“Mom, which part of your body do you love most?”
Susan and I are standing in the shade of a tree, the exotic likes of which I see only here in New Zealand. The Pacific Ocean is a-dazzle before us, almost bright green in the sun, with black rock formations adding drama all along the shore. It’s early morning, the surfing crowd must still be sleeping off hangovers. At this end of the wide white beach we’re looking at hundreds of blond kiwi kids, all skinny and athletic. It’s a big day-long competition today: foot races, water board races, swimming, kayaking, etc. We’re looking for eleven-year-old Hannah who is hoping to win some of the events. Since she’s my granddaughter and Susan’s niece we have no doubt that she’ll win them all.
“Goodness Susan, I’ve certainly never before thought of my body with that question in mind. Let’s see. Hmmmm. Ah, I know: my feet.”
Yes, my bony veiny feet with the huge bunions that have forever been the bane of my shoe-adoring life. I remind her how for years I hid them underneath anything handy, hoping no-one would see them. Now we look down at them and marvel at how changed in shape they are, especially my toes, which become more and more gnarly and bent. One of the big toes is almost pointing at the little toe, and will soon be at a total right angle to my foot.
“Yeah, look at that! But you know what? They never give me any pain, and they are always at the ready to do anything I ask of them. I feel so grateful to them, so admiring, so downright proud of their strength and abilities despite all odds. And yes, they certainly are odd looking, aren’t they?!”
We get talking about bodies, as we often do. Susan, for years a dancer with a number of New York City dance companies, now the owner/director of an Amsterdam yoga center, is every bit as interested in all aspects of the subject as I am. She has just turned fifty, so we have a lot to discuss about what happens as the years roll by.
I like to think that one of my main mothering tasks at this point in our lives is to help my daughters navigate their way through all the body changes that are beginning for them. Mainly, I hope I can help counteract all the extremely negative societal views of aging.
That’s easy for me to do, since these views make me so damn mad. They come from such a youth-centric view of human development, one that is narrow and self-serving in the extreme. Since our bodies and our minds and even our emotions continue to develop throughout our lives, how is it that we’ve come to think of these changes as evidence of deterioration and decline? It seems to me that our changing bodies – yes, the wrinkles, the graying, the whole kit and caboodle – are evidence of our ever-increasing experience and, if we’re paying attention, of our deepened understanding and knowledge. You’d think that we’d see this as beauty, one that is different from the beauty of youth, but beauty nevertheless. You’d think we’d have some positive feelings about getting older, even with all the challenges that can accompany those increasing years.
Yet we’ve become phobic to all these indicators of having lived longer. We fight them as though our lives will forever be ruined if we can’t continue looking as though we’re under fifty. All the adjectives associated with aging have taken on such a taint of horror for us: saggy, gray, wrinkled, arthritic, slow, even the word aging itself.
One of the few useful things I learned in graduate school was that in order to change attitudes one must first change behavior. To this end, I taught myself to become aware, really aware, whenever I used a negative adjective to describe a body part. At first I just noticed when I did it, and I was surprised to find how often I did. Then I began replacing that word with a neutral word or with no word. For instance, I taught myself to say “my breasts” rather than “my saggy breasts.” When I noticed that I often accompanied a negative adjective with a pained expression, I worked on cutting that out too. It has made a surprising difference to me, not only in how I feel about how I look but also in how I approach the whole fact of getting older every day.
We never did manage to find Hannah in that big crowd of kids, so we walked over to the Farmers’ Market instead and bought bags and bags full of luscious ripe fruits and vegetables. We laughed as we realized that we were feeling somehow one with them all.