I might be different from other women because I’ve never felt the pressure to conform to the standards of beauty. When I go to a doctor’s office, I’m more likely to pick up the National Geographic than the Cosmo. If Cosmo is the only option, I’ll stare at the wall. I’ve never kept up with the seasonal fashion and make-up trends. I hate the feel of makeup on my face. I don’t care about, “Who wore it best?” and think Us should be called Them. I clearly understand that Hollywood stars have personal trainers, chefs, stylists, and a whole staff that allows them to get rid of that baby weight and “look good after forty,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. I’ve always understood that recommendations for ideal body types were based on a specific western European body type that has nothing to do with me.
However, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of this drive to conform — and frankly, I’ve been horrified.
I’ve worked as a licensed massage therapist in high-end golf communities and day spas. What has struck me is the vast number of women who have plastic surgery. Here is a short list of some of the most common procedures my clients have had: breast implants, breast lift, Botox and various forms of facial injectables, chemical peel, liposuction, eyelid lift, brow lift, gluteal enhancement, face lift, forearm lift, forehead lift, arm lift, hair replacement, laser hair removal, chin surgery (including implants), neck lift, ear surgery, thighplasty, tummy tuck, and thread lift.
To their friends, these women often wildly explain with enthusiasm their latest ventures on the surgeon’s table or at the doctor’s office. Many say their surgery has improved their self-esteem. However, I’ve also seen the impact of even the best surgery on the body: strained muscles and restrictions caused by scar tissue. Many of these procedures have a limited shelf life and need to be repeated years later, adding to the financial impact. Women have confessed that they opted to get the surgery to keep and/or get a man. One woman in her sixties who was on her third face-lift said, “If I don’t do it, he’ll trade me in for a newer model.” Her laugh was laced with a hint of bitterness.
And she wasn’t kidding. At one golf community, a personal trainer told me about a meeting she’d had with a male client. Turns out this nearly seventy-year-old male client, who wasn’t in the best shape himself, wanted to have a discussion about wife number three, who was in her late thirties. During the meeting, he said with regard to his wife, “She doesn’t look the same.” Mind you, his wife had just given birth to their second child.
He then went on to describe everything about her body in detail that he found unappealing. He followed up with, “Well, if something doesn’t shift soon, I’m just going to have to make some changes.” More than likely, he was already prospecting for wife number four. I stared at the personal trainer utterly appalled by what I was hearing. I couldn’t imagine being in a relationship with a so-called man who had that mentality.
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A few years ago, I wrote the following poem in response to a news story about women and girls seeking asylum in Western countries to escape female genital mutilation. At the time, two new forms of plastic surgery were beginning to get press in the US: labiaplasty and revirginization.
Femme Fatal Freedom
In a land of hot sands and 30 years of war,
Afghani women in burquas sneak to eat
the cool, calm sweetness of imported Baskins
Oh! Sweet taste of freedom!
While suburban sisters
Swing wildly from bedroom poles
Golden hair flowing
Whether their skin be white, black or brown
Legs spread wide to reveal girl-child pubis
Just red and clean from the ripping
Disseminated, re-virginized va-jay-jays
newly lasered tight with clipped labia perch in their cages
Ooooooooooo! Ohhhhhhhhhhhh! Yes, Yes!!!!
A coveted, desired lie
With shorn wings can she still fly?
(Where does she go to seek safe-haven)
And their girls go Wild for a free T
While Ijwa sisters 3000 strong threaten to bare all
For a small
Stake in the dark reserves flowing from Earth’s womb beneath their feet
And a cool sip of unsoiled Adam’s ale
Freedom? A burden to bare?
Breast filled with salty tears and silicon
Have now become what’s naturale
No longer life giving
No longer baby’s belly filling
Only, only, only, only appealing
To one type of man’s idea of delicacy
When did the idea of beauty
Become a singularity?
No more freedom just to BE
Now only freedom in the facsimile?
Where or where does freedom truly ring?
Women in other countries are seeking freedom to avoid such mutilations while women in Beverly Hills are paying to have labia trimmed to look like Photoshopped porn stars and to reconstruct their hymens.
The desire for plastic surgery comes from the bizarre notion that women aren’t supposed to age and that there is only one type of body that is desirable. “The Twilight Zone” episode Number 12: Looks Just Like You is a reality. It’s the ultimate in commodification of the female form. All the efforts to modify, to defy aging, and to go to extremes to keep a man who probably shouldn’t be kept are driven by a deep-seated fear. Perhaps it is a fear of mortality.
As I’ve aged, I’ve definitely noticed that my body is changing. It hasn’t been a question of whether or not to love my body. It’s just been an amused acceptance of what’s happening. Luckily, I have a bevy of friends who are equally amused. We laugh about the unexpected grays that seem to be popping up everywhere and hearing bones creak and crack when getting up in the morning. I still like to pump my music but, when parking, I have to turn it off because, I swear, I can’t see if the music is too loud. I used to be able to hike all day and wake up the next morning bouncing and ready to go. Now, I have to take a little extra care, which usually entails a hot bath and a long nap. Even with that, I still might be a little sore.
When I was in my twenties, I had a very flat stomach, which I fondly refer to now as the effortless corset. The belly didn’t appear until I hit my mid-thirties. At first, I thought my jeans had shrunk in the dryer but, alas, I had to realize that my love for Ben and Jerry’s and Costco’s Shrimp Scampi had finally begun to catch up with me.
Now, I consider myself fit. I work out four to five days a week for two reasons: I enjoy good food, and I like the way working out makes me feel. But although technically slightly older than me, my ten-year-old cat and I have the same issue; we both have a bit of a belly. That’s where we both tend to gain weight. My cat’s belly is cute and furry and, sometimes, when she’s in the mood, she’ll let me rub it and give it a gentle squeeze. I’ve learned to take this approach to my own belly.
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My belly does have a bit of mind of its own. When I’m really relaxed, I can squeeze about a good two inches. My belly is malleable and shifts according to the situation. After fifty minutes of Pilates, it sucks in, and I can see the vague memory of a twenty-something six-pack appear. It is toned and somewhat impressive. But in the non-Pilates world, it takes on different shapes. When I’m in spinning class and forget to pull in my lower abs, I can feel it hitting against my upper thighs as my legs pump up and down to the music. Sometimes, it even sways from side to side to its own rhythm — a rhythm that is not in sync with the rest of my body. It’s an odd sensation to feel it move in the opposite direction.
I think I’ve come to a certain acceptance of the inevitable. Getting a direct, firsthand view of the fear that drives the need to alter the body surgically has taught me a deeper appreciation for my own. My changing body is part of the deal of being on this planet. Seeing what happens next is part of the journey, and I’m okay with that.
Are you working to accept all parts of your body, no matter if they conform to society’s beauty standards? If so, join us in our latest webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
[Feature image: The photograph shows a black woman with short curly gray hair. She is wearing a white towel around her neck and drinking out of a purple water bottle. Behind her are two people with light skin and grey hair in the background.]