1986. A teenager in an overly loose shirt and brightly colored shorts lies on her stomach on bottle-green carpeting, her head mere inches away from the stereo speaker, her chin cupped in her hands. She listens longingly to Madonna crooning "Crazy for You" and remembers The Boy she met on the family road trip to Canada. The Boy who, with his trench coat and rumpled black hair, reminded her of dreamy John Cusack. The Boy who seemed to be flirting with her all evening and yet did not, at the crucial moment, kiss her. With a sigh, she picks up the arm of the record player and replaces the needle at the beginning of the song. She crosses her arms on the floor and buries her face in her elbow. Wondering if ever, anyone, any boy, ever will kiss her.
2009. tap tap tap The woman swats aimlessly at whatever is summoning her out of her sleep. tap tap tap The quiet child, impatient to tell her all the Transformers he knows, insists she must wake up. Rolling over, the woman relinquishes the dream she had been enjoying. Smiling sleepily at her child, she caresses his face, pulls him close, asks him if he slept well, and listens to his excited prattle. Later, in the shower, she recalls the sensation from her dream--the feeling of eyes watching her, the quiver of longing that is the prelude to a kiss. The Man in the dream had no face; he was merely an embodiment of desirability, a stand-in for Attractive Man Attracted To Her. She realizes, as she washes her hair, that that whole-body-humming sensation which marks a first kiss will never again be hers.
Talking with a dear friend recently, I have come to see that we who are that woman quite often find that the full ramifications of our choices burst upon us unexpectedly as we near forty. We have willingly exchanged the thrill of caresses from potential new loves for the almost impossibly sweet gestures of adoration that come from our children. We have left behind the flutter of anticipation, deep in our guts, that comes in that moment before a first kiss, in favor of the warmth of familiarity, the security of enduring love. The only new hands touching our cheeks in gentle sweeps that feel like kisses are the new hands of the children we have borne.
These are deep and abiding kinds of love we experience now: the light in our children's eyes, the ways their happiness consumes us. But those moments, tender though they may be, do not make us feel alive with the thrum of our own desirability. Those beloved creatures paradoxically both affirm that we are appealing to the opposite sex and deny it. They mark us as having once been desirable, and they remind us that now, perhaps, we are past "desirable" and have moved on to "mom."
And thus we awaken to the fact that our bodies, whose limits and powers had become quite comfortably familiar, have gradually aged and acquired new boundaries. We face a sudden onslaught of questions: What exactly is my relationship to my body? If my body has always been about attracting other people, how do I understand and embrace a body that no longer has that job description?
You may argue that women don't (or shouldn't) need someone else to confirm that they are successful or happy. I will help you argue that any day of the week you want back-up.
And yet, the thing is, I think it is hard-wired in human beings to seek approval of our external appearance. It is a requisite for the successful propagation of the species that many of us find a mate and a mutual attraction. Much as we know that life-long matches are based on far more than looks, we still have the urge to know that we are appealing.
Hence, on the one hand, we deeply desire that our daughters learn not to judge their worth by their physical appearance, not to assume that their bodies carry the whole of their identities. And on the other, we decry our own frumpy mom clothes and the tiredness that makes us unable to change them. We lament the rounded softnesses that child-bearing left behind where once we were toned and firm. We fret about that elusive perfection; we want to be thinner, more photogenic, more this or less that. Even those of us with a healthy body image and strong sense of self esteem get anxious about whether the new person we are supposed to meet for work or the long-lost friend we will see again soon will think we look good enough.
Good enough for what? One might reasonably ask.
I think the answer lies in the precisely the same place as the solution to the riddle of why women nearing forty suddenly start having the dreams of high school girls.
