Shortly after World War II, in the late 1940s, my family moved to Lake Oswego, Oregon, where my parents had built a new house on the GI Bill. I was seven or eight years old and my only nearby playmate was a girl who was three or four years older.
On age alone, leadership of our two-girl pack fell to Carol whose sole interest in life was movie stars. She had stacks of movie magazines – Photoplay, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, Hollywood – over which we pored picking out our favorite stars – the men who were handsome and the women we wanted to look like. I can't recall the criteria we applied.
It was common then for movie magazines to list women stars’ “vital statistics” as a series of numbers. 34-24-34 was considered a perfect figure – what every teenage girl aimed to match. The phrase “hour-glass figure” was in vogue.
If memory serves, by the time I was old enough to achieve my own set of numbers, the ideal had changed to 34-22-36 and although the kind of pressure young girls face today to be as thin as models who are shaped like 10-year-old boys had not yet emerged, an 18-inch waist was something to be admired.
From childhood on it was obvious that my body, left to its own devices, preferred pudgy over slim. But with will power and diligent dieting, I maintained a damned cute figure – if I do say so myself – until in my fifties, age, menopause and weariness with counting every forkful led me to change my eating habits. Henceforth, I determined, I would eat whatever suited my fancy – within reasonable health limits - and see what happened.
Anyone could have predicted the result. It wasn’t long before I was horrified to see, as I caught sight of myself in the mirror getting out of the shower one day, that my waist appeared to match the width of my hips. My shoulders had become beefy and that space between breasts and abdomen had filled out – not a beer belly, but a visible swelling where one had never been. At least my hips and butt didn’t change much.
Realizing there is no way to hide excess weight entirely, I determined to at least not show off the bulges. I became a master of camouflage. No more belts, of course, no dresses with sewn-in waistlines. Loose Oxford shirts, elastic-waist pants and skirts, men’s sweaters (they hang better) in winter became my friends, and so they remain.
Would I like to be thinner? Sure. But I eat well; aside from ice cream, junk food doesn't interest me. And with age, my appetite has decreased. I was never a gym rat and won't start now, so my daily walk and the t'ai chi class I've signed up for beginning next month is what will continue to pass for exercise. Determined to be comfortable in my own skin, however much it encases, I threw out the bathroom scale several years ago and tossed the full-length mirror when I moved. I have better things with which to occupy my mind.
But it is still not quite like that. I think about my size and shape too much. When I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window, I am dispirited. If, when shopping, a communal dressing room is the only choice, I don’t buy. There is no telling how much money I’ve saved and stores have lost to that humiliating set-up because there is no way I’m changing clothes next to a 19-year-old Kate Moss-type in a room with wraparound mirrors. I’d like to be more self-possessed than that, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway.
It is in the nature of human bodies to thicken as we get older and I should be, by now, past caring. I don’t want to spend my remaining years lamenting that I’m not as svelte as Katharine Hepburn – a poor choice for me to emulate in youth OR age since even at my best, Miss Hepburn was twice as tall and half as wide as I was.
Whether we like to think so or not, celebrities, pictured in magazines, movies and television shows, are our role models in regard to what is attractive and au courant. Even intelligent women who should know better look to these goddesses of beauty to learn how to dress, wear our hair and how to carry ourselves in general.
But where are the role models for women of my age whose bodies are not out of the ordinary? Someone to admire and respect for her achievements who also looks like a normal older woman and is considered attractive? They are hard to find in a youth-obsessed culture which values beauty and thinness and abhors showing older women at all except as objects of contempt or humor.
One evening recently, I was catching up with some episodes of As Time Goes By I had recorded. I’ve been intermittently watching this BBC series for a decade or more. It is the only program ever produced that presents elders as intelligent, active, thoughtful – and in this case, funny – people engaged in life while coping with the inevitable factors of aging.
Even the Golden Girls, on a show which made intelligent fun of later years, were still chasing after men with the relentlessness of hormone-addled teenagers. But I digress.
Although I’ve seen Judi Dench, who stars in As Time Goes By, in many films over many years, I had never given a moment’s thought to her appearance beyond the role she was playing – until that evening watching two or three episodes in a row. It struck me then for the first time that she and I have remarkably similar bodies.
Then I noticed that she is costumed on the show much the way I dress, in loose tops and sweaters or jackets over shell blouses and teeshirts – clothing chosen to hide the excess, mid-body flesh. You would think the show’s wardrobe people had been peeking in my closet.
So, since thanks to my childhood friend, Carol, I have always looked to movie stars for a reality check on what's attractive, I am now adopting Dame Judi as my exemplar. She carries herself as a poised and confident older woman who (although I have no way of knowing) appears to be comfortable in her 71-year-old body. And that is my goal.
Ideally, I’d like to ignore my size and shape (beyond health concerns) for the rest of my life and live like Popeye: “I yam what I yam.” I’ll let you know how it goes.
ADDENDUM: To the few of you out there who have never felt the pressure to aim for the stars (as it were) physically, please keep it to yourselves. I accept that you are more spiritually advanced and sensible than I, but I don't want to hear about it.