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.’ ”
For Joan Semling Bostian, 50, that reframing began when she gave birth to her first child nearly 18 years ago. The owner of a fitness center in Fairfax, California, she’d long fought a tendency to put on weight. But after a grueling 20 hours of labor, “I felt such profound respect and tenderness and love for this body of mine that had done such great work,” she says. “I thought, I will never say another mean thing about my body to myself or out loud. And I never have.”
The desire to drop a few pounds is still there, Bostian says, and sometimes she works harder toward that goal than at other times, “but either way, I don’t get any momentum from criticism.” She’s brought that philosophy into her gym as well: “I tell women, ‘There’s another way. You can be kind to yourself.’ ”
perfect beauty is perfect confidence; that fantasy drives women’s perpetual dissatisfaction with their looks. But here’s the thing: Among the women I spoke with, that self-assurance actually came when they stopped doing battle with their beauty demons. Michele Bender, 44, coauthor of Curly Girl: The Handbook, subjected her ringlets to decades of blowouts and chemical straighteners. “My whole life revolved around keeping my hair straight,” she says. “I loved how smooth it looked, but the truth is, I always felt like not myself.” When she hit 40, Bender decided to go natural. It took two years of ponytails and bad hair days for her to adjust, but now, she says, “I feel more like a grownup because I’ve accepted this part of me. I’m more confident as a mother because I’m teaching my kids something about being true to yourself. It has even encouraged me to try new things, like running a half-marathon.”
Bender is quick to distinguish between cherishing her individuality and feeling indifferent to her appearance. “It’s not as if I’m just accepting the hair I had in college,” she says. “I take the time to make it look good. And honestly, if I’m at some event where everyone has their sleek hair, I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m a little crazy. But at least I’m not boring.”
Like Bender, many of the women I spoke with described a liberation, a deeper sense of authenticity that came with accepting their supposed imperfections. That doesn’t surprise Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College who studies body image among women over 50. “By that age, you’ve earned the right to be yourself,” she says. “Who do you really have to impress? Single or married, the attitude tends to be, ‘I am who I am; you can like me for myself or not like me.’ ”
That’s the philosophy of Tamara White, 46, an artist in Berkeley, California, who as a younger woman was not so appreciative of her less-than-ample chest. These days she locates her sex appeal a solid foot above her sternum (yes, in her brain). “I could afford to buy a pair of boobs now if that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “But I feel secure enough to say that if that’s what a guy is looking for, then I’m not the right person for him. Because if someone is assessing you by the color of your hair or the size of your chest, then you’re completely replaceable.”
At the other end of the breast spectrum is Kari Adams, host of The Killer Confidence, a syndicated TV show out of Princeton, New Jersey. Adams has disliked her substantial curves since they emerged in junior high. “Having big boobs at a young age was awkward, and I learned to hate them,” she says. Nor was she enamored of her rounded tummy, hips and tush. For decades she waged war against her size, dieting more or less continuously until, at age 41, she landed in treatment for an eating disorder. “I learned that all those things I believed about my body were lies,” she says. “I finally gave up that striving and allowed my body to be what it wanted to be. And you know what? Nothing blew up.” Two years later, she has sworn off shapewear. She appreciates her décolletage and the swoop of her rear in jeans. It was hard-won wisdom, she says, but “I dress proud now. I am proud. This is who I am. This is me.”
broader, more flexible idea of beauty may be a gift, or it may be a survival imperative, but it’s certainly healthier for women—body and soul—than the quest to look like an eternal Bratz doll. And I get it, I do. I agree with White that sexiness is about confidence, not cup size. Like Bender, I long ago tossed my flatiron. Yet while I’ve learned to love my curls, I can’t say the same about my hair’s natural color. In truth, I don’t even know what that might be—I haven’t glimpsed it since the Sun-In experiments of my midteens, and I have no intention of investigating. As with many women, gray hair is my Waterloo, the thing that I’m sure would marginalize me if I surrendered to it, rendering me invisible as a woman.
Or maybe I could be inspired instead by Emiko Omori, 73, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco whose glossy hair went silver in her forties. And when it did, she remembered what had happened to a friend who went gray. “My friend told me how she was totally ignored by a waiter while having dinner with another woman,” Omori recalls. “They each had a theory about why it had happened. ‘You’re just prettier than I am,’ said my friend. The other woman responded, ‘No, it’s your gray hair.’ So my friend dyed it. That weekend she went to a bagel shop, and the counter guy said, ‘Let me get you some warm bagels right out of the oven.’ Then he asked if she lived around there. She said she did—and that she’d been coming into the shop every Sunday for the past two years.”
