I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Body Image

You Are Beautiful

1024px-La_danse_(I)_by_Matisse

Beautiful Girls

I was at a modern dance performance the other night. Talented young girls from a nearby dance conservatory. I marveled. There was a range of ages and ability levels and body types. All beautiful. From the lean and graceful ballet-types to the curvy and sturdy athletic types to the more gawky and awkward types, striving to be more comfortable and graceful in their bodies. Well, that’s it isn’t it? We’re all striving to be more comfortable and graceful in our bodies aren’t we? What those girls don’t know and can’t appreciate yet is how beautiful they are. Every single one of them.

My heart was with them. I feel. I remember. The 10,000 hours of grinding and repetitive technique classes and rehearsals. The thrill of getting singled out for a solo. The devastation of not getting singled out for a solo. The excitement and anxiety of the weeks leading up to the performance. The costumes. The makeup. The theater. The lights. The audience. Practicing. Worrying. Not eating. Because that extra pound lost would make a psychological difference in how I felt about myself. In the costume, on stage, in my body.

Chatting before the performance with a mom in the audience, the conversation turned to anorexia. Of course. Girls and dance. What else would we talk about? A girl, not one of the dancers but she is in the circle of high-achieving New York metropolitan families who appear to have it all, is struggling with anorexia. Her mother was a dancer. Aha! Familiar territory. I wanted to pounce, to rush in and solve the problem. The mother must have eating issues. How could it not wreak havoc on her daughter and the whole family? I felt for the girl, the mother, the family. I don’t know them. I hope they are getting help. Because…

Anorexia can be deadly.

So much of it is shrouded in shame and secrecy. It starts innocuously enough. You notice that if you eat less and lose weight that your breasts and hips get smaller. That’s a relief because you’re not really sure you want breasts and hips and a butt anyway. Besides, you have to watch out for men, because they only want one thing. Much better to get those curves under control. Besides, you start getting compliments, maybe even from your mom, about how good you look. Then, maybe you start exercising more. Dancing, running, sports. Now you’ve lost weight and added muscle. Looking good girl! Besides, if you work out every day, you can burn off more calories. Yes! Then, you start getting off on feeling hungry. Feeling hungry means you haven’t overeaten. In fact you’ve probably lost more weight. All good, right? Well, now you’re in dangerous territory. You enjoy being hungry and don’t want to eat. Your dysmorphia intensifies. You look in the mirror and like how thin you are, with no awareness that having your ribs show is not attractive. And you want to be even more thin. And even more hungry. It is a vicious and dangerous, sometimes deadly cycle.

The family panics and wants you to eat, but that is terrifying to you. The absolute worst possible disaster to befall a girl with anorexia is to gain weight. It is very difficult to treat. Recent research is showing that rigid anorexic behavior is linked to increased activation in the area of the brain that controls habit and is tied to anxiety. Her brain is stuck in a groove that doesn’t respond to medication or therapy and is prone to relapse. The girl has to replace her habitual patterns around food with something else. Her family needs to help by changing familial patterns. It is tremendously complicated.  And difficult.

And the sadness of it is that these girls do not realize how beautiful they are. In their world, there is pressure to look good, pressure to succeed, pressure to appear to have it all together. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. But the secret truth is that no one has it figured out. It takes years to gain perspective and experience – resilience – to appreciate you.

You are beautiful.

There is increasing awareness of eating issues. Mybodyscreening.org has a 3 minute quiz to screen for whether or not you may benefit from clinical help related to an eating disorder. My teen self would not have passed. The enjoyment of food and the fear of gaining weight remain an on-going conversation that goes on in my mind and makes me sympathize with the thinking that one never fully recovers from an eating disorder. It hovers in the background.

So, beautiful girls, here is my wish.

May you feel strong and be healthy. May you move with grace and ease. May you stand tall and enjoy your breasts and hips and butt. May you taste food with pleasure. May you dance with confidence and enjoy the exhilaration of moving to music. May you know that you are not alone. May you know that you are beautiful.

Image:  La Danse (I), by Henri Matisse

When Backpacks Made The Outfit

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Now We Are Seventeen (and a Half)

Now We Are Six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

– A. A. Milne, 1927

Ah! The first day of school!  So full of promise.  Remember?  This year, I will be organized and brilliant.  This year I will be friendly and popular, a role model.  This year I will be new and different, the amazing me I aspire to be.

When you are a 17-year-old girl entering your senior year of high school, the stakes are high.  Where else to play out your dreams of being a better, bolder you than with your outfit?  The first day of school outfit.  Remember?

It was simpler when a cute backpack gave her all the confidence she needed.

