It's Only Skin Deep, So Make Friends with Mother Nature



by Susan Swartz

Maybe Mother Nature Doesn't Need to Be Defied

The cultural standard for beauty is so limited that we sometimes think there is only one style and type of beauty and it belongs exclusively to a certain age. Once past that age there are only vestiges. “She must have been lovely when she was young,” we might say, implying she isn't now. Penelope says about her friend Kaye:

When I first met her I would look at her and try to see how she would have looked when she was beautiful. Now I just see her. I had to pierce through that cultural thing that you can only be beautiful when you're young. Kaye is eighty, extremely articulate, and very soulful. She laughs readily. She has wonderful bone structure. She is not holding a lot of care in her face. She's still receiving inspiration and she's acting on it. And that shows.

Penelope then tried being as generous with herself:

I let my new self be seen by two ex-lovers who knew me when I was thin and had the body that they wanted at the time. I felt very comfortable seeing them. Ironically they hadn't gained a pound, but each of them separately told me I look beautiful.

Why buy the notion that blonde is better than gray? Smooth better than wrinkled? Low-swinging breasts inferior to perky high ones? What is wrong with a round belly?

The cultural ideal of beauty being a “nonthreatening girl's body rather than a woman's body'' serves to keep women preoccupied with body hating, says Carol H. Munter in an interview in Women's Health Advocate. Munter co-authored the book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies with Jane R. Hirschmann. Munter says that when we complain nonstop about our bodies we perpetuate the belief that the female body is never entirely acceptable and so end up spending all our time trying to change the way we look rather than trying to change the world. “What do you think would happen if all the women in the world suddenly stopped hating their bodies?” she says she often asks audiences, who reply, “We'd have so much energy, we'd take over the world.”

Grace observed a full-bodied bartender in Palm Springs who stood out against the superthin clientele:

She had flesh you could dive into. She was very full bodied, the Matisse woman, in an off-the-shoulder blouse. Her body was so inviting. Part of it was because she had so much vitality and confidence. Compared to her, the pared-down exercised people were robots. She was the real human body, the sexiest thing around.

We should look at these women so full of life and want to be them instead of exercising so we can get into our tights and spandex. How did we come to glorify desiccated bony bodies and looking at the real, robust human body with horror, something we need to tuck, remove, make smaller?

At least we attempt a healthier attitude. We tell ourselves that the lines and marks we wear on our faces and bodies celebrate our years of life. Sophie calls them “badges of experience” and says, “We should be just as proud of them as we were our Girl Scout Explorer badges. They prove we've learned a few things.”

Kathleen sometimes sees her former self in her twenty-five-year-old daughter:

I'll catch her making some move or looking a certain way and I'll think, “That was me.” But I like looking at my older friends, too. One thing our generation is doing is not isolating ourselves from other ages. We get accustomed to what different ages can be. I look at my older friends and they are beautiful. The etchings around the eyes. A sculptor couldn't do that.

Diana says it starts with us:

We have to start seeing the beauty in older women. I've started making eye contact with older women and I always say something complimentary. Maybe we can't do anything about the signs of aging, but we don't have to see them as negative. I think we can be more generous with our changing bodies when we don't see them just through men's eyes.

In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes, “There is nothing wrong with women's faces or bodies that social change won't cure.” Wolf says that cellulite used to be just normal adult female flesh until Vogue magazine reclassified it as a “condition.” Wolf urges us to “await our older faces with anticipation.” She says, “We don't need to change our bodies. We need to change the rules.”

Do You Believe in Magic?

“We have B.E. in our family,” said Susan at a mother-daughter picnic. “Baggy eyes,” she explained, taking off her sunglasses to prove it. Another woman held up her spot-free hands to show the effects of a new hand bleaching formula she was trying out. Meanwhile, one picnic table over and proving no age is immune, a group of twenty-somethings listened to an NYU law student talk about the woman in Manhattan who sends her cosmetics by mail to help with her “changing skin.”

Lulu, a surfer, has a strong, firm body from sports and exercise, and her face shows a woman who's lived fifty years out in the sun. She religiously works on her body tone, but she says, “You can't do workouts for the face.”

Instead, the cosmetics industry offers a great number of potions that are supposed to fix us up. They are called antiaging and antiwrinkle, and the claims are that they will firm and plump and fill and moisten. That is how we know that the media is paying attention to us. It will like us again, but first we have to dewrinkle. Right?

