When real bodies are made to fit into unreal ideals
When you cross forty, the first thing that hits you is the fact that you’re morphing into Invisible Woman. People push past you in public. Salespersons don’t give you the time of day. In conversations you are spoken over. Ironic because when you look at yourself in the mirror, all you can see is more of you. Generously more. On the waist, where the fat lovingly settles down like some well-set jelly, all wobbly to the touch. On the hips where the skin morphs into orange peel grimness. On the face where the jowls continue to make their disapproval felt long after you’ve stopped shaking your head to a no, swinging to a beat all on their own.
When I crossed 45, I wondered why my voice was raising itself higher to be heard, why I found myself applying the make up with a heavier hand than I usually did. The hearing was going, I told myself. The eyesight was also going, ah well, let’s be honest, most of me was going. And the breasts, well, they were so far gone, they needed a visa and passport for their travels.
I wasn’t alone. All around me women in their forties are working hard at reclaiming their bodies and their body image. It is a relentless process and perhaps the most critical eye gazing at us, is our own.
I have never actually had a comfortable relationship with my body. When I was an adolescent I dieted myself down from what I see now as a curvaceous and not obese 17-year-old to stick thinness, in pursuit of the holy grail of ‘thin’ and then losing hair on my head and growing hair on my chin in the process. Post pregnancy was when the stomach stubbornly refused to get back into place once the offspring had emerged, and I’ve agonized about how a flat belly would never be mine again. I’ve fought pitched battles with what I thought my body should be versus its idea of what it should be. I realize now that I often failed to appreciate what I had, a healthy functional body, never mind a bit of avoirdupois here and there.
The most jarring moment regarding my body was the first glimpse of myself, or rather my deflated abdomen, post delivery. I remember wobbling to the bathroom as soon as I was able to walk and catching sight of the deflated abdomen, a deflated parachute on a field of striated stretch marks. For all that they glorify motherhood, they don’t tell you just how much of a shocker confronting the postpartum body is. Especially in this the era of photoshop and tummy tucks in tandem with the C-sec era where celebrities emerge from the hospital with gurgling newborns in one arm and washboard abs on display next to the other placed angularly on the hip for the photo op. You would think they had their babies velcro-ed off them. But of course, there is a lot of sensible eating and working out and more that goes into the making of the perfect post-baby bods and the pressure on the ordinary everyday woman without the retinue of help and expert assistance to look the same is immense. There is already the nasty demon of postpartum depression that some women have to deal with after they’ve had their babies, to compound this are the body image issues that need to be grappled with additionally.
The post-baby body is a mess, and that’s putting it mildly. It is also beautiful, in its own way, the aftermath of the process of creation. There are stretch marks that now criss cross what was once a smooth unlined abdomen, loose skin that hangs like a pouch where once a baby grew, breasts that grow engorged and then deflate suddenly, losing the battle with gravity with no glory.
A friend whispered to me about a friend who had a tummy tuck done with a tube tying procedure post the delivery of her second. “That’s what I call planning. And she’s back to the way she looked before she had her first baby.” Another spoke about the stretch marks on her abdomen and the lazer removal process she was going to undergo. “All I’ve worried about when wearing a saree is if the stretch marks are showing through.” A third was saving up for a series of procedures to remove cellulite deposits for spot reduction. She’d tried all the diet and exercise possible but had been defeated by her tummy and hips which refused to cave in to the ideal she envisaged herself at.
So much of negativity surrounding body image in one’s forties also feeds on similar attitudes from the ones around us. If those around us reinforce dissatisfaction with their own bodies and looks, we might begin expressing the same because talking down about oneself becomes the norm and then a habit.
The quest for the holy grail to look like we’ve been frozen in space and time often leads to self-esteem issues, depression, and yes, a slew of disorders which can range from eating disorders to an addiction to medical procedures to reverse aging and to deal with body changes. Some women post 40 slip into eating disorders, in a bid to get to an ‘acceptable’ thinness. Yet others relapse into eating disorders they might have struggled with in their adolescence. What we fail to realize is that the thinness of much younger women would be impossible to replicate in older women given the metabolic and hormonal changes the older women go through.
