A man once told me that if he ever suggested to his 89-year-old grandmother that she was old, she would have smacked him.
Yes, it is extreme to hang on to such a view at her age, but I've seen it myself. Many elders – the majority, I would guess – find the idea of old age so abhorrent and terrifying they deny they are old even when doing so makes them appear sad or foolish or, in some cases, grotesque to others.
But it's not hard to see why they do it. In a thousand ways every day, our culture reminds us that being old is the most terrible thing that can befall any person. And in twice as many ways every day, it unrelentingly promotes the lie that we can maintain a youthful body unto death.
”The shame-based approach to aging is heavily reinforced by an American mediascape that loudly and insistently proclaims, 'You are young. Young is always better than old. Adulthood can last forever, if you want it to.' In public, we tell each other, 'You’re as young as you feel!'”
So notes geriatrician Bill Thomas.
Even though I have never really believed any of this hooey, the repetition is insidious and like so many, I have been a shamed victim of it.
All my life, I fought the extra 10-20 pounds my body insisted it wanted. I did pretty well until I retired nine years ago and exhausted from 40 years of constant dieting, just let it go. The result, of course, was a heavy weight gain.
As regular readers know, I let it be until early this year fear – make that FEAR - of aging diseases associated with obesity led me to a weight control regimen that is ongoing and, so far, quite successful.
However, the cultural shame game about our bodies had kept me from looking at myself naked for many years. I will show you how difficult that is in my home. This is a photo of my dressing room that has lots and lots of mirrors reflecting one another.
My clothes are behind about 13 feet of sliding doors you can't see on the left and the door in the back on the right opens into the tub/shower room so you know that at least twice a day I am naked in that room.
But until last week, I had seen myself in that natural state – really looked at myself without clothing – only once, about a year or so ago. Do you have any idea how difficult that is with mirrors on two sides of you every day? It takes a lot of shame to work at it that hard.
For me, elder advocate that I am, there is a strange division in my mind about this. On the one hand, I unshakably believe – and have done so for many years - that there is nothing wrong with old bodies. I find photographs and paintings of old bodies to be fascinating and attractive.
On the other hand, I have not liked to see what time has done to my own body. Bill Thomas again:
”Because our culture has conditioned us to focus on our flaws, we naturally concentrate on and worry about the wrinkles, creases, and imperfections we see in the mirror.
“Although it can seem hard to believe at first, it is within our power to look into a mirror, study what we see there, and acknowledge, without reservation, that we are no longer young. We can learn to read the story of our lives as it has been written around our eyes and mouth and across our foreheads and cheeks.
“We can begin to reinterpret the changes as signs of important signifiers of our unique journey through life.”
It had been a couple of years since I had read those words of Thomas's but they came to mind when, last week, I wondered how my body looks now after losing 25 of the 40 pounds that is my goal. I stood in front of those mirrors for a good, long time taking in the wrinkles, the pudgy parts, the sags and all.
No, you are not going to see what I look like naked, but I am going to show you whom I most reminded myself of: the sculpture of “The Old Courtesan” by Rodin that I showed you yesterday, here in another view:
I'm a bit more round than she is with more flesh on my bones but with that, our bodies are remarkably similar, even to the apparent strength in her calf, to that little pot belly (which I am determined to lose) and to our breasts. Mine never did amount to much anyway and are almost as droopy as hers.
The more I looked, turning here and there, adjusting the mirrors to try different angles, the more I became okay with me. I'm 72 – into my eighth decade now. This is what I look like and it's been a long, interesting road getting here that I would not trade.
Not infrequently on this blog, a commenter will say that he or she feels the same now as 30 or 40 or more years ago. Really? I feel a lot different and glad of it.
It would be awful to feel and be the same person I was at 20 or 30 or 40. I hope to god I've learned and grown and changed my mind about stupid things I once believed. Bill Thomas agrees:
”You must have an intensely personal and private conversation with your own true, aging, self,” he writes. “The time has come to look into the mirror and, finally, make peace with the changes you see on your face and feel in your mind and body.
“You are not the person you were when you were 20 years old. You are not the person you were 20 years ago. The fact is that those people vanished a long time ago.”
That was readily apparent when I spent personal time with the mirror and guess what? I didn't faint. I didn't fall down. I didn't feel bad when I looked at my naked self. It's what I am now and there is no point in trying to wish back my 20-year-old body.
It would be such a waste of time to spend one moment on such thoughts. Instead, listen to Bill Thomas – he knows what he's talking about – and be brave:
1. ”Stop pining for what is already gone
2. ”Start searching for the person you are meant to become
“Relinquishing one’s claim on youth is a necessary precondition for exploring life beyond adulthood...
“Persistently and deliberately misinterpreted as mere decline, elderhood is actually the rich reward that goes to those who manage to outgrow the frenzied jangle of adulthood and enter voluntarily into a new and much more soulful way of being.”
All these quotes from Dr. Thomas are from Eldertopia, his impassioned plea for acceptance of elderhood as a separate time of life from adulthood, published in the 2012 edition of “The Journal” from AARP International.
I hope Bill doesn't mind that I have cherry picked the quotations to go along with what is on my mind this week, acceptance of our elder bodies. That idea plays a supporting role in service to the point of his story but I don't believe I have misrepresented anything.
It is well worth your while to read Eldertopia in full.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: Double Treasures