Darcy Halvorsen feels her confidence increase as her weight decreases.
In six months, the 42-year-old Cape Elizabeth resident has dropped 30 pounds, and vows to lose another 30 to reach her goal.
“I have more energy and more motivation: I know that I can do it. I’ve never felt this way before and I really like it,” Halvorsen said. “I like myself more that I ever did.”
Halvorsen not only feels and looks better, she also believes her weight loss has helped her relationships with others.
“My interactions with people have changed since I lost weight. Acquaintances have noticed and compliment me. My good friends applaud and cheer for me.”
Whether we want to admit it or not, appearances matter in society, especially when it comes to women. How people present themselves makes a difference in daily interactions. First impressions influence decisions.
Of course, there also are a lot of stereotypes when it comes to the female body image, sending the wrong message to girls and women – equating thinness and youth with success and happiness.
“Body image stuff starts young,” said Jennifer Fowler-Greaves, a therapist with Healing Connections Counseling in Portland. “Girls as young as 8 often start to become aware of their weight and looks. We have a culture where we cannot even go to the grocery store without seeing the latest diet or who has cellulite”
That hyper-focus on appearance, especially in females, is most apparent in the meda and celebrity culture, said Fowler-Greaves, noting that Us magazine in each issue rates women wearing the same outfit on who looks the most attractive.
“We’re a ‘lookist’ society, and there are a lot of messages that we should be thin. We need to really question those standards.’’
Fowler-Greaves notes that women may still have an unhealthy body image even after losing weight, because of implicit messages that “we are never good enough.”
Halvorsen said that, at middle age, her quest to lose weight reflects a healthier and more positive attitude she has about herself after becoming depressed and gaining a lot of weight 10 years ago.
Halvorsen, a caregiver for the elderly, said that her weight steadily increased until she had to make a change or risk affecting her health.
“I knew that if I didn’t get serious about eating healthy, my fitness routine and becoming much more active on a daily basis, I never would,” she said.
So far, Halvorsen is pleased by her success, saying her new focus on nutrition and exercise reflects the growing confidence she has in herself.
Experts caution that there’s a delicate balance between trying to stay trim and obsessing over appearance, especially as the media bombard Americans with images of female bodies that are unattainable for most women and do not represent the norm.
MaryAnn Molloy, who owns Healthy Body, Fit Mind, deals with clients daily to help them adjust their attitude and redefine goals.
Molloy specializes in working with bariatric patients, morbidly obese clients who must lose weight to be considered patients for weight-loss surgery. Often the surgeries are considered not just a lifestyle change but life saving for patients who suffer from complications, like diabetes and high blood pressure.
“I try to emphasize with people that every day is a new day, and that it’s most important how you feel, not how you look,” said Molloy, who works with clients on weight loss and nutrition. “You have to believe in yourself and have the right kind of positive support system for long term success.”
Molloy believes that body image and happiness are connected, especially in the minds of women.
“It really takes a lot of effort to get women to not focus on the weight. Often, the fact that they feel better and are healthier is still overshadowed by the ‘if I only I could get to a certain weight’ or ‘when I get to that weight.’
“Even some women who appear to be in relatively good shape and not overweight
always have that extra 5 or 10 pounds to lose in their minds. You don’t often hear men say, ‘If I could just lose 10 more pounds.’ ’’
Molloy, who is in her early 50s, says it has surprised her somewhat that many women still obsess over body weight and appearance well into their 60s.
“I routinely deal with older women who are successful yet still beat themselves up about how they look,” she said. “It’s a sad reflection on how society values women. Maybe that is changing for younger generations, hopefully.”
The obsession is not surprising. Gaining weight and getting older carry a lot of negative stereotypes. People who are overweight may be seen as slow, slovenly, greedy. Older women may be viewed as unhealthy, asexual and ineffective.
Battling those myths and working toward a healthy lifestyle are key, Molloy said.
Keeping weight off becomes much harder for women as they age. Molloy noted that many variables affect how a woman’s body changes at she reaches menopause.
“The combination of hormonal shifts, metabolism slowing down, less activity and stress can play havoc on the bodies of middle-aged women,” she said.
“To stay healthy, women need to find ways to manage the stress they can control and make time for themselves to exercise regularly – even for 20 minutes a day – and sleep and eat well.”
Molloy does not believe in elimination diets and instead focuses on a balance of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates, in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. She also advises clients to “stay away from the empty calories in alcohol.”
Molly MacAuslan, 51, of Cape Elizabeth has embraced an active and healthy lifestyle as she ages. She exercises regularly and is not afraid to try new workouts, from running to kickboxing.
“I’m less critical and definitely more accepting of my body than I ever have been. I almost feel like I’ve finally arrived where I’m supposed to be in this body without worrying about body image stuff,” said MacAuslan, a full-time mother and part-time student.
She admits to being more selective about clothing to accent her best features. She looks for and wears clothing that fits her age and lifestyle, such as the label Not Your Daughter’s Jeans, which she buys online through Zappos.com
Molloy also is careful to advise her two daughters to keep active and have a healthy mind and body.
“I tell them to take good care of their bodies. Exercise every day and eat healthy food and enjoy other goodies, too – chocolate, for example,” she said. “I advise them to do everything in moderation: no extremes with eating (or not eating) and no extremes with exercise, either.”
Fowler-Greaves recommends that women take some basic steps, such as joining group exercise classes or organized sports specifically designed for women, like Zumba or belly dancing. She believes these feminine activities not only are great activities, but also help women develop a healthier view of their physical selves.
“They can be fun and really empowering at the same time,” she said.
Darcy Halvorsen, left, stands with Jennifer DeChant, center, and Pam Fenrich. The photo was taken before Halvorsen started exercising regularly and lost weight. Darcy Halvorsen, 42, says she regained confidence since losing weight she had gained while suffering depression several years ago.