One of the great things about getting older (I am 39 this year) is a better understanding of what you need for a life that is meaningful, purposeful and satisfying. The problem is, we live in a youth-obsessed culture.
You can’t be online for more than three seconds without being bombarded by images of young, invariably thin women frolicking on a beach somewhere or exercising gleefully with perfect hair, nails and skin gleaming in the sunshine. How can anyone keep up with that? Forget anyone; how can you and your ever-changing (and ever-aging) body keep up with that?
We can’t. I can’t. So rather than wasting more energy lamenting it – as I did in my 20s and 30s – I am letting go and remembering something really cool: My body rocks.When I say that I have an ass that doesn’t quit, I literally mean it: I have an ass that doesn’t quit.
I am a biologist. I spent years and years getting my PhD and, while I will spare you my dissertation, the upshot is that humans are a miracle. You are a miracle. I am a miracle. The sheer molecular complexity and coordinated effort our molecules and cells put forth to organize into organs and organ systems and finally a being that can walk itself down the street and sip iced coffee at the same time is a miracle. Reflecting on that, I can’t believe I spent any amount of time worrying about not being thinner/taller/prettier rather than being amazed at all the things this body can actually do.
I used to live on the fifth floor of a Lower East Side walkup, and I still climb stairs and run to catch trains and swerve through traffic on my bike and all-around make my way through the mayhem of New York City while schlepping bags, book, furniture and whatever it takes to build a life for myself. When I say that I have an ass that doesn’t quit, I literally mean it: I have an ass that doesn’t quit.
Having said that, it’s hard to go from 39 to 40 without doing a lot of soul-searching — or at least a lot of angsting. I’m single (still). I don’t have kids (yet). I’m still getting where I’m going. So I have some stuff to work through. Including how to feel about this collection of skin and bones and muscle and tendons and cells and follicles I walk around in.
Here’s the rub: I’m more confident than I was when I was younger (but I have more wrinkles). I’m wiser (but I’m also heavier). I’m more successful than ever (but I have a lot more cellulite). I’m tackling my own body doublethink; this confounding and ultimately limiting way of accepting a positive quality or accomplishment related to my inner self while simultaneously dissing the packaging. I don’t have it all figured out by any means, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Release the old body clothes
Every woman I know (myself included) has clothing in her closet that she used to fit into and that is being saved for that undefined point in the future where she may fit into it again. I realize that, for me, part of this phenomenon has less to do with any real plan to wear those clothes again and more to my own reluctance to let go of my younger self. These too-small/no longer age-appropriate clothes connect me to the nights, people and experiences of another time, to the younger me that stayed out until sunrise and kissed boys on the street and sang boozy anthems in the back of taxi cabs. (Which is not to say that these things don’t or won’t happen again.)
While I can’t claim to having gotten rid of all my don’t-fit clothes, taking photos and writing or recording a short note-to-self about the memories each item of clothing brings up has helped me to not only let go of my fear-of-sudden-oldness (or FOSO, if you will) but also to celebrate those times and myself in them. I’ve found it particularly useful when schlepping Housing Works donations (get your tax credit, y’all!) to imagine the next generation of hot young things wearing that impossibly short denim skirt, stomping around the Lower East Side (or wherever the kids are going these days) and carrying on the legacy.
Your body is the thing you use to do cool stuff
“The gym” didn’t feature as a staple in my life (or at least a consistent feature on my credit card statement) until my 30s. With the exception of the tremendously fun Latin low-impact class at the 92nd St. Y, I usually just went out and did the activities that I enjoyed. None of it was particularly geared at being “healthier,” which, let’s be honest, is often code for “thinner.” As I’ve gotten older, I have found myself struggling to stay physically active. I feel too busy, too tired or too stressed to even think of working out.
The best advice I got about how to stay physically active throughout your life came from my friend Flo Roth, a former pro hockey player, surfer and performance coach who suggested that, rather than forcing myself to go to the gym with an aesthetic goal in mind, I could instead try to think of my body as a vehicle to new activities and experiences. I could try out some new forms of physical activity, things I’d always wanted to try or was curious about, and approach training and exercise not as torture, not as a necessary evil toward the path to beauty, but as a means to get better at doing those things I actually enjoyed. The theory was that I would stick to those activities and, most importantly, they would enrich my life.
With this new framework in mind, I’ve gone out and tried new things this year that my younger self would have been too afraid to do: surfing with women of all ages in Nicaragua, scuba diving in Jamaica, rock climbing in Brooklyn and volcano boarding.(From Wikipedia: “Potential dangers include falling off and getting cut by the rough volcanic ash, breathing poisonous gasses, or being hit by flying molten lava.”) And you know what? It was scary as hell. I was sore and tired and clueless, and I got hit in the face with a board and nearly drowned. Also, I kind of sucked at all these things because guess what? They were new and hard.
But I also felt great. After every one of these experiences, I felt stronger, slept like a baby and wanted to return for more. It felt great to be willing to try new things physically and emotionally and to put this body to use in ways that I never thought I would, ways that had nothing to do with external approval or beauty. The scariest part of doing anything new physically happens right before you’re actually doing it. When you set yourself in motion, everything else falls away and it’s just you in that moment.
It’s kind of wild. I’m fatter than I’ve ever been, I’m older than I’ve ever been and I’m doing more things with this body than I ever have.
The long game (or, don’t screw over your 90-year-old self)
Human beings today are living longer than we ever have before. Getting older means we’re past the “I’m gonna live forever” phase of our lives. It means knowing people who have died before their time. It means we need to take care of ourselves for the long haul.
Keep those doctors appointments. Take those vitamins. Floss regularly. Stop drinking like a fish and don’t freaking smoke. (Even when you’re out drinking…ahem, note to self.) Caring for our bodies is an active, incremental and evolving process that’s ultimately connected to a vision of what we want our ideal life to look like, not what we want our abs to look like.
The way we feel about our bodies and the way we experience our bodies as we age impacts our perception of what it means to be feminine, to be sexy and desirable and therefore valuable in today’s culture. But this body is more than appearance. It’s needs to last us a long time to carry us through the (hopefully) long, long life we build for ourselves.