I should have asked her what she was going to wear.  But I didn’t want to attach too much importance to The Outfit.  I’ve spent my life thinking that if I looked right, then I would be successful and people would like me.  I imbued my outfits with so much importance.  I don’t want that for my daughter.  I want her to know she is beautiful, completely and thoroughly, inside and out, regardless of what she wears.  I want her to know she is loved, completely and thoroughly, regardless of what she wears.

Besides, she is more creative with fashion than I ever have been.  She watches fashion in music and entertainment and is keenly aware of who is wearing what and what looks stylish and flattering.  She is my style consultant these days, not vice versa.  (Though she cares what I think.  Still.  Thank God.)

Besides, I believe that at 17 you should be trying on different looks, different personas.  You don’t know who you are at 17.  Now is the time to practice being independent and grown up, especially during your senior year of high school when you have the safety net of a home base.   I purposefully did not ask her what she was going to wear.

When she came downstairs that morning, I paused.  Long enough to think.  But I didn’t think.  I went to blurt-out mode instead.  In my sternest MOM voice, I proclaimed:  “You can NOT wear that to school.  Those are hooker stockings.”  Really.  I said that.  “Hooker” is hardly even in my vocabulary but it poured out of my mouth.  (Ironically, they are my stockings.)  Who was that woman I turned into in that moment?  What happened to all the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years?  What happened to putting myself in her shoes and gently suggesting that her outfit was not appropriate for daytime nor for school?

I don’t want to face the fact that my little girl is beautiful and sexy and ready for a boyfriend, or at least a date.  I don’t want to remember some of the outfits I wore to high school that make me cringe now.  I remember, at the height of my thinness, wearing skinny jeans and stiletto mules.  I wanted to look sexy.  My mother said I looked cute.  I didn’t want to be the mom who was clueless about her own daughter, the way my mom was.  I want to give my daughter support and freedom to explore.  And yet…I lashed out.  Frightened, embarrassed, protective.  Don’t make the same mistakes I made!  Don’t be too sexy!

Don’t be too sexy.  Ah, that is the crux of it.  The judgment about looking too sexy.  Smart girls use their heads, not their bodies.  The judgment about being too sexy.  Good girls have more worthy activities to pursue than dating boys.  The fear.  The fear inherited from my mother’s stabbing.  The fear I’ve buried from my own murky memories.  Did that really happen?  I am not sure.  But judgment and fear – of sex, of food, of all things pleasurable and delicious – is not what I want to pass on to my daughter.

My nasty, thoughtless judgment merely solidified her own uncertainty about her outfit, her anxiety about the day and the upcoming year.  She didn’t defy me.  Another 17-year-old daughter might have said, “You can’t tell me what to wear!”  My 17-year-old rushed upstairs in tears and changed her clothes (to an amazing, adorable, and appropriate outfit, by the way).  I apologized.  She apologized.  We gave each other space.  But there’s no taking those words back.  No getting that day back.

How many days, how many years would I like to get back and do over?  We don’t get them back and we can’t do them over, but we can learn from them so that the next day, the next year, is better than the last one.

When we circled back to speak about the day, it was her half-birthday.  I gave her Rosemary Wells’ Voyage to the Bunny Planet (thank you my friend for the suggestion), where the day that “should have been” gets reimagined.  She said that she was sad that she would never have that day back, the happy and confident first day she had dreamed of and hoped to memorialize with a photo.  She shared her dreams for a fun and social senior year, in spite of the rigors of an AP-heavy workload and the anxiety of applying to colleges.  And then she confided that she wishes she could hang on to being 17 forever.  I too want this time to last forever.  To hold my girl close.  To magically turn the bad days into good ones.  But it is her time.  Her time to grow up, to become a woman, to figure out what makes her happy, what interests her, who she is.  Fly, beautiful girl!  Find your passion.  Live your life.  Don’t let me hold you back.

Saying No to Botox

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Beauty of a Certain Age

Newsflash!  According to the New York Times, the holy grail for beauty for executive women is “eternal early middle age.”  As if working women everywhere did not have enough to worry about, it is now crucial to achieve the “cosmetic sweet spot:  old enough to command respect, yet fresh enough to remain vital.

Phew, I am on trend.  At 50, I am situated right smack in the middle of the ideal 45-55 age range.  But I am closing in on 51.  Only 4 more years left to remain vital!  Only 4 more years to chase whatever elusive career goal I have been chasing.  I still don’t have a corner office.

Maybe I never will.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

When I first started working in the business world, I was very proud and eager to succeed.  I worked hard and moved up quickly.  I started managing people well before I was 30 and felt I needed to look older in order to command respect.  At 25, I was sometimes the only woman in the conference room which usually meant there was an expectation that I would clear the coffee cups.  I was determined to look the part of a successful executive woman and not be the one waiting on the older executive men.   Hello shoulder pads!

