Part of our series on our body and body image at midlife.
I’m so annoyed that I’m having a hard time writing anything other than curse words. And at 51, I know many. So, so many. They fly freely, like my upper arms when I wave goodbye in a strapless dress.
And that’s why I feel like cursing. Not because of my perfectly normal upper arms, which are somehow both strong and flag-like, but because I’m !@#$%^&* sick and tired of being told what I shouldn’t wear anywhere on my body. But, specifically my upper arms.
“Older women should not show excess flesh. They should wear sleeves,” declared the otherwise free-thinking 98-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel. A few months ago, Spanx introduced “arm tights” to better tether breakaway flesh to its bones. And as recently as this week, a woman who has “developed the dreaded flapping triceps that no amount of exercise seems to help,” asks the paper of record for advice on how to survive the heat. (“Droopy underarms are one of those things, along with thinning eyebrows and back fat, that come to us all,” she is told. Listen, she asked, and no one says every article for women needs to be about empowerment, but sheesh!) The general consensus seems to be that women over, say, 45 or 50, should shroud except while bathing. During which time we should exfoliate, because keratosis pilaris.
Here are some excellent reasons to cover your upper arms:
1. You had skin cancer and need to be extra careful about the sun.
2. You are so ripped you don’t want to make toothpick-armed women feel bad about their own arms.
3. You are chilly.
4. You got a tattoo of Johnny Depp 30 years ago, but then he was accused of abusing his wife and you cannot afford laser tattoo removal.
5. You choose to because of your religious beliefs or to be respectful of someone else’s.
6. People’s eyes literally start bleeding when they behold your upper arms.
7. They’re simply not your favorite body part, and it’s your body and you don’t want to.
Decades of living in a world in which there is no way to be perfect enough leaves you with some pretty sticky body-image issues.
All of the above reasons make perfect sense to me. The myriad reasons that don’t make sense to me include because they’re “unsightly” according to anyone other than you; because it’s “inappropriate” for not-young women to wear a tank top; or because you haven’t gotten arm lipo or a collagen-injection procedure to tighten up your “crepe-y” skin. Other reasons I think are no bueno are any that are shame-induced, such as the implication that you should feel bad about having perfectly ordinary flesh on your arms—even more than the supposed ideal—or because, unless you have Cameron Diaz arms, they don’t deserve to feel the sun.
To be clear, I’m not trying to shame women who feel shame about their bodies (would that be shame-shaming? Or maybe body-shame-shaming?). Most of us do feel embarrassed, at least sometimes. I sure do, even with fewer fucks left to give. Decades of living in a world in which there is no way to be perfect enough leaves you with some pretty sticky body-image issues. And being 100 percent thrilled with every aspect of yourself as you age has become yet another tyranny we must live under as we bushwhack our way to peace of mind. (As in: “Embrace your age, grays, wrinkles, menopause right now, or you’re not a feminist!”)
You Are Not the Boss of Me!
But can I tell you how sick I am of anyone telling us what to wear and what body parts to cover? And can I tell you how sick I am of finding that I’ve internalized some of those judgments, despite having written dozens of articles on positive body image over the years and raising two kids who seem blissfully free of them? Especially since even Michelle Obama got grief for going sleeveless, for other reasons.
Being 100 percent thrilled with every aspect of yourself as you age has become yet another tyranny.
Younger women shouldn’t be told such things, either, of course, but those of us over 40 or so doubly and triply shouldn’t. We are grown-ass women who have maybe raised kids and earned doctorates and left abusive relationships and done far more of the housework and childcare for free for decades—while also earning a living, strengthening our cores, waxing our hairy bits, fighting off innumerable #MeToo moments, and serving as invaluable emotional supports to everyone around us.
And oh, by the way, we did all this while NOT bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation and destroying the environment. That my upper arms may be floppy, puckered, freckled, cellulite-y, wrinkled, or pendulous does not mean that anyone is entitled to visual protection from them. If you don’t like what you see, avert your eyes!
The Right to Bare Arms: Disarming the Cover-Up Cabal
My friend Karen* feels likewise: “I distinctly remember my mom gingerly suggesting, when I was 11, that I not get the sleeveless Gunne Sax dress I really wanted because maybe we should look for one with sleeves,” she says. “And I was not even fat then, but even if I had been, What the hell, Mom?” Grr. “But in my 40s and 50s, I gained weight, and I am increasingly like, Screw it. You could sing, ‘Do your ears hang low’ about my upper arms. But now I think, Hey, my body is going to be problematic to someone, no matter what. What can you do?”
‘I cannot STAND being hot, and I’m not going cover my upper arms to spare someone else’s delicate sensibilities.’
Other my-age friends haven’t gotten to Karen’s level of your-views-about-my-body-are-not-my-problem-ness but are fast approaching. Jennifer* says that she feels about her arms as she does about the rest of her. “You and I know full well the world is completely brainwashed to scrutinize women’s bodies against an impossible ideal and that the ideal favors the young,” she says. “Therefore, the older I get, the more concerned I am about what I reveal, but that’s balanced by giving less of a shit what others think,” Jennifer says. Jen generally wears what she feels good in, which sometimes involves bare arms; for other times, there are Dolman sleeves.
Meanwhile, my friend Georgia*, whose move to a Southern state has unfortunately coincided with some arm-weight gain, eschews tank tops but is pro-choice on the matter. “My mom won’t wear sleeveless stuff any more, and, frankly, I get it now,” she says. “I don’t think she should not wear sleeveless tops, but I also think it’s OK for women to not show the parts of the their bodies they don’t want others looking at.”
Which is totally 100 percent true. I’m just angry that as I age, more and more of my surface area is deemed offensive to the general public, when it used to simply be my vulva and maybe my breasts. Now it’s my arms. And my legs, which have developed slightly blobby knees. And my cleavage, because it’s not quite as smooth as it used to be. Pretty soon I won’t be able to leave my apartment without children bursting into tears and pointing at the “scary lady” whose spider-veiny ankles are showing. Sorry, kiddos! No burka for me. Suck it up, buttercups.
Hot and Bothered
By the way, on days when it’s hot outside, behold my “bingo arms.” Says Karen, “I cannot stand being hot, and I’m not going cover my upper arms to spare someone else’s delicate sensibilities. Covering up would only make ME suffer.” I do hope that in 2018 we elect a Speaker of the House who finally does change the dress code on the floor of Congress so women might show up for work and maybe not die of heat stroke. (Paul Ryan promised to update the rule that women must cover their arms last year, and so far I don’t see that he has.) And if some—generally older, conservative—members are deeply offended at these female reps showing their triceps, le sigh.
Says Karen: “People who would be offended by my body would be offended by something else if I didn’t show them my upper arms, because those people live in a perpetual state of offense. It is their way. So eff them.”
Eff them, indeed. So go ahead and exercise your God-given right to bare arms. If someone doesn’t like it, it’s time to treat them to a vigorous wave goodbye.
*Names have been changed
Stephanie Dolgoff has contributed to a a variety of titles as an editor and writer, including SELF, Glamour, “O” The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many others. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times and the New York Post. Her book, My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches From Just The Other Side of Young, was a New York Times national bestseller.
More In Our Body Series