My ankles hurt each morning when I rise out of bed.
I ran a half marathon recently and while my aerobic capacity is going strong, and my desire to stay young even as I age is pronounced, my joints don’t seem all that pleased about my pavement pounding. I’ve found tricks to help ease those aches, stretching my calves and rolling my feet prior to placing them on my cold wooden floor. Still, the first few steps of the day indicate some strain. Perhaps the beginnings of arthritis from years of overuse; days of fifth grade ballet class, jazz in high school and modern dance in college and beyond. I read my dancing life in my ankles and knees, I carry lessons in my wrists from piano, my mouth from oboe, my shoulders from carrying stress.
The body shows age. Think about that. The body quite literally shows us where we have been, what we have done. It shows in lines and scars, in aches and fatigue. The stories of our years on this planet are written on and in our bodies. We may try to avoid it, through surgeries, exfoliation, hormone enhancement or love affairs, but the words are indelible.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about aging lately. I’m 43. I’ve had two children. I see them growing into young human beings ready to take center-stage in life and I realize that might indicate that I’m headed to the wings.
I don’t feel ready. I feel vital, strong, sexy. Alive, yes? And fully connected to my body even as it ages. I’m aware though, that women and aging and being considered sexy doesn’t always go hand in hand. Outside of ‘cougars’ and ‘milfs’ and a country’s addiction to plastic surgery, the naturally aging woman might not be seen in a truly sexual life. A fading rose perhaps.
A few months ago, on a magazine I frequent, there was a post recently by Tom Matlack, called “Is Male Lust Turning Us Inside Out.” It garnered several hundred comments, many due in part to the opening paragraph referencing how a friend was discussing with Tom how pregnancy and childbirth ruined his wife’s breasts.
There was so much anxiety produced in both male and female comments. So charged and so effective in lighting up sparks of fear in many women readers. So much defensiveness from men. What was the fear? Or was it the totality of the statement, the particular callousness of it?
This article was inspired in part by those comments, but it is not a complaint on Tom’s piece, nor a polemic about the state of male lust. As a woman who has had a more alternative marriage than some, and as a woman who is in favor of honest conversations with the men in my life, I think my reaction was due to the casual unkindness of the initial statement about breasts and ruination.
I am aware that all of us desire youth and beauty. I do not mind that. I have no argument with lust or desire. I merely want kindness and consideration of the beauty of the body as it ages. My body might say, “Be kind to me and my aging body while you lust for others, and I will be kind to you and yours, as my own eyes pause on younger flesh. Do not see me as ruined.”
Ruined. Ruin. Ruins. This word has been ringing in my head.
Ruined? Does aging ruin us? Are my hips, a bit wider than in past years, ruined? My stomach, not stretch-marked but a bit looser due to pregnancy, ruined? My feet—once a petite sever, now an eight or eight and a half depending on the shoe–are they ruined? Or are they just written upon by life? By the stories of being young, of aging, of producing children. Of pain, of joy, of conception and labor, of strain and challenge. I can look at my body and read those histories.
On my own breasts, I imagine written poems of waiting, waiting, tears while waiting for them to grow, of furtive teenage petting, of pleasure and hope with new lovers, with annoyance at monthly swelling and pain. Words of cooing, of tolerance for a baby’s unskilled latch, of sharp pain at cracked nipples, of “I love you’s’ given by a baby’s gentle pat on my flesh, giggling as milk spilled from his mouth.
This mark, here a poem of shock at the capacity for milk production, of a glorious spray of nutrients. I can see right here in this curve a story of sadness when that time of nursing was over. In this area, flatter than before, darker, I can see the present, the result of the past. And my life is not finished. There are more stories to be written on my breasts, on my body, in my being.
My husband’s body too, is covered in poetry, in heartbreak, stoicism, knees that hurt, hair that is different than in his younger years. A crease under his eye, from focus on a dissertation, muscles that have strengthened in places, lessened in others. Can I look on those poems with desire? Yes, I can. I can read our 19 years together, and wonder about the years before. He can tell me stories about those years. I can read the poems on his body. He can read mine.
Can I see the difference between my body and one of a 25 year-old, nubile girl? Well, of course. She’s at the beginning and I’m at the middle. Can I accept that when his eyes cross her body that he’ll experience something perhaps different than when his body reads mine? Yes, I can, and he knows I’ll appreciate the beauty of younger men as well. Nothing wrong with having that out in the open.
But what about kindness? Words mean things. What we say out loud is how we see the world. Are we all so worried we are ruined or will be, men and women alike, gay and straight, as we age? About worrying we’ll be irrelevant, impotent, disregarded for sagging breasts, thinning hair, or growing guts?
By accident, I ran across this gorgeous post from written by Curtis Smith, Decline, which truly sealed my desire to write this piece today. Though I fight it with morning runs, face creams and sexy shoes, I know in my heart that our bodies are meant to be ruined from living life, meant to decline like temples first proud and shining, into ruins of achy bones and weathered skin.
It’s quite fair to say that we lust and desire the young, both men and women, because they are beautiful. But isn’t it possible that that desire for them is also because they show us where we have already been? We already know we’ve written those stories, but still we’d like more, just a little bit more.
Our ruined bodies remind each other, partner to partner, that we are not new anymore. This is hard, but it is also beautiful. We will wear our stories on our ruined bodies and those stories are who we are. They are poems, lead us from birth to death, and they are holy, all of them. All I want is kindness along the way while the poems are written.
editor: Greg Eckard
Julie Gillis is a writer, producer and speaker focused on human sexuality, gender, and social justice. Julie uses humor and comedy in her performance and consulting work, but she is completely serious about making this world a better place for people to love and be loved. Her blog can be seen at www.juliegillis.com.