As a young woman I starved myself to stay thin. My relationship with food was not a healthy one. My relationship with my body was worse. The angst about body image came from two places. One was cultural. In my generation, men often commented on women’s bodies in disparaging ways, leaving us to question if our worth was somehow related to the size of our thighs. The message about thinness also came from my dance studio where I spent most of my teenaged years. We were constantly told by our instructors that no extra weight was allowed. By fourteen-years-old, I knew to order the burger without the bun, no fries and a side salad without dressing. I was always hungry.
As the 1970’s dawned, the feminist movement was taking on the cultural narrative about body image. Women were encouraged to love their bodies as they were. The new message was a needed one, because trying to sculpt your body to fit a man’s idea of what he thought you were supposed to be, was right up there with sculpting your mind to fit his image of you, too.
The decade of the 70’s and 80’s pushed women to know themselves. Changes came about as more women entered the work force, aspiring to be the CEO and not the secretary. Women demanded equal access to higher education. The patriarchy was met with a rising matriarchy that would usher us into a new cultural paradigm.
By the time I was middle-aged, I was eating again and I did gain some weight, healthy weight that made me look like a woman instead of a starving waif. All around me the world was changing and now women have become much more comfortable with their bodies than they were in my generation. Plus, they’re much more comfortable with their smarts and their ambition.
Yesterday, I walked into the salon where I get my hair trimmed, and my stylist came to greet me in a form fitting, rose-colored dress. She’s seven months pregnant. She looked beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to see women showing off their baby bellies. Not that long ago pregnant women were expected to hide their bellies. I celebrate the change. I celebrate that a woman’s body takes on so many different forms in the course of a lifetime.
Even though women are feeling good about who they are and we’re mentoring younger women to do the same, there is one group that still suffers a poor body image. Too often I hear women my age talk about their bodies in mean and unloving ways. They lament the loss of muscle tone, curse sagging skin, and try to cover arms and legs that used to turn golden in the summer months — an attempt to hide what they think has grown unattractive. They criticize a natural process that is part of the cycle of life.
I’m the first to admit that I too mourned the loss of my younger years. That’s just part of the process. I understand the grief of losing one’s youth. And I understand not wanting to succumb to the inevitable. Part of that is a fear of mortality and part of it is that we lose our way in loving ourselves, because there still exists a false standard of what beauty is.
Beauty for an older woman is a truly natural state. It is health. It’s joy. It’s the happiness of living long enough to tell the tale. Wisdom is beautiful and earning the title of elder is beautiful. Those definitions must be what we strive for in these silver years.
I recently joined a Facebook page made up of a couple of thousand women who are letting their hair go grey. I’ve tried, but I keep adding streaks. But after scrolling through the posts on that page, I was inspired by the self-acceptance and self-love that these women possessed. I made another appointment with my stylist in a couple of weeks and I’m going to ask her to help me transition to grey.
I want young women to understand that their value in life has nothing to do with the size or shape of their body. “Ignore the advertising industry standards,” I tell them. They’re toxic and unrealistic. This morning though, I realized that the conversation I’m having with the younger generation is a conversation that I need to be having with myself. My value and my significance does not rest in how toned my muscles are, or whether or not I sag in places that I didn’t used to. Or my weight. And regardless of softer arms that have lost most of their definition, I want to wear sleeveless tops and shorts in the summer months.
I believe in health and in supporting each other to be healthy. I believe in the power of self-love. And I know that self-love not only heals our own selves, it shines as a light to others.
How do you feel about your body as you grow older? Please share your precious thoughts with me in the comment section.