Don’t hate me because I’m struggling with no longer being beautiful.
Oh, I was never as beautiful as Kelly LeBrock, but I was beautiful enough. Beautiful enough that I never really had to worry that my looks were going to get in my way. Beautiful enough that sometimes they helped pave my way.
And now I’m not.
Last week, I went shopping for a new dress. I have a job interview next week, and a funeral to attend soon, and my usual go-to dress for such occasions doesn’t quite fit any more.
But hey — I’m in my late 40s. It happens, right?
It’s fine, I told myself. I’m not going to deny reality. I’m not going to squeeze myself into something that doesn’t really fit, just because I don’t want to admit that I need a dress in a bigger size.
I mean, I’m a successful, smart, educated, confident woman. I read Advanced Style. I know that women of all sizes and ages can look fabulous.
More importantly, I know that my self-worth is not tied to a dress size or to the tightness of my ass or belly. That new tummy pooch of mine is testament to the twins I carried, the children I created with my amazing body.
But a funny thing happened in the dressing rooms, somewhere after the tenth or so dress I tried on. Every dress had been wrong — either too girlish or too matronly. They were too tight in the butt or too loose in the boobs or too long or too short or too ... something.
For the first time ever, I started to wonder if I was going to be able to find something that works. What’s wrong with dresses today? I wondered.
By the twentieth dress, I’d shifted from questioning the dresses to questioning my body, which was either too curvy or too droopy or too lumpy or too ... something in every. single. dress.
As I stood under the fluorescent lights in my dumpy underwear and seen-better-days bra, I studied the strange body that is, apparently, mine now, and took inventory of its pasty skin and soft thighs and doughy arms and wide bottom and rolls of skin that have somehow appeared between said underwear and bra.
And I hated it.
I texted my husband: I am fat and ugly and I hate my body.
I knew I was being ridiculous. I am a size 6, for God’s sake. I’m not fat and I’m not ugly. I’m just no longer the physical me I have been pretty comfortable being the past few decades.
So then I started hating myself — because I know that I am more than my body, which means that in addition to being not-as-beautiful, I am also shallow and insecure and too weak to rise above societal conditioning that tells us women must be young and sexual and beautiful to have agency.
I texted my husband again: And apparently I’m shallow and weak.
If I were a better person, I knew, I would not care about my softening body. I would embrace it lovingly. I would appreciate all that I have done and am still able to do. I would be on-my-knees grateful that friends are not shopping for dresses to wear to my impending funeral.
I am, you know. In spite of this whining, I am appreciative and deeply grateful. But I still wanted to go shopping and find a damn dress I could feel good in, the way I used to.
I went home with nothing but the beginnings of a migraine.
The next morning, I tried on my old dress — something I hadn’t actually done before embarking on my shopping trip. Yes, it was a bit more snug than the last time I’d worn it, but it was fine. I didn’t actually need a new dress.
“You are an idiot,” I said to the woman in the mirror. But I said it gently.
And then I smiled wanly at her, because I could suddenly see that all of the angst was never really about a dress or the body that needs covering with it. It was about not wanting to interview for a job I don’t even know if I want. It was about dissatisfaction with my career that — just like all the dresses I tried on – has never really been wrong, but has also never really been right.
It was about the impending death of my first love — the man/boy I adored when I was young and almost everything was still possible — and all my feelings about opportunities lost and things not appreciated until it was too late.
The kind of indecision and frustration and self-loathing I felt in those dressing rooms could never be about a dress or simple vanity. It was about fear and grief and more than a little anger over how hard it can be for women my age to find some comfortable way out from between the rock of our changing looks (which, if we’ve had good ones, have conveyed a real benefit that none of us would want to lose) and the hard place of messages that tell us we shouldn’t care about our looks.
So, the next time you find yourself fretting in a dressing room — because, my fellow aging girlfriends, I know that many of you have been there, too — I hope that if you are feeling bad about your changing body and bad about feeling bad, you will cut yourself some slack and consider that perhaps you are not stupid, unenlightened or shallow.
Maybe you’re just trying to answer questions that can be even more challenging now than they were in adolescence, the first time you had to figure out who you are and how you fit in and how to get to who you want to be.
And then just buy a damn dress and get on with it. Life really is too short to waste any of it staring at your navel in one of those those badly lit rooms.