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Feeling Old and Ugly? Look Again

Over the last few decades, I have overcome the self-hatred that comes of having a young female body in patriarchal, capitalist America. Thank the goddess I'm no longer so young.
 
 
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In my youth, there was scarcely a part of my body I could look at without critique.

But over time I made peace with a few parts I had disliked for decades. My feet, for one. Those broad peasant feet began to look sturdy, smooth-skinned, touchable, with attractive outlines. The toes were charming.

Like many other women touched by the magic wand of feminism, over the last few decades I began to overcome the self-hatred that comes of having a young female body in patriarchal, capitalist America. Thank the goddess I'm no longer so young.

And then -- perhaps as a consequence -- in the shower one morning I was twisting to look back and down my side. In the shower you can never see your whole self, only parts. Suddenly the curves of my hip, buttock, thigh, calf and ankle came into view -- startlingly elegant, powerful and voluptuous.

It was an angle of myself I had never before observed, at least consciously.

I was so impressed that I took a longer glance the next time I thought of it. The view was definitely one a painter might love. But had I ever seen an image created from the point of view of a woman looking down at her own body from above?

Never. Nor could any mirror show it. Certainly no TV or magazine ad had ever captured those satisfying curves. The assumption of our culture is not just ageist but middle-ageist, that bodily decline starts not in old age but ever younger. Even as early as 30.

Rare Pleasure for Older Woman

I haven't yet gotten my face to seem startlingly lovelier, but every time I look down at that arrangement of hip and leg I am rewarded by a jolt of pleasure. Since I am a woman in my 60s in a culture increasingly obsessed with youth, this experience is rare.

Excuse me for being the one to say so, but I think my discovery may be important and not just for me.

The reason that I can admire these parts of the "aging" corpus is precisely because no TV ad or magazine article has ever focused on them. I hadn't learned to hate them as signs of decline. In the shower I saw them fresh.

Ad campaigns exist only to get us to want their products badly. By giving us views of younger models they create a critical comparative eye. That eye is rapt in delight only by the tall anorexic body. It is ready to frown contemptuously at the average American woman, 5 foot 4 inches tall and 140 pounds.

Of the whole body, the eye of the perfection industries obsessively focuses only on the parts they can make seem improvable. Because of cosmetics and plastic surgery, the face receives the most critique. (It might be the hardest part for any woman to reclaim).

My Own Point of View

Fortunately for my graceful lower extremities, no corporation has yet devised a product that could improve that view. No youthful model owns it. It is my point of view. You could say I have the copyright.

Having rescued a subjective view of myself from advertising's mean scrutiny, I freely offer you the same pleasure. Try it. There is nothing wrong with a little healthy narcissism once a day, in a steamy bathroom filled with the heady aromas of shampoo and olive oil soap.

I see no reason why women aging past youth can't enjoy such a sight for decades. It's safe from the angry glare of decline.

Suppose that every single day, for just two minutes, every single woman in America loved that much of her body. What a different attitude toward ourselves and other women we would carry out of the bathroom and into the world.

My discovery in the shower also suggests a new way to respond when our friends complain about their "aging." On cue, women -- even surprisingly young women, these days, and even long-time feminists -- are liable to drop into a sorry list of what they don't like about the skin, their weight, their hair color, their muscle tone.

"I don't look the same," they assert, as though that were prima facie bad. And what am I supposed to say at this juncture?

This is the obligatory Scene of Confession, and it is supposed to elicit a similar depressing Confession, in which I too complain about my skin or my weight -- or, if I can't, some other body part publicly identified as "aging."

Let's Safeguard Our Friendships

But my new insight is this: We don't need masochistic empathy here. Let's not reinforce women's supposed ugliness in the guise of friendship. If friendship really exists, one of the women needs to stop right there and ask judiciously, "Isn't that product placement speaking?" Or, "Isn't 'I'm not the same' just what a plastic surgeon wants to hear you say? If the perfection industries didn't make billions on your misery, would you be worrying so much about your hair, your abs, your waist?"

End the lamentations. Let's not allow ourselves to be walking commercials for the commerce in aging. Let's deny the bosses another excuse to downsize our jobs. Could we focus instead on the parts we have learned to love? (Did I tell you already that my shoulder looks strong and silky from above? No? Well, it's another hot-shower effect.) And then you would have to say something similar about a once-unloved body part that you have taught yourself to find pleasing.

Maybe, in time, what we praise could be the whole integrated body-mind, with its spirit, character, charm and responsiveness. Confession of a new kind is in order. This is not a boast to each other but a taunt to decline culture. It feels good.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of 2004's Aged by Culture, chosen as a noteworthy book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor.