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, co-founder of the feminist fitness blog Fit is a Feminist Issue and co-author of Fit at Mid-life: A Feminist Fitness Journey. “Ditto women of a range of races and ethnicities…but [it] rarely puts these things together.”
I reach out to Louise Green, the Vancouver-based fitness professional and powerhouse behind Big Fit Girl and the Size Inclusive Training Academy, an online program that trains, certifies and supports fitness professionals of all weights, shapes and sizes. I ask if she thinks brands are ready to embrace middle-aged women in all our size diversity. She’s skeptical.
“I think brands ‘doing’ inclusivity are still playing it pretty safe,” Green says. “We’re still looking at the hourglass size 14 or 18 woman. We’re not looking at the woman who is a size 26 or 30—that would be erring on the side of dangerous for the brand’s culture. The same thing goes for age. What if we had someone who was, like, 57, a person of colour, 285 pounds? Brands just wouldn’t take the risk.”
Another wrinkle: pro-aging, still fatphobic
Perhaps it’s no surprise that “inclusive” brands targeted at a younger demographic don’t represent midlife women in a way that feels…well, inclusive. But as I comb the internet, I make another discovery: many influencers who claim to embrace aging are also deeply invested in diet culture.
Suzie Grant, the British dietitian behind @alternativeageing on Instagram, espouses “positive ageing” while blogging about the meal replacement smoothie that helped eliminate her “middle-aged spread.” Women’s hormonal health specialist Dr. Aviva Romm mixes her ‘Yasss, menopausal queen!’ refrain with a restrictive “hormone intelligence” diet plan that promises increased energy, better sleep, a hotter sex life and—you guessed it—a lither body.
“At this time of life, that message is [always] there,” says Green. “‘How to get rid of stubborn belly fat! Your body is not performing or looking the way it should!’”
The net effect of all this weight-loss messaging (wrapped in age-positive packaging) is to heighten our insecurities at a time when hormones are shifting, bodies are changing, and many of us feel extremely vulnerable. There’s also the fact that at midlife, when new health concerns may come to the fore, we’re more susceptible to the message that our bodies are problematic and need fixing. I have no objection to aiming for a healthier lifestyle and habits—hell, I’d like my sore, middle-aged bod to feel better, too—but I’m annoyed that losing weight is presented as a cure-all.
“It’s hard because of the cultural obsession with menopausal weight gain and the fear that our aging bodies will render us invisible, unacceptable and unattractive,” says Tracy Isaacs, a professor of philosophy at Western University and the co-creator, with Brennan, of Fit is a Feminist Issue and Fit at Mid-life. “When we’re surrounded by messaging that reinforces the idea that we need to do something about it, it requires great strength to maintain an alternative attitude.”
Isaacs points out that a few middle-aged celebs are having a moment: Nicole Kidman with her biceps and Miu Miu micromini on the cover of Vanity Fair, Jennifer Aniston in Allure in the teensiest of Chanel bikinis, Gwyneth Paltrow on Instagram, wearing nothing but gold body paint to celebrate her 50th birthday, Jennifer Lopez in…well, just about every outfit she rocks. But this kind of celebration is a double-edged sword.
“Celebrating women in their 50s by focusing on their ability to still conform to the youthful, feminine aesthetic ideal of thin, lean bodies that look good naked or in bikinis—it’s as though aging well means doing everything we can NOT to age, or to appear as if we aren’t aging,” Isaacs says.
Inspiration, subversion, and DIY happiness
So what’s a middle-aged, body-ambivalent, desperately-seeking-inspiration babe to do?
For Brennan and Isaacs, the secret is to focus not on how the body looks, but on how it can be used to support a happy, active life.
“I’m focused on the long haul, being able to stay active as long as I can,” says Brennan. “Physical activity like hiking and biking is a great source of joy in my life, and I want to make sure it’s part of my life for as long as possible.”
Isaacs mentions body neutrality, an approach that aims for acceptance rather than all positivity, all the time.
“If I can be neutral and not negative towards my body as it is today, then I feel as if I’ve freed myself from oppressive expectations,” she says. “I’m focused on functional fitness, maintaining strength, endurance and flexibility enough to do what I enjoy, like travel and photography. And I’m still open to trying new things.”
Then I discover Michelle Osbourne, a 48-year-old Quebec City-based activist, social entrepreneur and creator of butt-shaking, smile-inducing Instagram Reels and TikToks. Like me, Osbourne noticed the lack of representation of body positive middle-aged women online. Unlike me, she did something about it.
“Representation of bigger middle-aged women in media is almost non-existent, even less so for someone queer like me,” she points out. “I’ve titled myself ‘CEO of Giving Zero Fux’ and through my platform and content, I encourage others to do the same.”
Osbourne is a fan of body neutrality, too.
“I feel a lot more at peace with my body now that I’m not thinking of it as a decorative piece for people to judge and/or admire,” she says. “At this stage of my life, my focus is on feeling good and having fun in this package that I’ve been given.”
Giving zero fucks, feeling good and having fun might be my new midlife rallying cry—which brings me back to my local park.
In October, I was out for a morning walk when I noticed a woman, probably early 60s, dancing beside the baseball diamond. She was intently focused on a laptop balanced on the bleachers, and she was lunging, shimmying, and waving her hands in the air. She wore leggings and a thick fleece headband. She was not terribly coordinated. It was a glorious sight.
As I walked on, I had a revelation. This woman was probably not on social media, and it didn’t matter. She was all about wild solo dance moves in the early fall sunshine, the rhythm of tinny salsa music, the leaves just starting to change colour. Maybe midlife inspiration had been there all along. I just needed to find it.