Misfitting At A Certain Age

This week, Shakes Sis’ posted about the moving story of a young woman who chooses mental health over thinness. The only antipsychotic found to be effective has the side effect of considerable weight gain. She is fine with this; apparently, though, her caregivers aren’t. Surely no young woman would willingly gain weight, they ponder. So mired are they in the landfill of popular culture and its narrow definitions of beauty, they can’t see the deranged absurdity of what they’re suggesting, namely, that it’s somehow better to be frighteningly ill than fat.

As is usually the case when the topics of discussion involve weight, body image, and self-esteem, a good deal of poignant and powerful language ensued. Clearly, many of us have profound issues in the image department; in my case, as I wrote to Sis, I struggle with a double-whammy: specifically, the wrinkles and other signs of aging that have made an appearance over the last decade, and the dysmorphic view of my body that took shape, so to speak, over the past three decades, during which time assorted influential voices chimed in with criticisms ranging from blunt to baseless to downright cruel. The sharp words of a ballet mistress: You have nice long limbs but that’s quite a tummy there. The well-meaning but nonetheless wounding reproach of my mother when our bathroom scales told her I was hitting puberty with gusto. The constant drumbeat of peer chatter that always revolved around who looked fat, who looked thin, and how, by following the diet of the moment conveniently and aromatically printed in purple on mimeo sheets—remember those?—the former group could transform themselves into the latter and vastly improve their chances of being asked to the prom. The rollercoaster ride of approval—You got the job!—then disapproval—You’re too fat for this job!—and conditional approval—We want you for this job if you can lose ten pounds in the next two weeks!—that characterized my life as a college student who earned her spending money serving as a fashion and product mannequin by day and serving cocktails by night. And of course, the commentary of boyfriends: I like thin women, okay? That’s just the way I am. (Oh, they were all so original…).

As a woman of a certain age—all right then, 45—I suppose I am, in some ways, a tiny bit more philosophical about my appearance these days. Yes, I know it’s shallow and small-minded to care about one’s image when the world is in such disarray (but tell that to the huge group of disadvantaged Russian women who, upon receiving Oprah’s gifts—little purses containing lipstick and cash—were more excited about the lipstick than the money or the purse). Yes, I am enormously grateful for good health, for extraordinary children, and for the husband who loves me, despite the fact that younger, prettier women with those firm, “no-baby bodies” are on constant display here in the Sunshine State. But I’d be lying if I said I ever actually felt completely, utterly beautiful, if I said there was even a single time I could state, There is nothing at all I would change; I am just fine the way I am.

Still, there may be hope on the horizon. As HuffPo contributor Danny Miller opines:

I have always loved Liv Ullmann and of course I always thought she was extremely beautiful--who didn't? But seeing her in Saraband at the age of 66, I could not tear my eyes away. How sick is it that I'm so used to actresses d'un certain âge doing anything in their power to look younger than their years that seeing Liv Ullmann's lined face and aging skin nearly took my breath away? So that's what it looks like!

Oh, how grateful I am that this brilliant actress has never gone under the knife and transformed herself into one of those taut-skinned wrinkle-free cat-eyed robots with tattooed lip liner, teeth as unnaturally white as her patent leather Manolo Blahniks, and casaba melons stuffed down her Danskin.

I’m not quite there yet. The truth is, there are quite a few things I’d change if pain, expense, and downtime weren’t issues. The collapsed-souffle tummy, for example, something I joke about publicly—Three strapping young males lived here, one after the other, and they left the place a mess!—and cry about privately, usually in dressing rooms clogged with towering piles of swimsuit rejects. Or the lines on the sides of my mouth, the softening jawline, and the annoyingly papery skin around my eyes that truly looks its scariest after the aforementioned crying session, inspiring the purchase of yet another pair of massive dark sunglasses when what I really wanted was a bikini.

I think it's fair to say there's no one culprit, no one person, place, or thing to blame for someone having a low self-image: it's a complicated situation, a nasty compendium of influences and pressures that's at fault. And the long-term effects of this long-term barrage of Younger+Thinner=Better messages can include, as in my case, eating disorders, depression, and pathological insecurity.

Hollywood’s ridiculous standards of beauty aside, the talking heads and magazines alike spew a great line of bullshit, don’t they? Forty is the new thirty. And Fifty is even better!. Which is true enough, I suppose, if you define “better” as Your kids are all finally old enough to fasten their own seat belts and pee into the toilet as opposed to everywhere else. But really, whom are they kidding with these magazines featuring women they’ve deemed Fabulous at Any Age! Then there is The Shape Issue: Fashion for Tall, Short, Curvy, and Thin Women. You flick through the pages while you’re waiting to pay for the skim milk and Special K, and lo and behold, there’s Madonna (the token Mature Woman who can afford the world’s best personal trainers and chefs), Uma Thurman (token curvy woman because she has somewhat-larger-than-normal and probably real breasts), and diminutive ice skater Sasha Cohen (the token short woman who admits, if you read far enough into the article, that she solves her fashion dilemma by shopping in the children’s department).

And lastly, there’s that new crop of magazines aimed at us, the Women of a Certain Age. As if seeing the stunning model Paulina Porizkova on the cover of More—at the ripe age of 39, I might add—will suddenly make me okay with the crumpled stranger who keeps looking back at me from the medicine cabinet mirror every damned morning. As if the women within—almost all of whom are reed-slim—aren’t photographed with the best possible lighting and made-up by the industry’s most talented artists, their (sometimes) graying hair styled just so. As if it doesn’t escape my notice that while these magazines’ editorial message is all Getting Older is Wonderful, their commercial content says something else entirely: Take these hormones; swallow these diet pills; slap on this hair dye; mortgage your house and buy this amazing eye cream distilled from mountain goats’ placentas. If it’s not tissue-supporting or metabolism-enhancing, it’s simply anti-aging. Which is, after all, what we’re all supposed to be, right? Against aging? Which begs the question: logically, wouldn’t the opposite of getting older be…er…not getting older?

I, too, think Liv Ullman is (and always was) utterly gorgeous. My childhood idol was Dame Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina who was most certainly A Certain Age during the prime of her amazing career—who, in fact, wore out quite a few much-younger male partners. And I can name dozens and dozens of women, famous and not, who are truly curvy or truly older—or both—who are truly beautiful. It’s just impossible to count myself among them, to look at myself in the mirror and react with something other than criticism. I wish it were not so.

The most beautiful among us are those who carry themselves with pride, radiating confidence and power. As one commenter here noted, they walk in and immediately own the room. How I envy women who have that security, because if that itself is not the definition of beauty—self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-love, I mean—what is?

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