Posted in A Day In the Life

The Body Beautiful

While older women counsel young women to love their bodies, we often fail to have that conversation with ourselves.

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.

Posted in memories

The Size of a Parakeet’s Heart

Budgerigar in the its cage. Budgie

Breakfast happened in a sunny corner of the kitchen on a plastic tablecloth whose flowered print had faded in spots from the sun and the plates that scraped across its surface. The table was pushed against the windows, and looked over a struggling garden in which I had once planted the watermelon seeds saved from a late summer afternoon. When the green shoots found their way up into the light, turning into vines, I imagined opening a watermelon stand and selling pieces of fresh watermelon to all of my neighbors. My enterprise was cut short, however, when something ate the vines, shredding their leaves into skinny, little pieces.

My mother kept a row of potted geraniums on the table. Red flowers bloomed almost year round in a world that was mostly bright colors and sunshine. Part of that brightness was Penny. She was my first true love, my first true friend, a parakeet dressed in exotic green, accented by dark veins of blue feathers. Each morning my mother would open the door to Penny’s cage, and the little bird would fly a couple of times around the room, lighting onto the table in front of my breakfast plate, chirping while she waited for me to feed her bits of unbuttered toast. Sometimes she would hop onto my shoulder as I ate.

Every day when I got home from school, I checked to make sure that she had birdseed and clean water. I wasn’t allowed to let her out unless my mom was there, but I gave her what felt like a lot of my six-year-old attention, crooning, whistling and singing to her. During the times that she was free to fly around, she would always make her way to me, resting upon my hand and hopping up and down the length of my arm. We had our own special way of telling each other: I love you.

One day my mom and I came home to the smell of paint. I knew that the landlord was having all of the kitchens in our row of duplexes painted. We had shopped the week before for new dishtowels and potholders to go with the freshly painted kitchen. I hadn’t realized that the paint would smell so bad though, and I held my nose as I went to check on Penny. But something was wrong. Penny didn’t move. She sat motionless on her perch with her head resting inside of a bell that hung off of the mirror in her cage. “Penny?” I shook the cage and she fell. “NO!”

I heard my mother’s sad voice as she rushed to see what was wrong: “Oh, Penny,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“I think the paint fumes were too much for her,” she said. “The painters didn’t think to put her cage outside and she died.”

No one in my life had ever died before. I knew other children who’d told me that their grandma or grandpa died, or that their dog died, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Something pierced my heart, a feeling of absence so fierce that my whole body hurt.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” I said.

I wasn’t sure where Penny had gone, only that she wasn’t in her bird body anymore. My mother helped me to give Penny a funeral, wrapping her in a scarf and burying her in the garden outside the kitchen window. I marked her little grave with rocks that I placed in a careful circle around the newly turned earth.

For days, I tried to cry the ache away, and then one day the loss no longer consumed me. Eventually we put up the new dishtowels and potholders. We moved to another duplex, another apartment, another town. The years between Penny and I grew wide with the passing of time.  Now, as my hands and feet begin to wizen, I recall this story and write it down. I  still have tears left for Penny and the life lesson that she imparted:  Love, even the size of a parakeet’s heart is eternal.