Don't count on it. After fourteen years of being the face for a famous cosmetic line, Isabella Rosellini got fired for turning forty-two and starting to look older—a grown-up, glamorous Isabella, but apparently not good enough to sell face cream. The manufacturer's customers might have questioned what good it does them to pay money for the same antiaging products that couldn't preserve the cameo face of Isabella. But they still kept pushing their potions, as did Isabella, who retaliated by developing her own line of products displayed on models of all ages, including a sixty-seven-year-old.

Everyone's selling antiaging in a jar. They don't even call them moisturizers or skin fresheners anymore. They call them wrinkle creams and youth enhancers and lip plumpers. Our mothers would sit at their vanity tables and put on plain cold cream at night and simple lanolin in the morning, but we have antiaging serums, special moisturizers with “lift ingredients,” line reducers, firming eye creams, and diminishing gels. The mass media that for so long ignored anyone over fifty is desperate to sell us products that will help us “combat'' aging. They feel our panic and urge we stall it with spandex and underwire and magical creams.

If we can't have actual youth maybe they can sell us on “youthful.” A study showed that one in six Americans becomes depressed when thinking of growing older. That figure came from a Gallup poll that was put out by a cosmetic company, selling (guess what) antiaging cream. One in three women said they will do whatever it takes to stay looking young, that they believe that old is “out” and age defying is “in.”

Some stand up to it, like Sissy, a former dancer:

I realize I miss being the object of desire because of my beauty. That was my power. On the other hand, I'm so glad that's not ruling my life. I live in L.A. and I'll read about some actress, who I was counting on not to not give in, who has had a face lift. It crosses your mind because everybody seems to do it. The physical changes are hard, but then I see my daughter who at twenty is so upset because she can't fit into skinny clothes. I used to have beautiful sexy arms and now I cover them because I don't think they're beautiful anymore. But when it's 106 degrees outside I think, come on. Maybe in a few more years I won't care. It's possible.

We're not supposed to like everyday faces. We're supposed to want ones that look like the models'—a way we never looked even when we were that young or that thin. If we looked at real faces more that weren't digitally improved or airbrushed, we'd get used to those little pillowy things that soften the jaw line and happen to every single face. It's like Lulu, a former L.A. woman, says: “The first time I looked in the mirror and saw these lines I thought, 'You are old,' but after a couple of years I got used to them. You adjust.”

Hip-Shaking Mamas

It's rather tribal, gathering mornings to let it all out, a valiant group of line dancers in leotards and tights. If you go to the early morning aerobics class you don't have to dress. You can have bed hair. Just brush your teeth and show up. People like to complain about exercise, like it's a punishment or penance imposed from the outside, the results of which will be judged by any number of body watchers with impossible rating sheets. The grown-up approach to exercise is to do it for yourself, the perks coming from how you feel and look to yourself, not to some fickle surveyor of female body parts. As Iris says:

I would not spend all this time exercising for men who aren't going to look at me anyhow. I've stopped obsessing on my butt and how it looks. Now I'm going for strength and muscle definition.

When you consider how much we depend on our bodies—our personal machines—to get us through the day, it makes perfect sense to give them an hour or so a day of oiling and priming their parts. Think of that when you're in your ratty sweatshirt driving in a cold car to the gym. Think of all the things you're going to ask your body to do that day. To sit at a computer without destroying your neck, wrists, and shoulders; to hold your head nobly; to keep down the stress monger; and walk without a hitch in your hip. To fit into your pants and bend down and pick up assorted babies and small animals without grimacing.

Plus, exercise improves circulation, lowers blood pressure, and helps every tissue get more oxygen, as well as cutting your risk for heart disease and cancer. Why wouldn't you exercise? As long as you can move you can work on the old bod'. And you see all kinds of them at the gym. Real ones of all ages and shapes with their unique bumps and jiggles. The gym and the locker room are great equalizers.