It lies in the matrix of every tiny lived moment since our childhoods when validation was conferred upon us in terms that signaled attractiveness. It lies in the sense of self-worth that develops over time, as we compile external validation of our brains, our brawn, our looks and turn that into our sense of self. It lies in the anxious uncertainty that results when our brains, our brawn, and our looks, having been tested and proven, suddenly have their equilibrium unbalanced. Having landed us a mate, a job we love (whether that career is Vice President of Something Vital or Mother Of Someone Magnificent), and the security that comes with no longer being Too Young To Know Better or Care, we find ourselves forced to redefine our bodies which are no longer required to attract. If they need not attract, we secretly wonder, does that mean they repel?
We, so many of us who are approaching or just on the other side of forty years old, have had two decades or more in which we have faced the media barrage of images of feminine perfection, succumbed to or fought the fashion industry's dicta, experimented with and experienced intimate physical connections with (an)other human being(s). Despite sporadic doubts about whether we live up to impossible standards of feminine attractiveness, the process of our lives has carved out our own understandings of the most deeply personal portions of our selves. We have had to decide who we were as embodied (not merely sexualized) creatures, and we have had to figure out how to incorporate that part of ourselves into all the other parts.
If we are proud of our legs, how short do we wear our skirts so that we are rightfully understood as self-confident, powerful women rather than misinterpreted as floozies who are trying to use their bodies to get ahead in the workplace? If we prefer to be the quietest woman in the room, how do we convey that we are not "frigid"? If some of the men we know socially and professionally have only one mode of interaction with all women, and that mode is flirtation, how do we maintain our integrity without losing our friends or colleagues? Somehow, we negotiate the answers to these and myriad other, semi-unconscious questions of the relationship between our largely private selves and the women we are in public.
Many of us, by our late 30s and early 40s, have largely come to terms with our images of ourselves. We know who we are, and we have cultivated a balance between desirability and professionalism, sexuality and practicality. We have come to appreciate the continuum that is banter-flirtation-consummation, and we are good at keeping ourselves in the right places on it in our various relationships. But in the process of figuring this out, we have come to assume that our physical appearance matters, that our bodies and the reactions other people have to them, are part and parcel of who we are.
So that on the day that our preschoolers wake us up just before The First Kiss in the dream, we are not simply struck by the fact that we will always and forevermore be on the same place in that continuum, that we will never pass "banter" again except with our spouses. We also, and more powerfully, fear the loss of that part of our identities. What if the fact that we aren't eligible to be the object of some hitherto unknown person's desire means that we are no longer desirable? What if the permission slips and late-night battles with stomach flu, the carpooling and home room duty have dulled some portion of the essential core within us? What if, having spent more than half our lives trying to figure out how to separate the boys/men who really liked us for who we were from those who just wanted to get into our pants, we no longer have that problem? What if no one, ever, wants to kiss us anymore?
Of course, our husbands want to kiss us, but that's not the point. The point is that what for men might manifest in the mid-life crisis that leads to absurd exercises in proving virility may not be about bravado for women. But that doesn’t mean there is not a sort of crisis at stake.
I think that many women respond to their passing youth by panicking at this unexpected need to renegotiate themselves. We become overly self- deprecating. We turn inward with sorrow. Or we think, as I fear perhaps I have been, that the solution to this growing feeling of not knowing precisely who we are is to get into a new relationship—one predicated not on romance but on caretaking: we consider having one more child to fill a void that is really not about children at all.
The trick, I think, to renegotiating one’s relationship with one’s own body is to embrace the sorrow without letting it become all-consuming. To face the realization that the old relationship we had with our bodies may be ending, but that does not mean that our bodies are merely old. To ask ourselves hard questions about what we really want from our bodies and then listen, really listen, to the whispers that come back in answer.
I am not sure yet what those answers will be. But I am hopeful now that I can move beyond panic, sorrow or the disorienting feeling that the familiar part my body has played in my life so far may be changing. I begin to feel that what lies on my horizon may be not sorrow but tribute, and that the woman I am becoming will be embodied in a way that embraces what is past even as it forges a new future.
Friday, June 19, 2009