As, over the past months my weight loss program, reinforced by the daily workout routine, has borne fruit in greatly reduced body size, I have been thinking about the changes age brings to our bodies.
That reminded of a blog post from more than six years ago about old bodies and the undeserved poor reputation our culture places on sags and bags and wrinkles and bulges that come with advanced years. In re-reading, I found that I like it a lot.
Cultural attitudes greatly influence individual beliefs about ourselves and others and I think we should have a go, particularly in our older years, at changing that - at least about ourselves and in doing so, maybe we can influence others too.
So have a read of this 2007 post (slightly updated for timeliness) and tomorrow we'll discuss all this further.
Michaelangelo’s David must be the prototype, don’t you think, of outstanding male beauty. He’s gorgeous. Handsome, muscled just enough and not too much, sensitive hands, firm thighs. In the 500 years since the David was so exquisitely sculpted, no one, in art, has matched his ideal.
And he’s young – 20, maybe 25.
Youth is exalted as the quintessence of human beauty. No one can resist it and why should we? A flawlessly rounded shoulder, the sensuous curve of a buttock, a young woman’s uptilting breasts, skin as smooth, still, as a baby’s bottom.
These days, there isn’t much meat on the bones of young women who are considered beautiful, but that wasn’t always so. Rubens is well-known for his “Rubenesque” bodies and Renoir, in this painting, was portraying the epitome of his era’s idea of comely, young womanliness.
My friend, Israeli artist Sali Ariel, was bucking the modern, skinny trend in female beauty when, in 1999, she made a series of womanly nudes in the Rubens and Renoir tradition.
I’ve never seen a painting of anyone as thin as top runway models, but I don’t think they could be as sexy as Sali’s woman. I own a framed set of these charcoals clustered on the wall in my office space and never tire of them.
It is right when hormones are raging and fecundity is in bloom that the young should be so beautiful. But that does not make age ugly or unattractive. Only different. And, frequently, more interesting. It is wrong to judge age by the standards of mere youth.
British artist, Lucien Freud, who died in 2011, made almost a career of painting himself in unforgiving detail as he has aged. (And everyone else he painted too; his 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II has been roundly criticized.) I can’t find an image of one of Freud’s full-body paintings, but this head will give you the general idea.
Michaelangelo’s David is sexually breathtaking but Freud’s self-portrait is fascinating. What living could have given him this face? It is said, you know, that he fathered 40 children.
Many of the old masters painted old people. This one by van Gogh is as honest in its way as Freud’s. Is she sad? I don’t think so. Maybe she is tired and wishing ol' Vincent would be done with it for the day. Or lost in thought, perhaps. She does not look at us.
Whenever I see old, old people, those who have lost the attachment to pretense of youth our culture relentlessly demands, I spin stories to myself of the lives they have lived and wonder what magnificent memories will die with them.
There is dignity in this sculpture by Auguste Rodin – “The Old Courtesan” – of a woman who had once been a professional model.
It portrays the inevitable decline that comes to all men and women and is, in its truthfulness more penetrating than the David. There is more to wonder about in this, more to know, more to contemplate.
Youth’s beauty is easy to look at. It is about uncomplicated potential that may or may not develop. We like it for its clarity, its obviousness and its simplicity. There are no mysteries in youth and that is sometimes refreshing in itself.
Ah, but age is intricate and complex, made from decades of accumulated knowledge and experience compounded with the folly and error no one escapes. It is hard for us to confront, with its intimations of death, more difficult to behold. Can you see the difference in this well-known optical illusion? Youth and age, one no better than the other. Only different.
[To Marie Grosnay] “No doubt you were extremely beautiful as a young girl, but your youth could never compete with your age now.”
- - Charlie Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux, 1947
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: August Nights in Arkansas