My 40th birthday came and went. Lovely and mellow, it involved ice cream, buffalo fries and family and friends. I keep wondering if I’m supposed to have some sort of epiphany or meltdown but so far everything’s great. I feel as though I’ve already worked through all the freak outs I’m supposed to have had by this point in my life. I’m sure there will be more in the future, especially during menopause, but the societally dreaded Four Oh came and went like a lamb.
It’s probably because I feel pretty good about my life. I love my art, husband, and child. I never have enough time to rub two thoughts together, let alone to get out all the art that I have swimming in my head, but I do my best to putter away at projects. I restarted meditating last fall so my anxiety is being managed. I can recognize when it’s starting and take the appropriate action- and for a control freak like me, having a plan is pretty soothing and therapeutic. I still worry about money, but not as much. Our apartment almost looks like humans live in it instead of raccoons so I’m pretty jazzed about that.
And then there’s the whole looks/getting older thing, which when you’re a woman is what you’re supposed to worry about all the time. It can seem like from cradle to grave no matter what your other accomplishments and ambitions are, your boneabilty is your real job. And based on how every other woman I’m related to acted, I keep expecting it to bug me more. But, I was considered a plain child and an ugly teenager so by the time I became a young woman I was pretty over it.
As a figurative artist who frequently uses myself as a model, aging could be a recipe for disaster. It’s a whole lot of looking at yourself. I can see how the years have changed me and in some ways decimated the things I liked about the way I looked. Wrinkles are snaking their way across my face like rivers cutting through valleys. My plump cheeks are down at my jawline and I do think I have about 10 years of that before I flip out and have surgery to yank and smooth it out. Or not. Unlike my mother at 40 I haven’t had anything done. I did recently google treatment for my acne scars and melasma, and that’s a strong maybe. I come from a family obsessed by their own physicality, and who base their entire self-worth on how they look. When time inevitably changes them they haven’t been able to deal with it. My Grandma and Mother both had nervous breakdowns and my Aunt came very close. They just woke up one day and realized they had to live with themselves in the empty houses that pass for their souls, without even their mirrors for company. Unfortunately, instead of developing and filling themselves up with deep relationships and interests, they channeled the money and energy they once reserved for their bodies into decorating their real life houses. They traded one exterior for another.
Anyway, it’s on my mind because I’m working on my sketchbook project which involves a lot of self portraits and thus, a lot of photo reference. My reference photos are always taken in the morning and without makeup. Even though I feel like I have a pretty good body image, sometimes all I could see was everything I thought was wrong. But instead of feeling it in an emotional way, I did that thing I do to everything: intellectualize it. I took my feelings apart and examined them until they didn’t hold any interest for me. Then I filed them away. Which is kind of a cop out, but when you’re an emotionally volatile person like myself it’s a pretty good coping mechanism and certainly preferable to freaking the fuck out and being a general pain in the ass about everything. My pencil revealed every instance of asymmetry, every way in which I just don’t conform to the current western ideal of beauty, both high and low. But after the third drawing that started to change. Whether it’s the distancing that happens when converting a 3 dimensional object to a bunch of lines or the simple joy of drawing, I began to see myself the way I see other people- by delighting in their variety.
I realize our society pressures us to only value ourselves and others by how we look. But I also don’t think you have to deny the body completely in some sort of medieval frenzy. You’re not going to be dragged to some sort of Boschian hell for taking selfies on your camera phone. Sometimes I feel like I’m living my life by simply choosing “whatever my family didn’t do.” That includes body image. I spent my late teens/early 20s in almost drag by dressing like some sort of Victorian/Bohemian dandy crossed with Caddyshack. I shopped at the Disabled Veterans and bought men’s clothes because they were the only things that fit-and because they puzzled my Grandma, infuriated my Mother, and allowed me to quietly give the middle finger to society while living out my fantasies of looking like Sherlock Holmes. That would have been fine except sometimes I wanted to be Irene Adler as well as Holmes. I had a lot of trouble embracing my feminine side. I eventually found a middle ground where I didn’t feel like an enormous sell out every time I put on a short dress or wore high heels. The side effect was that I opened myself up to being judged. Once I stopped dressing like a man people felt entitled to casually remark on the many ways my face and body were really ugly to them. But by that time I wasn’t distressed by their general shittiness so much as impatient. I was wearing my lady costume and if they couldn’t read what I was saying with my clothes then I felt it wasn’t my problem or my job to set them straight.
Which brings me to the sketch artist “Dove” ad. Pros and Cons blew up my facebook. When I watched it my thoughts ran somewhere along the lines of, “That’s nice those poor women don’t think they’re Lon Chaney/Phantom of the Opera level hideous anymore. Jesus Christ, that’s sad that people hate themselves so much.”
I should mention, I didn’t know it was an ad at all until the Cons started showing up. Second, I thought there was a lack of diversity. Third, people are really pissed about it. Because you should never, ever, ever care about what other people think of your looks. They never, ever define you. If someone says you have nice eyes you should be like, “What evs, complement my personality otherwise you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”
I know we’re all supposed to not give a shit about how we look because we’re super awesome and are more than the sum of our looks, but I’m too lame to be able to do that 24/7. I enjoy fighting “the man” but I recommend you cut yourself and everyone else some slack. I also just don’t buy into Cartesian dualism. As someone whose brain has serotonin issues, it’s not my reality. While I don’t feel defined solely by how I appear, I’m not interested in pretending I don’t exist or take pleasure in myself as a physical creature. I don’t feel defined by how others view me, but I’m not immune to their gaze either. Because I choose to engage with the world, I also choose how to present myself. I let my external form be a bridge to my internal world. I try to present myself in a way that honestly reflects who I am. My worlds are a whole. And that, more than anything is why I feel pretty good at my mid-life mark.
p.s.~ the Dove ad, while sweet doesn’t address the truth (obviously, bc it’s an ad) which is, if you think you’re hideous, no amount of being told you’re not will “fix” you. You’ll always think the other person is lying or has an agenda. You need to address your own self loathing.