When I moved to a glamorous company in a senior managerial role, at 35, the first thing I did was makeover my image to be more sophisticated.  Perhaps if I looked the role, I would prove that I belonged in the role.  I bought new clothes with the help of a personal shopper and updated my hairstyle and took care with my makeup.  My anxiety about whether or not I would be successful in this job was fixated on “looking right.”

When I was brave enough to ask for and talented enough to get a 4-day workweek after the birth of my son, I made the mistake of not cutting back on my shopping.  You see, I was still ambitious for the corner office.  Still optimistic that I would get promotions and salary raises, advancing in my career and paying for my shopping crutch.  Still anxious that I needed to look a certain way in order to succeed, I filled up my insecurity with expensive clothes that the saleswoman picked out for me, because I did not trust my own taste to find my own style.  As I spent more money, I became more secretive with my shopping expeditions, hiding the packages in the back of my closet.  Of course this story ended badly.  My husband found my credit card bill and was shocked.  Rightly so.  It was shocking.  I had to take out a loan to pay it off and return to a 5-day workweek.  I jeopardized my marriage and squandered my precious time, precious time with my children, just to “look right.”

When “early middle age” hit (newsflash, it’s not eternal) and I realized that I was not going to achieve the corner office (and didn’t really want to chase after it any more anyway), and that it mattered what I did not what I wore, and that my kids were quickly growing up, I went to the other extreme.  Rather than cover up my gently sagging skin with more makeup and rejuvenating injections, I now wear less makeup than ever, barely managing a swipe of lipstick.  I don’t want to spend money or time on extravagant trendy clothing or weekly manicures.  What little disposable income I have now goes to the college fund.  And my gray hair?  So far, I don’t have a lot so I don’t color it.  I refuse to color it.   I’ve spent my whole life dressing up as someone I thought I should be.  Now I just want to be me.

I feel sad and somewhat dismayed by how much time, money, effort and energy we women spend on our appearance.  When young, we are so afraid we don’t deserve our job.  When middle aged, we are so afraid we will lose our job to a younger, more stylish and up-to-date competitor.  We are so preoccupied with other women and their appearance, judging them on how they look and not always on what they accomplish.

I am not naïve.  I know attractive people tend to be better liked and more successful.  I know that feeling good about how I look can help me feel and behave more confidently.  I know that if I had the money and the time and the corner office, I might gladly be swayed to spend it on rejuvenating treatments.  And who knows what I will do when I hit “late middle age.”  It’s easy to be defiant, even disdainful, when you still feel in your prime.

But surely there is something to be said for a woman of a certain age.  She has lived and loved and learned who she is.  She has experience to share.  She has earned her gray hair, her wider hips, her worry lines and her laugh lines.

I remember when Botox first became accessible for cosmetic use about ten years ago and thinking how strange it will be if no one’s face ages and no one’s face shows emotion.  At that time I decided I did not want to succumb to Botox but wondered if I would be able to stick with that decision as I got older.  My mother had a facelift after surgery left her with an ugly scar on her neck.  I was surprised that my beautiful-to-me mother felt the need to look younger and prettier…more vital.  If my mother couldn’t stand “late middle age,” how was I going to cope with it?

For now, the role models I admire are many.  Annie Lennox baring her face and her soul, when she was 48, on her solo album Bare.  Cyndi Lee embracing her gray hair in May I Be Happy.  Jamie Lee Curtis writing empowering children’s books on self-esteem and discussing body image with More.   Hillary Clinton, whose hair is still making the news and whose accomplishments are truly impressive.  Perhaps the best role models of all are my beautiful middle-aged friends (early, middle, and late) who still dance at the ballet barre or ace their serve on the tennis court or stand on their heads in the yoga studio or rule the executive suite or cherish their families.  My beautiful middle-aged friends awe me every day with their love, courage, resilience, intelligence, humor and grace.  Beautiful because of their wrinkles earned from living life.

When I look in the mirror, I visualize the same face I’ve always seen in my mind.  But when I really look in the mirror, and see, really see my face – I see the dark circles, the loosening skin, the mottled complexion with “age spots.”   I see the jowls (yes, jowls!).  I see the wrinkles.  I also see my clear and hopeful eyes that are no longer too shy to make eye contact with anyone, not even with me.

The Mirror in the Studio

The Ballet Studio

I returned to the ballet studio eight years ago at the age of 42 following a 17-year hiatus, and one year after dispatching my daughter into ballet class.  (She wisely extricated herself from the ballet world five years later when she was 12.)    My first plié felt like no time had passed.  Tears gently oozed with the familiar music as my body felt the emotion and the memory of my dancing. 