In America the unwritten rule has been that only the tautest bodies can be displayed. They don't have those rules everywhere. Children who grow up going to beaches and parks where their mothers and aunts whip off their tops in the sun seem to have a healthier attitude about women's breasts. Marlene returns to her native Germany enough to appreciate the healthy lack of modesty in her countrywomen:

Germans seem to be more comfortable with their bodies and Mother Nature. People don't snicker when they see someone lying in the sun with her top off. They don't say, “She should go on a diet” or “Look at that potbelly.” Even their movie stars aren't as perfect as ours. And I think they admire older faces for the character and experience in them, faces that show you have lived, are still here, and can smile.

At middle age upperarm awareness is very acute, and while you may not be able to hoist your breasts through exercise, you can tone your arms. Not only can you develop arms that make you happy to be sitting under an umbrella table in a sleeveless dress, but there are wondrous things you can do with strong arms. Robin, in her fifties, developed arms she never had at thirty-five or forty-five, just in time to carry around two grandbabies:

I decided that one thing I didn't want as I got older was to get weaker. My partner is a very active outdoor person and we really enjoy all of our time together camping, hiking, kayaking. He's a botanist and I'm a very unscientific bird watcher. So it's important to me not to get weak. I do yoga and it's amazing how strong you have to be for yoga. I still consider myself a yoga wimp, but I try to walk at least three miles three or four times a week. And I bought a pair of eight-pound weights and do curls and lifts in the mornings.

Sara began roller blading and kayaking in her late forties: “I don't weigh any less and my stomach is never going to be as flat as it was, but I've restored my joy in using my body.”

A strong, healthy woman at any age is a beautiful creature, which is something you finally figure out at the gym. Body strength is appealing, in addition to being quite useful. In her book Strong Women Stay Young, Miriam E. Nelson reports that after a year of strength training twice a week, midlife women have been shown to reverse bone loss, develop strength they didn't have when they were young, and enjoy bodies that feel and look ten to fifteen years younger. Tufts University did a study of mostly sedentary women ages fifty to seventy who started doing weight lifting twice a week for forty-five minutes each, and in a year they were 75 percent stronger than before, gaining about three pounds of muscle and losing fat.

The National Institutes of Health calls exercise the most effective antiaging pill, and there are so many varieties of exercise that we can no longer protest that it's boring. Georgie, who dresses like a rodeo queen, was drawn to roller blade aerobics as “the one exercise you can do and wear sequins.” Faye, the flight attendant, does yoga:

I look in the mirror and think, “Oh god” and then go do two headstands. It's amazing what breath and moving can do for your body. It also helps to turn me around, figuratively and literally, to get a new perspective. If I'm down, I can reverse it and start feeling up. And for the rest of the day I feel a lot lighter.

Jeanne does Tai Chi, which helps with her arthritis and more:

Tai Chi is sufficiently complicated that you can't do it and also think about what's on your desk or what you haven't done. I'm not sure how much shows on me. I think I stand differently. I'm aware of what's going on around me. I'm more aware of my body. I'm stronger. I think my circulation is better. I can leave work at 6 P.M. and tell myself what I really want is a glass of wine and a cat in my lap. But I go to Tai Chi and an hour and a half later I am up and I am back.

Exercise is also a great way to get through a hot flash, seeing as how you're already red-faced and your hair is hanging in strings. At the gym we get to dance, throwing our bodies around, even if it's just the same old grapevine step, kick, pivot, and turn and singing along to “Love Train.”

Kate says women can dance forever:

Most men have about ten good dances in them and then the rest of their life they say they can't dance until they're drunk. And by then they're off the beat. So we who are dance deprived can always find someone to dance with, or at least next to, at the gym.

Moving is also good for the brain. Fitness author Jan Todd told Health magazine that there's research that shows that running, other vigorous exercise, and mental exercise promote the growth of new neurons while also prolonging the life of existing brain cells. We are creating new learning and memory neurons in the brain—and creating shapely strong arms and cutting our heart risk at the same time.

There's another benefit to getting out of a warm bed and going to a cold gym. A study of women who do weight training showed a correlation between strong bodies and confidence in general. Physical frailty is a liability that translates to psychological timidity, but when women feel good about their bodies—in terms of ability—they are less hesitant and more can-do in other parts of lives. Even Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other suffragists spoke of this, urging women to flex their muscles, so to speak, because physically strong women were less likely to be treated as childlike and dependent.

From Juicy Tomatoes, by Susan Swartz. Copyright © 2000 by Susan Swartz. Excerpted by arrangement with New Harbinger Publications, Inc. $13.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-748-0653 or click here.