“Where can we see them now? That simple dancing of well-covered matrons … remembering but not affecting youth, not jealous but proud of the young maidens by their side ….” George Eliot, Adam Bede, 1859
I let my stomach out on the beach in Taormina that afternoon in a victory of acceptance over self-loathing that I hoped would begin a process of coming to new terms with myself. I am nearly sixty and, for a long time, I have been sucking in my belly in when I enter a room where others are present, when I walk past my reflection in a store window, and during sex. So I was surprised that day as, from out of a blue Sicilian sky, I knocked up against an epiphany: “I am no longer young. This stomach and this ass are what I’ve got.” I took a deep breath and tried to let that settle in.
Lying on a beach lounge for twenty minutes of sun –I allowed myself no more–and buoyed by the permission I had just granted myself merely to be, I still couldn’t fight the urge to give in to my lifelong practice of comparing my body parts with other women. This was not always a winning proposition and it was becoming less so with the passage of time. Yet, it was irresistible. I looked around and saw all manner of female flesh in assorted beachwear. I began: she had better thighs, but I was thinner; that one had a wrinkled neck, this one slimmer arms, flabbier stomach, thinner hair, saggier boobs. And on and on. How about the one walking by? In her neck-to-toe cover-up and luncheon-at-the-country-club makeup, she was struggling to hold on to her sense of vanity while fearing/knowing it was time to hang up her bag of tricks. I knew how she felt.
This kind of review had moments that soothed me and others that rattled me badly. Overall, though, it gave me a kind of consolation. I came out poorly in some respects, but pretty well in others. It made me feel I was still in the game, that there was still a light on inside me, the loss of which would be terrifying. Invisibility is like death.
After my survey, lulled by the sun but driven by a wish to understand how I had come to be so hard on myself, I flashed to a photo of myself at seven. I am a coquette with curly hair and bangs, flirting with the camera in a classic beauty pageant pose: left hand on hip, right palm cupping the back of my head, elbow bent, with my left shoulder jutting forward. It is obvious I already know I have something to crow about. I was pretty and could use my looks to make people pay attention to me. I didn’t have to do anything except stand there. Being me, or what I appeared to be, was enough. It was intoxicating.
At ten, I was in a camp show and got to sashay across the stage, ponytail bouncing, in a similar pose. I caused such a sensation that my teenage counselor’s cute boyfriend asked her to introduce me to him after the show. This I perceived as power.
At around the same age, I used to play a game in bed, making out the length of my fingernails in silhouette against the plastic hood of a nightlight on a wall in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. Thumb versus thumb, pointer versus pointer. After the ten digital contestants strutted their stuff, the hand with more long nails was the winner, a regal flutter in the dark as its prize. I was judging myself, even then. But with me as both the winner and the loser, could there every really be a victory?
As a teenager, I submitted my entire body to brutal scrutiny:
Hair: Too frizzy in humidity, too flat in dry weather. Too long one day, too short the next. I had no skill or patience for blow-drying, so it was always a little scruffy. I achieved blow-dried excellence on one occasion only: my high school graduation picture. I had a chin-length pageboy with a middle part. It was everything I could have hoped for, mainly because it made me look just like all the popular girls. But, oh yeah, there was that little out-of-place section down around the left side of my jaw….
Nose: I called my nose The Hangover – as in droopy, not as in drunk. I thought it was hideous. I used to put my index finger on the spot at the top of my nose between my eyes and pull up the skin to see how it would look with a nose job. No improvement. I felt like Porky Pig or some alien gentile version of me.
Chin: So pointy I thought I looked like the witch in Hansel & Gretel or the one in Snow White – or are they the same witch? Sometimes I would pull down the tip of my nose while pulling up my chin to see if they would reach, fearing they would.
And that was just me going at my face. The rest of my body suffered no less an excoriation at my own hands.
The yellow-hot heat of the Mediterranean sun brought me out of my reverie as did the puzzling nature of all this self-examination. I felt bad for myself. I wanted to reach back and hug that kid and tell her to knock it off.
I realized this fight with my body and my shaky sense of how well I measured up had gone on all my life. Was I pretty? Yes, no. Yes, no. Was it okay to be pretty? If so, then what could one get from it? Better to put myself down than to acknowledge the power it gave me. Did I deserve it? Did I have other powers, like intelligence and creativity, which were more risky to confront? And at the same time the beauty was waning, a new, ironic feeling: rushed in: as much as I didn’t exactly want to disappear, being told I was gorgeous wasn’t enough anymore. Still, the internal struggle went on.
I thought about an older friend who once remarked to me that after forty, a woman should only make love on her back. At the time — I was twenty-five — I thought the idea preposterous, but it rang true to me now, reclining bravely on the beach chair and feeling very exposed in the red one-piece bathing suit I had struggled to allow myself to buy for this trip. Now, I got what she meant. Gravity. That same friend had told me she was looking forward to growing into an old dame who didn’t give a hoot about how she looked. She would throw on a muumuu and let it all hang out. But her eyes showed a kind of manic desperation, borne of no goddamn choice. It was the fear talking.
Scanning the pebbled seashore, my eyes fell on an Italian woman di una certa età, her hair a glorious mess in a wind-blown chignon, with tendrils every which way. She strutted along the wooden walkway in a black bikini and gold cork high-heeled espadrilles, a long, white, sheer dress fluttering as she moved, smoking a cigarette with that wonderful European smell, a delicious combination of garbage and sex. She owned the beach. Even with her leathery skin and abundant stomach rolls, she was everything I was hoping to allow myself to become. Screw the muumuu.
That morning, I had stepped onto the scale in the hotel room bathroom, which I liked because it was in kilograms and I didn’t know how to make the conversion. Most mornings, I checked my weight first thing after peeing, dropping my clothes to the floor. The scale I had used for years at home was now five pounds off, on the light side. I knew this very well, but I persisted in the delusion that it was accurate. I took consolation from the number, even knowing it was a lie.
Facing the mirror was no casual undertaking. It was there I surveyed the damage done overnight by sleeping with my face pushed into the pillow. Those burgeoning lines and that incipient puffiness called out for Face 911. Cucumbers on the eyelids were for dewy debutantes. I needed to spackle and dissimulate. Once, I could jump out of the shower, rub on Jergens (almonds don’t really smell like that, do they?), run my fingers through my hair, throw on clothes and walk out the door. Didn’t think twice. These days, there were shocking and sad moments when furrows began to form from nose to lips, when eyelids didn’t return to where they were supposed to be after I pulled them to apply liner, when white whiskers started to dot my chin and when, in company, the back of my hand flew to hide a fold of loose skin on my neck. I dismissed compliments, but I wanted them desperately. I even fished from my husband. Talk about asking your right hand to tell you if your left hand looks good. Kind of like the fingernail contest.
Way more than twenty minutes had elapsed and it was time to gather up my things to leave the beach. In my bag was the key to our hotel room. Before me was the magnificent opportunity to make of the evening whatever we wished. On the beach, I had struggled to begin to understand something I once read: age is just time’s latest costume.
That night, stepping up to a mirror, I released a sigh before a smile, hurrying on to the happy and untidy life a whole shelf full of beauty creams couldn’t make me wish away.