Hearing her friend’s story brought Omori up short. “I thought, Shoot! I’m going to dye my hair, too!” she says. And she did—jet black. “But I didn’t like the process; it stung my scalp. Keeping up the roots was awful. I never wanted to color it again.” Instead, she went with her silvery hair and ended up embracing it. Rather than rendering her invisible, her hair has become her trademark. “People remember me because of it,” she says.
In fairy tales, the aging adult woman—the witch, the wicked stepmother—is pathologically jealous of the heroine’s youth, preferring to commit murder rather than endure graying hair or a withered complexion. The story, of course, never ends well for her. Today’s midlife women are writing a new happily-ever-after: We prefer looking our best now (with or without a little pharmacological help) to chasing what once was. Maybe that’s because we know our value as women is more than skin-deep. That was the conclusion of Lindsley Raines, 50. After her divorce eight years ago, she began to focus on what she calls “the road map on my forehead.” She tried Botox but didn’t like the needle sticks. She tried bangs, but they weren’t her style. It would be overreaching to say she now loves her wrinkles, but her day-to-day experience as a clinical social worker in a New Jersey hospital has helped her put aging in perspective. “I’m surrounded by death and pediatric cancer and car accidents,” she explains. “And also very sweet and wonderful things like someone dying in hospice care, surrounded by loved ones. A few wrinkles or scars are nothing.”
Compassion. Flexibility. Confidence. Perspective. Those were the hallmarks of women who had made peace with their body bugaboos. They had also rejected the idea—where did it come from, anyway?—that how women’s bodies look is more important than how their bodies feel. For these women, strength and vitality trumped aesthetics. “Not long ago, women only lived until their fifties, and those changes of aging signaled the end,” Diller says. “Now we have another 20 to 40 years of life left. So instead of the focus being on ‘Uh-oh, I’d better hold on to youth,’ it’s becoming, ‘What can I do to live those decades feeling strong and good about myself?’ ”
Growing up, Naomi Cahn, 56, a law professor in Washington, D.C., envied her mother and sister their long, elegant legs. Hers were short and stubby, with thighs she describes as large. “My grandfather would try to comfort me by claiming I had big bones,” she recalls. “But that was like acknowledging, well, you have fat legs.” Then, in her forties, she began biking the 15 miles round trip to work. As a result, she says, “my legs haven’t actually gotten slimmer, but I’ve started to look at them differently. I have an enormous amount of respect for their ability to do what they do. They will never be long, thin and elegant, but they’re really strong. I’m so happy they’re part of my body.”
a world that glamorizes the smooth browed, the straight haired, the blonde, the thin, the figure that is unattainable whether we are 16 or 20 or 60; a world in which youth is currency and without it a woman can feel bankrupt, asexual and potentially unemployable. Those are hard truths. Yet how does it serve women to cling to those fears, to let them define us? After all, where has that decades-long adversarial relationship with your cankles really gotten you?
Erik Erikson, who pioneered the theory that we develop psychologically throughout our lives (and who coined the term identity crisis), believed that as we hit midlife, we begin to think about our legacy. “Making a mark on society becomes more important than making a mark on yourself,” explains Chrisler, “which is what you’re doing when you’re younger and trying to lose weight or getting a nose job. As life goes on, the balance shifts, and other things begin to outweigh youth and beauty: Your relationship with your children. Your grandchildren. The people you mentor. Your volunteer work. Philanthropy. Creativity.”
Shirley Burgess remembers feeling a little traumatized when her first laugh lines began to show in her forties. Now 83, she believes her wrinkles tell “the story of my life, my sorrow and my happiness.” “I’m vain,” admits Burgess, who dresses smartly and puts on makeup each morning before heading to her full-time job selling women’s clothing at a Massachusetts department store. “I still like to look good.” But, she adds, it’s her joy in her family—eight children, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren—that makes her feel beautiful. “The body changes,” she says, “but the spirit does not.”
I know she’s right. I know that what I find beautiful in other women is their charisma, their passion, their life force, not their poreless skin or slender midsection (well, OK, I still envy the slender midsection). It just might be time to apply those standards to myself, to disrupt my endless cataloging of faults, to stop dwelling on what I’m not—on what I will never be—and, finally, to revel in the genuine beauty of who I am.
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