“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
~ Sophia Loren
Sophia Loren, internationally celebrated actress known for her iconic beauty; wife and widow of the love of her life, movie director Carlo Ponti; mother and grandmother, sister and daughter — celebrated her 78th birthday on September 20th. Her acting career, spanning more than six decades, includes an impressive range of films: the classic, award-winning drama, “Two Women” (1960), in which she portrays a mother surviving the perils of WW II with her pre-adolescent daughter in the war-torn Italian countryside; and later comedic roles such as a five-times-divorced restaurateuse in “Grumpier Old Men” (1995) with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
Watching Sophia Loren, graceful and glamorous on the silver screen, one would never suspect that she experienced significant early family disruption and loss, poverty and trauma during wartime Italy, including a shrapnel injury on her chin as she ran for safety in one of many sorties to bomb the munitions manufacturing town in which she lived. After the war, Ms. Loren entered a beauty contest at age 14, where her future husband was one of the judges. Although she did not win the contest, she won the heart of her future husband and the opportunity to launch her acting career. And so a star was born!
Fast forward six decades, from promising starlet to seasoned actress; from World War II survivor to sage septuagenarian whose remarkable career and words of wisdom exemplify her triumph over societal stereotypes about women and aging. How shall we make use of her thought-provoking reflections to empower girls and women to take good care of and feel satisfied with themselves and their bodies over the lifespan, despite living within a culture that privileges youth and devalues older people?
Constricting cultural stereotypes affect body image for girls and women
We have all experienced the negative effects of constricting stereotypes that define acceptable roles, and what body type is desirable and beautiful for girls and women in the journey from youth to maturity. We have all been exposed throughout our lives to familiar stereotypes of the lithe and lovely, well-appointed super-model, and the wrinkled, disagreeable crone – defined as a woman over 40!!
Societal expectations and stereotypes are communicated at the earliest age through children’s stories, film and other media, for example, the roles modeled by Disney princess characters and their relationships with family and suitors as depicted in these popular “kids’ movies”— with further reinforcement provided by the sale of ‘princess’ products.
Ubiquitous media exposure during formative years of childhood and adolescence to sexualized film, television, and magazine images in which very attractive, youthful women are used as marketing props to sell everything from cars to tropical vacations, inevitably shapes attitudes and values throughout the life span about women’s roles and bodies. These subtle and not so subtle ads powerfully affect what and whom we perceive to be desired and desirable, and profoundly influence self-concept, body image and self-confidence during childhood and adolescence and throughout a woman’s life.
Media exposure on the rise for children and teens
A longitudinal study (1999, 2004, 2009) conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation*, found that on average, 8-18-year-olds have an ever-increasing 7½ – 11 hours per day of media exposure— TV, videos, videogames, internet, cell and smart phone texting and music— often multi-tasking media with other activities such as eating, walking and studying. Black and Hispanic children consume on average nearly 4½ more hours of media per day than White children. Even by age six, 80% of children are watching an average of two hours of TV or other “screen media” per day. We all know how sedentary many media activities can be. Media exposure to sexual and violent content as well as how girls and women are depicted in movies and in virtual games remain a cause for great concern.
Aging begins immediately after birth and lasts a lifetime
Attitudes and values about growing old are influenced by our cultural experiences as well as by our genetic inheritance which then positively and negatively affects health outcomes between cradle and grave. Even when disability and disease arise, it is never too late to start making more healthy choices and lifestyle changes.
One of the most important decisions girls and women can make at any age is to view aging as a natural process, and to respect and value her own body.
Here are some practical tips on how to begin:
- Take a moment to assess your present functioning and routines regarding breathing, sleeping, appetites, physical activity and relationships. Are you doing well or struggling in any of these areas?
- Make a list of internal and external strengths and resources that you can access to assist with any changes you wish to make.
- Set down priorities and steps to start implementing better choices. Be proactive in taking care of any physical or emotional health concerns.
- Seek and maintain healthy friendships with people of all ages having similar and different interests.
- Make playfulness, physical, mental and emotional health a priority instead of a postscript. Physical activity combined with fun activities makes your mind and body strong, enhances how you feel, and keeps you young at heart.
Discovering the Fountain of Youth
And so it appears that looking outside oneself for a road map to the fountain of youth leads to a cul-de-sac! Success actually depends on looking inside for the lantern you need to illuminate your path to this desired destination. Remaining physically and mentally active, emotionally healthy and engaged with family, friends and co-workers, while developing satisfying work and creative interests, provides the necessary abundant reserve you need to discover the fountain and enjoy the elixir of life!
* Kaiser Family Foundation study link: www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia012010nr.cfm