One of the peculiarities of being an older mother is that your children see your younger self as a stranger. Any photograph in which I appear chic or sexy or simply young elicits the same stunned response from my 26-year-old daughter: “Is that you?” She can’t picture me actually wearing the hip ’60s clothing that I pull out to impress her, especially since I can’t even get any of it over my head now.
Recently I came upon one of those photos — me in my first bikini, in the early 60s. “Is that you?” she asked, incredulous. “Hey, I look pretty good,” I said (to myself), equally incredulous. That thought lasted about two seconds, until I remembered that when that picture was taken, I was disgusted with how fat and bulky I believed I was. Then I realized that I feel the same way today. Fat and bulky. Plus wrinkled and saggy.
What a waste, I thought, to have missed out on the pleasure of feeling good about my appearance because I didn’t look like someone else. Young women like me were intimidated by the idealized body type we saw everywhere around us — in magazines, advertisements, movies — though rarely in the flesh. (There is some consolation in the certitude that those same models and celebrities we could never measure up to are sagging now, too.)
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It is just as much of a waste feeling ashamed of my body today. In many ways we are still comparing ourselves to celebrities and models. But ironically, we are also comparing our bodies to what they were back when we didn’t appreciate them: At least our skin was smooth, our butts were round and we had waists!
The truth is that we don’t look as good. Like many other facts we have to accept about aging, this one is what it is. It’s time to let go of the lifelong fantasy of a more perfect body. There’s an advantage to moving beyond that, though; the pressure is finally off. When it comes to sex, for example, women are discovering that, under the cover of darkness if need be, they can explore new dimensions of their sexuality. The shift is from how we look and how we feel about how we look to how we feel — in our bodies.
From that perspective there is a lot we can do. For one thing, we can tend to our working parts by getting into (better) shape. Like many of my contemporaries, I’m a late bloomer in that department. I work with a trainer, and we laugh about the fact that I used to look firm but was nothing but mushy abs and non-existent biceps. Now, I’m proud to say, it’s the reverse. “I’m focusing on ‘fit’ now as opposed to ‘fat,’” a friend told me. “I may not look as glamorous, but I can lift my suitcase into the overhead compartment on an airplane. I get real satisfaction out of feeling strong.” It might be helpful to think about this: An athlete who has trained her whole life will lose ground as she ages, but a woman who starts building her strength at midlife will see real progress.
Another important shift is from having low self-esteem about our looks to feeling empowered by what that body can do. We can learn about cultivating that feeling from younger women. The next generations still have major problems with the outside — models and movie stars haven’t changed shape since my time, and the plague of eating disorders persists. But they have experienced one transformative cultural shift: They grew up appreciating physical power and competition. And they have role models (performers, like Queen Latifah, and Olympic athletes who became stars), who would have been considered “bulky” in my day to admire. That is a huge step forward.
Forty years ago, most young women regarded gym class as something to get out of (which you could do if you had your period). Title IX, the 1972 legislation that required any educational institution that receives government financing to equalize opportunities for girls and boys, changed everything. In short order, girls forced their way into Little League, girls' soccer took off big time, and female college varsity teams became serious business, with early-morning practices and national tournaments. Girls began paying attention to their athletic peers. Strong arms and legs and abs became an admired goal for women of all ages, who flocked to join the health clubs that proliferated and pushed themselves to take on major challenges, like marathons.
By the time my daughter was of an age to be appraising her body, athleticism had become a source of pride. Sadly, fitness does not insulate her from feeling “fat” simply because she isn’t model-thin. I long for the day when a young woman who looked like me in that bikini will see herself in a photograph and say, “Hey, I look pretty good” on the spot, not 40 years later.
Even those of us who are more than 40 years on can take pride in the power within that softening silhouette in the mirror. This is the time to celebrate our body’s healthy service and endurance. If we don’t like what we see now, we are sure to like it a whole lot better from the vantage point of the future — but then it’ll be too late. Why waste yet another opportunity to experience the pleasure of being comfortable in your own skin?