One of the perks of having a mastectomy—and, trust me, there aren’t many—is that my plastic surgeon reconstructed my breast using my belly fat. All of it. Next thing I knew, my stomach was as taut as a supermodel’s.
You have to understand, I’d always had a pooch, even at my slimmest, and after I gave birth to my daughter almost 11 years ago, my midsection never bounced back, even though I did approximately 476,892 crunches. I had resigned myself to a lifetime of loose shirts (bless you, designers of the Empire waist) and one-piece, ruched-front bathing suits. If I’d devoted the number of hours I spent obsessing about my middle to something useful, I might have actually cured cancer by now or at least resolved our country’s trade imbalance with China.
For a while I reveled in my new pancake abs, but as the months wore on, I began to take them for granted and focus on my humongous rib cage. That’s when I realized: My body-image issues were actually in my head.
There is that moment in every girl’s life, usually around her 13th birthday, when she looks in the mirror and suddenly, rather than thinking, Will Mom notice that I didn’t brush my teeth?, all she sees is the sum of her flaws, the things she dislikes about her hair, her skin, her body—the ways she doesn’t fit our culture’s narrow, punishing ideal of female beauty.
But I wondered, could there be another moment in which, as wiser, midlife women, we forgive ourselves those inevitable shortcomings because, well, life is just too danged short? Or maybe we finally recognize that those little imperfections make us, if not perfect, at least distinctive? Or we want to be more positive role models for our daughters? Or we reject the digitally (or surgically) enhanced beauty norms of Hollywood and high fashion? Perhaps we can’t undo all the reflexive self-criticism, but maybe some lifelong struggles need not be lifelong.
So I began talking to women I know—women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and beyond—about The Thing They Always Hated about their looks. Had they been able to achieve self-acceptance (as opposed to denial or resignation)? Could they celebrate the aspects of their appearance that contrasted, sometimes sharply, with the conventional definition of beauty?
At first I was disappointed. So many women, including me, still wrestled with issues that had plagued them in high school: cottage cheese thighs, floppy breasts, gap teeth, flat butts. Older women had expanded that list to include a barnyard of turkey necks, crow’s-feet and bat wings. I admit, I was stunned, and not only because I’d thought I was alone in my neurotic feedback loop. Until I heard their answers, I’d considered each and every one of these women to be gorgeous, stylish and comfortable in her own skin.
What’s more, I honestly thought the ones who were my age (52) looked better now than they did when we were younger—and not just because they’d ditched their unfortunate asymmetrical ’80s hairdos. Sure, their skin had been dewier back then, but they’d also looked somehow . . . unformed. Time had made them more interesting, deeper, more fully themselves, like the difference between a high giggle and a rich belly laugh. Yet while I could readily see that transformation in those around me, I couldn’t see it in myself.
Vivian Diller, a psychologist and author of Face It: How Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change and What to Do About It, I was on to something. Consciously or not, women who accept and enjoy their appearance at midlife have reframed that reflexive self-critical inner dialogue into something gentler, more compassionate. “You need to look at yourself in the mirror as you would look at a friend,” Diller suggests. “Or as you would look at your daughter if she were 40 or 50. Women who feel good about themselves will look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m doing pretty well for my age.’ ”