Yesterday a dear friend called and pointedly asked me, “So…how are you feeling about your upcoming birthday?” I got a chuckle out of that, not only because she knows me so well, but also because that is a question one would never be asked before a certain age.
The answer is that I feel great, but I must admit that I did go through some aging angst earlier this year (and I will most likely go through it again). As women my age know, our bodies start to change, and not always for the better. In addition, I was spending time with some particularly beautiful (and somewhat enhanced) women, and that started to make me feel a bit like the frumpy old stepsister.
When I was living in Northampton, I was in a community of very natural, some might even say crunchy, women. The beauty regimes of these ladies tend more towards juicing and yoga than Botox and boob jobs. As I routinely saw in my hot yoga classes, shaving one’s legs and armpits was often considered optional.
However, here in the Boston area, women seem to have a different approach. They are more glamorous. I was once chided for wearing jeans to a holiday party by a woman wearing a black lace dress. (Luckily, the hostess reminded her that she was also wearing them.) They seem to have perkier breasts, smoother faces, and tighter bods. I will confess that it started to make me feel insecure and inferior. I began to wonder why a guy would want to date me when he could have a hottie like one of my friends. After one date with a guy that I particularly liked, I decided that I needed to be thinner (even though I am medically at a perfectly normal weight). So I went on my first diet since I gave them up at 22, which turned me from a healthy and good-natured person to a self-obsessed grouch.
During that brief stint of self-deprivation, my 8 year-old daughter told me that her dad had suggested that she wax her eyebrows when she gets older. I told her that no man (or person, really) should tell her how to be beautiful, which she was very grateful to hear because she said she is fine with her eyebrows. When I posted about this on Facebook, my friends congratulated me for teaching her good values and said that she was lucky to have me as a mom. This praise made me feel a little like a fraud because here I was dieting because I had this insecure notion that a man wouldn’t like me if I weren’t stick thin.
As I told this to a Northampton friend of mine today over brunch, she reminded me that she had written a blog piece about the importance of reference groups. In Northampton she was thrilled to find a truly original rubber chicken purse, whereas when she lived in New York, a Prada purse was what she thought would give her happiness. Her larger point was that our values and desires tend to be influenced by our communities.
Now, I’m not going to start hating my new cosmopolitan friends just because they are beautiful, but I have found myself gravitating a bit more to those who are less focused on exterior beauty and more on inner beauty. Ironically, one of the most beautiful women I know told me that she envied me because she said that I have such an attractive personality, which would never change, whereas her physical beauty would eventually fade.
I certainly don’t want to advocate a polarization between appearance and character, but I did remind myself of the lesson that I learned way back in my twenties (which apparently I needed to learn again): self-acceptance is extremely sexy. I had a weight problem in high school and college that often kept me from dating. When I was 22, I decided that I was never going to feel bad about my weight again. I moved from self-loathing to self-love and was amazed at how many men began to be attracted to me even though I hadn’t lost a pound. Eventually I dropped 50 pounds over five years and never really worried about my weight again. Until now, when I started putting myself under a critical microscope instead of appreciating my strong, flexible, yoga-toned body that yes, does indeed have some softness to it too.
As I reminded myself of my youthful wisdom, I started focusing on being grateful for my appearance. I began to look for signs of my beauty rather than evidence of aging. I noticed my deep-set brown eyes that have lovely specks of green in them, how my face lights up when I smile, my strong yet delicate feet that have pretty high arches, and my soft skin. I could go on, but you get the idea. Within a month, I was feeling so much better about myself. Instead of looking in the mirror with dread, I was delighted to see my own reflection. And I swear to you all, that I look prettier because of it. Or at least, I think that I look prettier, which was the whole point of the exercise because, as many of my friends told me, they already thought that I was attractive.