I read a wonderful and witty post on nytimes.com yesterday morning, “I’m Too Old For This” by Dominique Browning, that dealt with the freedom that comes from aging- if we let it. Her ideas resonated with me a great deal, as I think about how I hope to age and how I want to see myself as a woman throughout the rest of my life. We truly can choose to enjoy the rich gifts of aging, even though it can be difficult to do with the seemingly endless conditioning of our youth-obsessed culture.
My mother and I had some good discussions about aging in the last years of her life. She told me that she had always thought she was ugly and awkward, but when she looked back at old photos, she realized that she was, in actuality, beautiful (okay, the words she used were, “I didn’t look all that bad, Neese!”). I loved seeing that she embraced her beauty in her last years, and I think she became even more beautiful because of the attitude she wrapped around herself, like a frothy feather boa. She radiated beauty that drew people to her….but it was so much more than her appearance.
How freeing to let go of the traditional ideals of beauty that are so intricately bound with youth. The older I get, the more I understand what it means to be truly beautiful. I, too, have always felt like I was unattractive- too heavy (even when I wasn’t), big backside, big feet, clumsy, high forehead, and I, too, have looked back at photos from younger days and thought, “Hey, I didn’t look so bad.”…and then I felt sad for the many years I wasted feeling less-than. No more wasting life like that for me- I am choosing to embrace who I am, flaws and all.
So what is beauty? I see beauty as confidence, a sense of humor, a positive view of life, gratitude, an acceptance of ourselves as we are, but also a desire to grow and change in healthy ways. It is a wisdom that can only be gained through experiencing all of the good and the not-so-good that comes our way in life. Beauty is earned, not given. Oh, you can win the gene pool lottery and be physically attractive…but that doesn’t last very long. If only more people invested in who they are inside and not just the face they present to the world, what a change there would be. One of the most important parts of my job as a teacher is to try to foster a sense of self-confidence in my students- you have to have it to be able to stand up in front of people to perform…and successful performance helps to build that self-confidence in return. I tell my young women and men that they are strong and beautiful, my gay and lesbian students that they are loved and perfect just as they are, my shy students that they have an inner warrior. I want them all to see themselves for the beautiful people they are inside. That is what’s really important.
Now that I have passed the fifty mark, I am noticing the changes to my body more and more. Wrinkles, aches and pains, a sometimes spotty memory, gray hair…lots of it. But, I am also feeling a strength I never had in my younger years, an appreciation for what I have accomplished so far in my life, a gratitude for the relationships I have fostered with friends and loved ones. I see what is important now in a way I never could have in my twenties, the years before I experienced loss and heartbreak- our greatest teachers. I wouldn’t want to go back to those days. Yes, I had a smooth, unlined face and boundless energy…but I was so full of fear and self-doubt, and made way too many life decisions guided by that mindset.
I plan to grow more and more beautiful the older I get. I will see my wrinkles as badges from a lifetime of smiling at the world, of shedding tears in joy and in sorrow, of truly feeling. My graying hair will be a crown to show the world that a strong and wise woman resides within. Until my last breath, I want to keep a twinkle in my blue eyes, just like my mother did, and a sense of humor to laugh at the craziness of life. I will lift up others around me in every way that I can, hoping they will see their beauty, too. I love the idea of an army of wrinkled, gray-topped life ninjas…and I want to lead the pack. Join me?