When I was younger, I never thought much about my appearance. I just figured I looked OK and got on with my life. I didn’t even wear lipstick until I was in my thirties, and I’ve never worn foundation. For a short time I flirted with powder, but it didn’t stick (ha ha). I liked eye shadow and mascara.
I knew I wasn’t tall, slender and statuesque but I didn’t really care, though sometimes people said to me, “You have such a pretty face!” followed by something along the lines of “It’s too bad about your figure” or “You could lose some weight.” From time to time I was a size four, a size six, a size eight, a size ten, a size twelve — partly depending on me, partly depending on the brand of clothing and the decade (sizes have changed; the current size 2 is the 1960s size 12).
I evaluated my beauty based on what I could do, mostly my ability to hike, climb hills and run on trails for long distances. When I saw photos of myself (much less common back in the day of camera and film) I was always fine with whatever it was. I could say, “That’s a bad haircut” or “Was I THAT heavy?” and really not care.
I cannot run trails. I don’t even hike well — I do OK for me, but… People think that because it’s difficult for me to hike that I don’t want to, but really standing around is more difficult on my arthritic knees than is walking. I don’t mind my awkwardness, but I’ve seen others feel compassion for me when they see me go sideways down the stairs (one leg is shorter than the other) or a steep hillside. I’ve gone from being the fastest one, the one in front, to the little lady lagging behind that everyone has to wait for.
My sense of my beauty has been radically upset. I’ve lately realized that there are things I don’t want to do because of my appearance. People compliment me on my white, white hair, but combining it with a lopsided, busty, chubby woman with a turkey wattle is — who IS that person? Added to that is the fact that I CARE and I’m ashamed of caring about something so superficial, so irrelevant, of being a person with abilities many people in this world wish they had and have never had. The knowledge of my vanity makes me feel ashamed.
I didn’t imagine that I — a person with little (I thought) personal vanity — would really, really hate going out in public in certain ways because of the way I look. I know it’s partly why I was relieved when I realized that my book signing at the bookstore in Denver was completely impractical financially. “Good,” I thought. “I don’t have to worry about what to wear because there is no way in hell I can look good.”
Looking good means looking like myself and I do not look like myself.
Recently a friend asked me, “How old are you? Seventy? Seventy two?”
“I used always to look younger than my age, but stuff started happening to me in 2005 that really aged me quickly. I’m 65.”
“Oh.” She was embarrassed, and I couldn’t say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s OK” because it isn’t OK at all. There is absolutely nothing OK about it.
It led me to think about our concept of beauty. I’m familiar with the whole women’s beauty magazine thuggery and all that. That isn’t what’s affecting me.
Yesterday I rode the Airdyne along the route of the Tour de France. It’s my favorite of the videos I got to ‘ride’ the ‘bike’ with. It’s beautiful and it’s mostly uphill. It is not an illusion of a bike ride; it’s a video, but it’s still a pleasant video and with music pouring into my head from my iPod it’s an activity that approaches fun, but it does not approach a sport. As I rode yesterday I thought about what it means — to me — to be beautiful. To me it means to look like someone who could hike/run 12 miles on a mountain trail on a beautiful day. It’s me + motion through nature, it’s the sense that always gave me of being part of that. Beauty is not completely superficial after all and it turns out I am not exempt from vanity. 😦
So, young’uns, whatever it is that makes you feel like you, that makes you feel beautiful, cherish it. It could happen that someday you — like me — will have to confront the loss or diminution of that part of your identity and you — like me — might be surprised how much it matters to you. And even I, right now, writing all this, know that — in my case — it could get, will get, worse and it’s my job to carpe the diem that is in front of me right now. ❤