Dietitians Unplugged Talk Getting Older with Michelle Vina-Baltsas

DU + Michelle VBI have grey hair. Not a lot. Just some right now. There will in all likelihood be more down the road. This aging thing doesn’t go in reverse, Benjamin Button style.

When I was younger, I always thought I’d dye my hair. My grandmother did, until she was very old and couldn’t make it to the hairdresser anymore. My mother did too, until she got sick enough to no longer think about the dreaded roots (amazingly, only the last couple months of her life; and I think she still probably thought about her roots).

I thought there was no other option than to dye your hair because grey hair was simply to ghastly to be allowed to run unchecked on one’s head. If one’s head belonged to a female, at least.

Until one day I figured out there wasn’t just one option, which was to “hide” grey and pretend like it just wasn’t happening. If I no longer believed in societal beauty ideals, there were suddenly multiple options! I could let my hair get grey. I could shave it off. I could dye it not to hide it, but to bring attention to it, in unicorn pink-blue-purple! I could do whatever the fuck I wanted with it. That’s at least four more options right there.

I chose going grey, mostly because I’m lazy, but also because, as it came in, I kind of liked it. I liked it a lot, actually, once I decided that I’d see it as 1. simply another hair color that I was going to get to experience without having to do a lick of work 2. a way to buck patriarchal beauty rules that weren’t providing me with any real power, and 2. a symbol that I wasn’t afraid to get older  — that in fact, I was going to own the hell out of getting older.

It hasn’t always been easy. As I dropped quickly and dramatically out of thin-and-acceptably-young-and-cute and deep into pudgy-grey-and-middle-aged, I noticed how people changed in reaction to me. Because I slipped out of the realm of fuckability in many people’s men’s eyes, it’s gotten harder to have my opinion heard around them. This would be a much bigger problem if I worked in a male-dominated profession, which thankfully I don’t anymore (frankly it was already hard enough to have my opinion heard by male co-workers and managers at any age); but not everyone has this luxury.

Anyway, I’ve thought about this stuff a lot as I’ve witnessed myself going from young-hot-mess (20s) to confused-but-getting-there (30s) to mature-and-on-a-mission (40s at the moment). I like me now better than me then. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still suffer the indignities of aging in a society that is distinctly anti-aging for women.

That’s why we got my friend and fellow middle-ager Michelle Vina-Baltsas on the line to chat with the Dietitians Unplugged. Aging affects our body image in a profound way, and it needs some processing. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as we enjoyed having it.

Show notes: we referenced this awesome article a few times.

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No Duh: Bodies Change

Your body will change. But apparently your dress style doesn’t have to.

The concept of bodies changing throughout a lifetime really does belong under the category of No Shit, Sherlock. We all understand this logically and intellectually, and most of us probably aren’t going around saying, “I’m going to have this fantastic 27 year old body for the rest of my life!” And yet, over the years I’ve heard many women AND men bemoan their changing bodies once they start to get older. “My [belly, hips, thighs, butt, arms] are getting [bigger, wobbly, saggy, poochy] – and they NEVER used to do THAT!” To be fair, I was once included in this group of complainers that I like to call everybody.

We live in a time that is positively phobic about aging (and maybe there was never a time where this wasn’t true for women, I honestly don’t know). Women are encouraged to “fight” the “signs of age” and now even men are increasingly expected to retain the taut physique of their youth. But bodies do change over the course of a lifetime. So why are we so damn freaked out when it actually happens?

Recently a gorgeous friend of mine lamented that all her pants had become too tight and she didn’t want to buy new ones. She’s a very healthy eater and regular exerciser, but she had just turned 30, so maybe things are starting to…shift. I recalled that right around the time I turned 32, my body, which had maintained its relative thinness for 9 years, also began to change. While my weight remained the same, there was some…sagging. Some pooching about the waist. Some poufing of the hips. I can guarantee you no one else noticed this but me. That’s okay, I noticed it enough for everyone. I decided to “fix” this “problem” of my maturing body with more dieting, more exercise and much more misery. You know how the rest of the story goes.

Now that I’ve had time to contemplate the ridiculous rules of the world, I haven’t got a clue why we are so determined to stave off age; after all, I was a mess in my 20s and much of my 30s (a fun mess, but a mess nonetheless), I struggled professionally in unsatisfying jobs, and in general nobody seemed to be rewarding me for my dewy youth. I have learned so much about becoming a better human in the past 20 years that I wouldn’t trade all my hard-won self-confidence and knowledge for a smaller waist or less saggy face. Those things wouldn’t mean I hadn’t gotten older anyway.

After I gained back all of my weight, I weighed as much as I did when I was 22 (before dieting). But I’m 44 now and my body is much different. I’m more muscular in some areas (probably from exercising) but my stomach is a fatter and for the first time in my life I have hips. Some of the changes in body composition might be from dieting (one theory is that we lose muscle mass which is then replaced with fat, a much better energy storage unit), but I suspect a lot of it is related to aging as well. The number-one complaint from my beloved middle-aged-lady friends is about their stomachs. Women’s stomachs get fatter over time because as estrogen production from the ovaries decreases, fat migrates to the stomach. The reason for this isn’t abundantly clear, but it may be because belly fat produces estrogen. If I had to guess, increasing belly fat after menopause most likely has a protective effect, but currently our fatphobic society focuses only on how to get rid of it (don’t do an internet search on this topic if you want to save your sanity points).

Back to my friend and her dilemma. I asked her, “So what will you do about your tight pants?”

“I’m going to try to exercise more,” she said.

“And if that doesn’t work?”

She paused and then sighed a little. “I guess I’ll have to buy new pants.”

And that’s the moral of the story: our bodies are going to change, and eventually you are going to have to buy new pants. You can do all sorts of crazy things to manipulate your body, or you can just buy some new pants, learn to appreciate all your body has done for you, and then work on the parts of you that really do get better with age: achieving wisdom, intelligence, kindness and happiness.