September 19, 2013

After the Blush of Youth, What is Beauty?

Now that I am “old” (43) I see something I wish I’d seen when I had it: the beauty of youth.

In my younger years, I considered my appearance to be grossly flawed.

And it was, by the standards of beauty which were waved like twisted flags in my face everywhere I turned. Even though this was the dark ages, and I didn’t have the additional horror of continually streaming media battering my consciousness, I still got the message loud and clear.

I was not beautiful.

And the corollary; beauty is all that matters for a girl.

When I look back, I know what I was seeing. An awkwardly tall, plain faced, overweight kid who had no idea how to be the person she wanted to be.

What I missed was the things I see now in all children, plain or not.

Hair, whatever color it was meant to be, growing unapologetically with whatever texture it was meant to be as well. The miracle of young skin, cool when caressed with the back of a hand, hot while sleeping or fevered and tucked into freshly laundered sheets. Teeth, and the gaps between them, in all stages from baby to adolescent. Teeth that have not yet tasted coffee or wine, and resonate innocence in their crooked splendor. Dirty fingernails and clear eyes, the smell of crayons and mud and grass, a brain that believes in magic.

I can see these things now because I am older, because I have children, and because hindsight is 20/20.

But what beauty in myself am I still missing? When I glance back at me at 43 from the (not so) distant horizon of 82, what will I wish I could have appreciated now?

Strong legs? A healthy sex life? Long hair? A sound mind?

I suspect I’ll see all that and more; things I could never predict now.

I recently mentioned (somewhat naively) to my mother that “aging wasn’t bothering me as much as I thought it might.”

“Just wait,” she said.

I remember her, when I was fifteen or so, trying on a dress at Lord and Taylor’s, asking me how it looked. “Fine,” I’d said, just wanting to hurry up and get out of the dressing room.

“Really?” she replied. “Maybe you’re right. My legs still look pretty good from the knees down.” And she laughed, as if that was just fine. My fifteen year old self was horrified. How could you be satisfied with just “looking good from the knees down”? If I only looked good from the knees down, I’d hide in a locked closet until I died.

Or maybe not. I’m negligible above the knees lately myself.

I have Spanx in my wardrobe.

I haven’t worn them yet, but I expect to, and when I need them they’ll be there. I have jackets and pashminas too, because no one wants to see a 43 year old in a strapless dress, unless it’s Halle Berry, who clearly made some pact with the devil. I have eye creams, and face creams, skirted swimsuits and broad brimmed hats—all things I swore I would never ever resort to.

Such is the pride of youth. We think we have so much control.

And yet, I often feel beautiful. Despite my wrinkled eyes and my bad back and my butt that seems to creep an inch lower every month, I feel beautiful.

I’m not delusional. I see those pretty young girls in their twenties, prancing around (just as I did) in their heels and their smoky eyes, and I feel a pang. I’ll never be young again.

But what I am now feels so much better. I feel like myself. Like a person I created and earned and live as, rather than a warped reflection of what I am supposed to be. I’m not worrying so much about those flags that wave in my face anymore. They’re still there, but now I grab them, carefully roll them up and set them aside.

I’m looking forward to becoming more and more me, even as my body falls to pieces. By the time I die (not holed up in a closet due to shame, but out in the open, brazen, for all the world to see), I’ll be all heart, no body.

I would like to be known then as “The Smiling Woman.” A woman so beautiful, her age, her body, her clothes, her home and every other thing about her, except her smile, is irrelevant.

My teeth will be stained and my body bent, but my face will say,

“Thank you. Thank you for this beautiful life.”


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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