Natalie Sabik: Piecing together how women view their bodies, and why

By Susan Rosegrant
April 2013

Natalie Sabik is the winner of the 2012-2013 Elizabeth Douvan Junior Scholar Fund in Life Course Development

Natalie Sabik, Photo courtesy of Natalie Sabik

When Natalie Sabik went to Ohio State University as a freshman in 2000, it didn’t take her long to notice she was different. While Sabik was comfortable in her own skin, most of the women around her were dieting or talking about dieting; exercising to lose weight; and bemoaning the size and shape of their stomachs, thighs, and other body parts. “I looked around and could not understand how so many women could dislike something as fundamental as their bodies,” Sabik recalls. “I wanted to understand where those messages were coming from, how they were being internalized, and what we might do to interrupt or change them.”

Sabik began tackling issues of body image in her psychology and women’s studies courses, and soon developed her own research question: Are college-age women who self-identify as feminists less likely to dislike their bodies? With the support of faculty mentor Tracy Tylka, Sabik collected and analyzed her own data, and the two published an article. Their findings: Women who consider themselves to be feminists and who are critical of how women’s bodies are portrayed in the media have lower levels of eating disorders and body shame.

Sabik’s hunger to deepen that research eventually landed her in a joint Ph.D. program in psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. It didn’t take Sabik long to spot a hole in the literature; there were plenty of studies examining body image among young women, but almost none looking at older women. “This really surprised me, because the aging process has a lot to do with changes happening in your body and how you negotiate and perceive those,” she says. For her dissertation, Sabik decided to explore how older women perceive their bodies and how that affects their health and wellbeing. She also wanted to see if there were racial differences between her two samples—one made up primarily of white women living in Ann Arbor and one of African-American women living in the Detroit area. All the women were over the age of 65, and the average age for the sample was between 75 and 80.

What Sabik learned surprised her. Unlike young women, the 260 older women she studied said they cared less about what their bodies looked like and more about how well they functioned. They were also less satisfied with function than appearance. In addition, women who were less satisfied with the function of their bodies were more likely to be depressed, but there was no such correlation between appearance and depression. These broad patterns were true for both white and Black women, although African Americans were somewhat more satisfied with their bodies overall.

Older women in fitness clothes. Photo by Thinkstock.

Photo by Thinkstock

So have older women simply come to terms with their appearances or stopped caring? It’s not that simple, Sabik says. If she had posed similar questions in the context of social interactions, for example, the results might have differed. Also, she says, the pattern might reflect selective optimization and compensation—the theory that older adults selectively optimize the things they still do well in order to compensate for areas where they’re experiencing loss or decline. “It’s not like older women just wake up one day and completely stop caring about how they look,” she says. “It might be a coping mechanism or a way that older women are dealing with bodily changes.”

Sabik successfully defended her dissertation in May 2012, and now lives with her husband—a communications professional and avid organic gardener—in the Boston area. Sabik is doing postdoctoral research at Brandeis, and using the grant she received as a Douvan Junior Scholar to develop her dissertation research and present it at workshops and conferences. “It is so incredibly wonderful to have received this grant,” she says. “It showed that other people recognize that we need more information about body image and older women.” Sabik also makes and sells modern quilts, a craft she took up two years ago. “It’s my big creative endeavor, and a great way to use other parts of my brain.”

Natalie Sabik: Piecing together how women view their bodies, and why