"Written on the Body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there." ~Jean Winterson from her novel Written on the Body
IN 1986, I walked into World Gym in Venice, California—at that time, a small, funky space that women typically did not enter, except for a few female bodybuilders. At age 34 I’d left the tights-and-leg-warmers world of -Jane Fonda’s Workout to come to a hard-core, -pumping-iron, no-frills place, having decided I wanted more muscles, more strength. And no more pink leg warmers. I had a very clear idea of what and whom I wanted to see in the mirror, and I had a long way to go.
Ironically, one of the first things that greeted me when I walked up the stairs into a cramped room full of clanking weights and harsh fluorescent lights was a wall of black-and-white photographs—nude images of a bodybuilder named Lisa Lyon. I found myself staring and realized this was the image of who I wanted to be. She was confident and proud; her muscles were lean, defined and beautifully sculpted. (This was before some female bodybuilders began taking steroids.) I thought, Someday I want to feel that I deserve to pose nude like that. Not yet, but someday.
Not yet because when I looked in the mirror, I still saw the girl I’d been for so much of my life. The girl who had fallen willingly into the deep and dangerous waters of drug addiction. I was 15 when I discovered both pharmaceutical amphetamines and tiny white tablets of speed, concocted in home labs or garages and sold on the street. The sound of pills rattling in a bottle was a lullaby to the pain in my soul. Over the years, I went on from speed to coke, and by the time I was in my twenties, I was in trouble. My body was wasted, my muscles thin and barely visible.
I did finally quit, late in my twenties, grabbing onto some rope in my heart that I hadn’t even known was there. A stubborn determination took over, a buried part of me that wanted to survive. I resolved to work my way back to health.
That’s who walked into the gym that morning and watched herself in the walls of mirrors, reaching for weights she’d never lifted before.
WE bear witness to ourselves in mirrors. They could be in our bathrooms, where we stand exposed, or in gyms and department store changing rooms. Whether we’re clothed or not, the vulnerability is always there—as is the awareness that there is also, deep within us, an internal mirror. We are never completely finished with who we once were, and we meet that person every time we stare at our own reflection.
Over months and years, I did get strong. My body changed, and I took note of the transformations I saw in the mirror. There were anodyne moments of healing when I’d dispel my fears by looking at the musculature of my body. How dare you feel insecure, I told myself—look at the abdominal muscles centering your body; look at your legs, which can run miles and push heavy weights. Look at the power reflected there and feed off that. The body I had once dis-respected, that I had ruined with drugs, was now my therapist.
IN 1994, when I was 42, the chance to pose for Playboy was presented to me. The wish that had come to me long ago as I looked up at Lisa Lyon’s photographs—a thought I hadn’t really focused on for years—was about to become a reality. I told the magazine the kind of layout I wanted to do: athletic, artistic, focused on the shape and musculature I’d worked so hard to achieve. They quickly agreed. If they had insisted on some bedroomy, frilly layout, I would have walked away. I wanted what I’d envisioned all those years earlier, and I wasn’t willing to compromise. I knew, given my reputation as the rebellious First Daughter (although my father was out of office by then), that I’d get criticized for doing Playboy, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t doing this to spite my parents; I was doing it for me. This was my victory lap. This was standing naked in front of the world when it was a miracle that I was even still in the world. I am proof that it isn’t that easy to die, because from the age of 15, well into my twenties, I was working on dying. Most addicts are.
Despite all the criticism I got, which was plenty, I’m still proud of that shoot. At 42, I was older than the typical Playboy fantasy woman, but the photos showed that my own years-long fantasy had become a reality. And I had made that happen.
WORKING out has remained a priority for me. It’s as natural as washing my face or brushing my teeth. My body is the house I live in, and I’ve never stopped trying to make it better. I don’t understand the common attitude that after 40, you might as well just accept that your body is going to sag and fold and expand in unflattering ways. Really? Our muscles are actually pretty democratic; if we work them, they’ll respond. I also don’t understand the attitude that who you are on the inside is all that matters. Obviously our interior landscape is profoundly important, but we are integrated beings; we don’t have to make a choice between interior and exterior. One has a lot to do with the other.
I recently turned 58. My kickboxing teacher, who has known me for almost 20 years, recently commented, sort of in passing, that my body is in better shape now than when I posed for Playboy. I heard him, but I was concentrating on my spin kicks, so I put it on the back burner of my mind. That night, I stood in front of the mirror and thought, He’s right. My muscles are leaner, longer, more defined now, and I felt again a sense of victory over the years of abuse I’d subjected myself to, and also over the huge amount of time I’d wasted on addiction. With every workout, I feel as if I’m winning back lost time.
Of course, there isn’t a gym in the universe that can completely stop the clock. Time has etched itself on my body in ways that I dislike. The texture of my skin is different; I can detect a bit of crinkliness here and there. And I’m quite upset with my elbows. If you took a close-up photo of them, you’d think, Wow, very old person. There is actually a plastic surgery procedure for tightening the skin on the elbows, but that seems a bit excessive to me, not to mention costly.
Speaking of plastic surgery, let me answer the question that inevitably comes up: I have had nothing surgical done below the neck, but I did have a face-lift at 50. And frankly, the minute something in that zone starts drooping, I’m going to have it hoisted back up. There is just no reason to not like your face in the mirror. You see it first thing in the morning, and brushing your teeth in the dark is silly.
There is another quote of Jeanette Winterson’s that I like: “What you risk reveals what you value.”
I risked everything in my teens and twenties. I risked my health and even my life. I got both back through determination and hard work. I’ve now learned to respect time as the precious commodity that it is, and I’ve learned to respect my body. I’ve learned to stand in front of the mirror and look at the strength reflected there—the hours of training, the miles of running, the years of distance between the strong woman I am now and the wasted girl I once was. We do, after all, have a relationship with ourselves in the mirror.
It’s sometimes a delicate dance for all of us. Most of the time, though, I get it right… as long as I don’t focus on my elbows.
Patti Davis is the author of eight books, including The Long Goodbye and The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us, as well as numerous magazine articles. She lives in Los Angeles.
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