And then there was the mirror.  My familiar companion.  Judgment.

Not bad for 42.  Me in a leotard.  And a skirt to disguise the hips and belly.

But I could look better.  BE better.

I was sucked into the obsession.  Immediately. 

  • Where should I stand at the barre to get the best view (of me)?
  • Do I look thinner today?
  • Am I thinner than her?
  • Is my stomach flat?
  • How high is my leg in developpé?
  • Is it higher than hers?
  • Is the teacher watching me?
  • Does HE like my dancing?

Wait, I am 42 and myopic.  I can barely see myself in the mirror!    And so went the next few years as I re-explored ballet from a new perspective.  Can I simply enjoy it without the ambition, without the judgment?  My muscle memory came back quickly.  I still struggled with double pirouettes and piqué turns to the left.  I still danced adagio sections in the center beautifully, maybe more beautifully with years of living coloring my dancing.  And I loved jumping!  Flying through the air.  Joy!  As I strained to revisit my ballerina dreams in this weekly Saturday adult class filled with other beautiful and accomplished “mature” dancers, I nursed agonizing muscle cramps every Saturday evening and my chronic stiff neck. 

I was obsessed.  I lost weight.  A new ballerina friend remarked enthusiastically a year later – “Oh! You have your ballet body back!”  My ballerina body.  Thin.  In pain.  Grasping at those double pirouettes.  Crying with joy at every plié and grand jeté.  Trying to explain to my husband why I did this every Saturday even though it led to excruciating night cramps where I yelped around on one leg.  I thought I loved it.  But my body told me otherwise.  I stopped.  Yes, it was different at 42 than at 14, but the memories stored in my body were still there and would not let me embody the joy of dance without the pain.

The Yoga Studio 

And then I walked into the yoga studio.  There were no mirrors, no judgment, no right and wrong.  I closed my eyes.  I breathed.  I felt my body.  I felt safe.  At peace (at least sometimes).  Don’t get me wrong.  I still judged myself.  I still compared myself to everyone.  Ha!  I can touch my head to my knee and she can’t!  Look at me doing headstand at the wall!  Uh oh, look at her doing headstand without the wall!  I slowly have begun to absorb the truth:  there is no perfect pose to achieve.  Gradually, there are more moments of peace and fewer moments of judgment.  Fewer moments of obsessive chasing after the perfect chaturanga … And, with my neck, I have sworn off headstand (for now).  But I am thrilled with handstand.  (Thank you Jill.  I hear your voice every time I go flying up through the air, heels over head, to become upside down.)

I was surprised when I saw the mirror in the new studio.  I felt betrayed.  How could you put a mirror in the yoga studio?  Intellectually, I get it.  The mirror is a good teaching tool.  It provides good feedback.  You’re not getting the shape of Trikonasana?  Let’s go over to the mirror and find it.  You can’t see your back body?  Let’s go over to the mirror and find it.  Angry at the mirror, I purposefully arrived early at classes so that I could find my own space, aggressively away from the mirror.  For me, the point of yoga was to feel the poses and my body in the poses and get away from “right” and “wrong.”  I love to close my eyes and remove the onslaught of visual stimuli and move inside.   Hide inside.

Proprioception is your ability to know where your body is in space.  It is a crucial “6th” sense and vitally important for balance and increasingly valuable as we get older.  Dancers have tremendous body discipline but can be reliant on the mirror for feedback.  When dancers move from the mirrored studio to the mirrorless stage, they can be disoriented, unable to perform if they are not performing for the mirror.  Yogis tune in to their bodies, developing nuanced body awareness, balance, strength and flexibility – learning to distinguish between up and down even when they are upside down and without a mirror. 

One amazing use of the mirror took place in a Feldenkrais workshop offered at Yoga Haven led by Kim Plumridge several years ago.  She gave us all a hand mirror and asked us to look at our faces.   Indeed, she commanded us to REALLY LOOK AT OUR FACES. 

  • Notice the asymmetry of each half of your face. 
  • What color are your eyes? 
  • What is the color and texture of your skin?
  • How deep are your dark circles? 
  • What happens when you smile?  Enjoy how you feel when you smile. 
  • Look into your own eyes and see your Self.  Honor your Self. 
  • Like what you see in the mirror. 

Astonishing!  The mirror transcends self-absorption and facilitates self-acceptance, allowing the heart and soul to shine out with love for me … and for you.  Perhaps it is time to open my eyes and make peace with the mirror in the studio, and my Self.  Namaste.

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