My 11-year-old daughter is hurtling toward puberty at full force. Haley has the lovely body of an athletic preteen, all long coltish legs and perfectly smooth skin. She’s a swimmer and on warm days, rides her bike to the pool in nothing more than her suit and flip-flops, oblivious to any worries about cellulite (she has none) or how her body looks in her swimsuit (perfect).
I want her obliviousness to last, yet I know it likely will not. I, like nearly all women, have never been completely at ease with my body. I struggled with an eating disorder for a decade that was spurred by my desire to transform my utilitarian, sturdy body into something wispy and ethereal, like the elfin looks of Winona Ryder or the blonde singer from ‘Til Tuesday. I wanted to be so skinny my jeans would hang off my body, have barely-there boobs that didn’t need a bra, and hips bones that hurt. Instead I developed bulimia and ate my way up to nearly 200 pounds, willfully blind to the fact that I was getting fatter and fatter.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I gave up dieting and started to honor my hunger that I was able to stop binging. The excess weight started to come off, settling somewhere in the low 150s, a reasonable weight for someone 5’9”, built of sturdy Irish peasant stock. Every few years I would lose a few pounds, or gain a few, but I didn’t think about my weight that often, or about my body.
Then came midlife. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was pleased that I only gained a few pounds after menopause, until I realized that I now had a meno-pot, a not-so-cute little belly that sat down with me when I did. I still refused to diet and instead, worked on accepting my new shape, and was making progress until I noticed my arms. They were bigger than they used to be. Softer-looking. Dimply. And my thighs? A disaster zone. Shit. What the hell happened? And why was I not paying attention?
I still refused to diet and instead, worked on accepting my new shape.
I try to shut off my self-loathing thoughts, and remind myself that I’m not a pole dancer, or a model, or an actress who may have to display my physical body to earn a living. It’s only my brain bag, as Carrie Fisher used to say. But it still sucks. My body hasn’t gotten that much bigger. But everything is softer. Looser. Flesh starts to hang from the bone. My body’s battling gravity and gravity is winning.
I hate that I care, and I bemoan the indignity of aging with only my closest friends. “I dim the lights, and then let my eyes blur a little bit, and I still look good!” I tell my friend Jennifer, and we cackle together, repressing our vanity. But it’s there. I still want to feel pretty. I still want to feel attractive. I still want to look good. And now…well, now I don’t, so much.
Don’t Look Too Closely
I would love to smear myself with Crepe Erase and cellulite cream one night and wake up in the morning to gleaming, flawless, smooth skin everywhere. Instead, I choose not to look at my body too closely. Because the more I do, the more I see its imperfections, its aging, its lack. When I’m not looking at it my body or thinking about it, guess what? I feel strong, confident, capable. Sometimes, yes, even pretty.
I don’t want to burn more time hating what I cannot change.
I’m not brave enough or wealthy enough to invest in cosmetic surgery, so I continue to work on acceptance. After all, if I’m lucky enough to live longer, my physical body will continue to slip further from the ideal. And I don’t want to burn more time hating what I cannot change.
Do I love every inch of my body? Nope. But I do love its strength, its resilience, its incredible abilities that I so often take for granted. I try to remember to be grateful for it, after I’ve had a good run or walked 18 holes of golf with my boyfriend or cuddled on the couch with Haley to watch Netflix together.
In the meantime, I preach body positive messages to her to try to combat the inexhaustible surge of images and expectations she faces, and hope that she won’t struggle the way I did as her body changes. I hope that she will love her body, and treat it with love and respect, regardless of whether she meets the subjective, ever-changing standards of beauty. That she’ll focus on what her body does, not what it looks like. To recognize that her body is strong and capable and perfect, just as it is. Because she is, too.