When I loved myself enough I began listening to the wisdom of my body. It speaks so clearly through its fatigue, sensitivities, aversions and hunger.
When I loved myself enough I quit exhausting myself by trying so hard.
When I loved myself enough I bought a feather bed.
Kim McMillen, When I Loved Myself Enough (Pan MacMillan)
Recently, I wrote an article for a mainstream magazine about how women feel about ageing. The premise was simple: interview four women who hold different perspectives on what it feels like to spot a grey hair or realise a furrow has gotten a foothold and is never going to budge. By design, two of the women I interviewed were more than happy to watch in strange awe as their bodies and faces morphed in accordance with the twists and turns of life. The other two women were determined to steer with masterly control a path away from any obvious signs of ageing. Which women had the right idea?
While all women past a certain age hold an opinion on whether it is better to age gracefully or to gracefully stop the hands of time altogether (courtesy of the good, and costly, doctor), the point of this article was not to take sides and declare a winner. Not at all.
The point of the article was simple: to attempt to expose the complexity of the issue of ageing for women such as us, living in a society such as ours that valorises youth and beauty. It is difficult to argue to the contrary.
The backdrop of life in the West is an omnipresent wallpaper of images of the young and beautiful situated subtly or overtly within contexts of happiness and success. Because beautiful princesses “live happily ever after” and because a woman “can never be too rich or too thin” and because there’s a plethora of products at the ready to “banish the visible signs of ageing” and because, if you really put your mind to it, you can “drop a dress size in a week”, it is difficult in a culture such as ours to age naturally.
To watch your waistline spread, your hair discolour and thin, your face crease, drop and wrinkle, and to feel OK about all that is almost unheard of. Yet there are dissenters out there, silenced as their voices may often be. Two of the women I interviewed felt that way and powerfully so. In fact, they felt better than OK about growing old. They felt privileged, exultant, soft with surrender, bold with commitment and blossoming in confidence from what ageing brings.
These women, both in their 40s, felt entitled to not only grow old but proudly show their age as an outward symbol of the trials and tribulations they had overcome and the achievements they had made.
They felt relieved and energised, they said, about the liberation that came with accepting themselves as they were — and not as they had once been or as they wished they might be. They felt freed from exhaustive sexual politics, though they did not feel unsexy nor ready to relinquish their sexuality. They felt autonomous and in charge of their bodies and minds and more able to be intimate in relationships, not fearing what the other might see.
Indeed, one woman described it as wanting the world to see her authentically as she knew herself to be. She was not prepared to hide herself away beneath a false veneer that made others feel comfortable. She expressed it like this: “When someone looks at my face and my body I want them to really see me. Maybe that kind of vulnerability is too much for some, maybe some women don’t want to be so transparent and naked and authentic, but I do! I do!”
A few lines and a generous waistline seem suddenly insignificant when compared with the emotional boldness of being seen for the truth and totality of who you are. Could I make that same statement, I wondered. I hoped so.
But it is hard to resist the forces that swirl about us. And she is brave and strong and wonderful, to my mind, for being so resistant. In our society, forces are at work in advertising and entertainment, right down to the local mums’ group, to keep us women feeling inadequate, insecure and incomplete.
In such conditions it is challenging not to feel needy, ugly and downright paranoid. And what is beautiful about paranoia and neediness? Such emotional pitfalls keep women reaching for the telephone to make another booking with the good, and costly, doctor. And so the spiral goes.
A snapshot of modern life taken a few years ago by philosopher Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety (Penguin) showed that, collectively and consistently, we lack contentment with what we have. This restless wanting affects our stance within our peer group, our salary, the type of car we drive, our perception of our children’s talents, trickling through every layer of our being until it permeates to the core, to our sense of inner self. So plagued are we by an underlying angst that what we have is not as good as what other people have, that we feel less worthy, less beautiful and we end up looking that way, too.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were another way? Wouldn’t it be stupendously and outrageously wonderful if we women held hands metaphorically and supported each other in being who we are, looking how we look, whatever our shape, size, colour and age.
Imagine, then, being of a certain age and revelling in the fact that we have accrued real wisdom and smarts and because of that we have a spring in our step that wasn’t possible, that we simply couldn’t have had at 19.
The truth is, every age is beautiful. A newborn is fleetingly frail, as are the dying. Teenagers are breathtakingly bold, as is the reckless risk-taker at any age. New mothers are famously “half shy in their own beauty”. Every age holds magic at its essence. Why would you want to sample only one and cling to that forever after?
There is no “right” way to grow old — botox your brow all you like, or let it hang out and be proud — just as there is no “right” way to be beautiful. There is only you. And that should be beautiful enough for one lifetime.
This is the message I took with me after writing that story: when the spirit nestles and sinks comfortably inwards, it radiates outwards a compelling, infectious, mesmerising vibe. Is that beauty? Rather than our age shaping our capacity to appear beautiful, it is our ability to love ourselves as we are.
The individuality, diversity, difference and uniqueness ever-present among us is what I believe is truly beautiful and worthy of celebration. How about you?