As we grow older, the body itself starts slowing down its metabolism, losing its muscle tone. Muscle tone does help in burning calories as does a high metabolism. It begins to take longer to lose the same amount of weight. It begins taking more effort to look as good as one did effortlessly earlier. In this hyperaesthetic, youth-worshipping culture, those who cross the Rubicon into middle age, and veer dangerously on the tightrope between slim and curvy have different demons to be fought. One can never be too rich or too thin, as Wallis Simpson said, but the pressure to be thin compels most women to seek out diet and fitness routines that sometimes totter on the edge of the ridiculous and at times topple into the ludicrous.
Men do suffer from their own share of body issues, the most prominent being balding that really delivers a body blow to self-esteem amongst older and not-so-old men who begin to lose hair early. While the kind of pressure to display an abdomen an insect would be proud to claim as a thorax isn't as widespread as being size zero is amongst women, but it is definitely present. Gym up, man up, is the implied message or be considered a fat slob. Perhaps, as one viral poster said, it is as difficult to be Ken as it is to be Barbie. Never mind that Ken doesn't have to deal with PPT or stretch marks post delivery.
A friend joined the gym for the first time when she turned 42. She had stayed away from any workout routine all her life. While this was all too good, after all being fit is a wonderful life goal, it scarily veered towards obsession. It reached a point when she was doing a yoga class, gym and a run all in one day. She had a wake up call when her 12-year-old insisted on going on a diet because she thought she was too fat. (She wasn’t, she was just fine).
On the other hand, there are some I know who have only gotten serious about health and fitness as they approach menopause, and for them it isn’t so much about being ‘thin’ as much a motivator as being ‘fit’ given the body’s ageing process now begins, and mortality becomes the bogeyman on the not so distant horizon. Rather than being thin, the focus should shift on being fit and healthy. The changes to the activity levels and diet, ideally should revolve around fitness rather than a dysfunctional ideal of ‘beauty’. Thankfully, many women are realizing that, but sadly they aren’t in a majority yet.
The cosmetic industry feeds off the carrion of self-esteem they destroy. As does the weight loss industry. Popular culture is another culprit. When anti-aging creams are being sold to 30-year-olds, the forty-plus generation might be expected to preserve themselves in embalming fluids. We are blindsided by images of celebrities who are forty-plus, and have had extensive work done on themselves as well as the help of good old photoshop in addition to a battery of make-up artists and stylists to look the way they do. For an everyday woman, these unreal images of women of the same age can be debilitating to the self-esteem.
While the body is gently succumbing to the dulcet pull of gravity on the one hand, the face too is going the same way. Wrinkles, expression lines, skin texture, pigmentation patches, crepey skin all creep up on us as we enter our mid forties. The indulgences of youth begin showing up, the lack of diligence in applying sunscreen, yoyo dieting, alcohol, smoking all catch up. Botox becomes a new best friend, as do fillers and peels. Going under the scalpel for a little lift. The friendly neighborhood skin clinic becomes the most frequented hangout. The trouble is where does one stop, where does one allow oneself to age as nature intended us to? From coloring one’s hair to camouflage the grey to freezing one’s face with botox to experimenting with bizarre surgical procedures, the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale keep shifting.
What is needed is to shift the focus of one’s self-worth from the external image of oneself to achievements and personal growth. Also to begin questioning why it is so important for us to stay youthful and ‘thin’ rather than focusing on being healthy. But that’s a tough call in a cultural situation where we women have been raised to believe that our social currency is our appearance, where youth and ‘thinness’ is venerated and where being older begins to render one invisible. After all, what is all this—the botox, the over-the-top dieting, the surgeries—but a cry from us older woman to keep ourselves visible in a society that insists on erasing us.
Kiran Manral is an author, columnist, speaker and mentor. She has written eight books across genres in both fiction and non fiction.