All this talk about JLo at 50 has got me thinking about aging. Aging well, aging gracefully, but most of all aging without apology.
We can’t all be JLo. She looks amazing and I’m not here to justify her, tear her down or apologize for everyone else because she’s rich and has access to every intervention possible. None of that is going to keep my jowls from sinking. So how do I deal with this topic as time marches on…and then off of my face….
Aging for women is tricky. It’s something I’ve been dealing with since puberty back in 1993. And let me tell you now before you scroll that my fragile vanity has to be put aside tonight because all of this has been documented before in photographs and I cannot hide it even if I wanted to. My vanity, which in turns has damaged and uplifted me, has to learn to take a back seat to that which is in my best interests, and that is my truth.
The above three pictures are me at 13, 14, and fifteen. In the short span of two years, I went from looking like a child to looking like a woman. And it did me absolutely zero favors. Mentally, I didn’t do a lot of growing in this phase. But, because I looked suddenly much older than I was on the inside, I was no longer given permission to be a child. I had to wear a bra, hide my period and shave my legs. I had to behave well in front of grown men and teenage boys alike or risk the deserved unwelcome attention that came from lustful adults and scornful women. At this age, I was told that my virginity was my highest prize, that I was to guard it with my life, that my sexuality was something to be ashamed of. And at the same time, I was told that being attractive was what was required by society. So…look provocatively sexy while remaining saintly. It was very confusing and difficult to navigate.
Lucky for me, I wasn’t attractive to the boys in school, so I was left relatively alone. And lucky for me, I was raised with a great dad who loved it when I looked good, so I didn’t go chasing after sex to find self-worth. I’d always been a feminist in my own way, and by 18, I was now exposed to radical feminist thinking in the form of punk music and literature, and the newly emerging internet. Unfortunately for me, the lack of deeper love in my home led me to seek approval from a boy who had a way of letting me know I looked like a slut if I wore tinted lipgloss and mascara.
In the course of a year, I went from the above left picture to the above right…and shame was all I knew for years. Only I called it being “too punk to care.”
My 20’s took place in the aughts, 1999-2009, which was a highly sexualized time for women. Hip bones, you might remember, were considered accessories to be shown off. Tramp stamps were another. So were whale tails–the term used for thong underwear peaking up from low rise jeans.
In my life, though, I was struggling to be taken seriously as a professional. The summer between my first and second years of law school was my introduction to professional female life. On my first day of my internship, the senior female partner at my firm informed the three new interns that we were to wear skirts and hose to court and never, ever, ever wear red heels. Apparently, a while back, a female attorney had sported red heels into court. The judge, from the bench, and in front of the jury, stated on the record that only whores wore red pumps. He was never admonished, and the women of the jurisdiction took notes on one more thing that would prevent them from being taken seriously. My 20’s were spent trying to look older than I was.
In the above pictures, I am 25, 26 and thirty. Do you remember women’s eyebrows in the aughts? It was almost as though we had to apologize for having any body hair at all. That which could not be lasered had to be waxed, plucked or shaved.
My 20’s, I’m afraid to tell you, were a debacle. By 30, I’d lost any sense of bodily integration. I was on tens of pills a day for bipolar disorder, my thyroid was shot, I refused to look in mirrors, and my body was extremely unhappy. I gave up on myself. That last picture, I know…even if you don’t…was me in absolute misery. I wasn’t even in Tucson. I was in NYC…looking as absolutely retched as I felt.
The thirties. It’s hard to feel sexy at 320 pounds. How do I know? Because I didn’t…and I was. I’d gotten up that far on purpose. After a lifetime of dieting at the behest of other people (mother-father/husband/society in general), I’d come to the conclusion that the only way to fix myself was with surgery. Only my insurance through Apple only covered gastric sleeve surgery if I had a BMI of fifty-one. At this time in my life, D had left me, and one of his chief complaints was my weight. I’d begged him to come back and he said he would consider it under the condition that I lost the weight. So I gorged on instant mashed potatoes to go from 275 to 320 in the course of months in order to qualify for surgery before the divorce went through and I’d lose coverage and all hope of normalcy. I’d been told repeatedly that I was unworthy of sex or any man’s attention my whole life. I was prepared to do the desperate thing to merit the only value I perceived to be worthy.
How sick does that sound? Not as sick as when you hear that not a single person in my life told me it was a bad idea. In fact, I was applauded for it.
Funny thing is, the first time I felt sexy post-separation was the night of the above left photo featuring me and my double chin. After months of seclusion, I finally went out to La Cocina to hear live music. Chicano Batman, a band I’d never heard of before, had been booked to play in the patio and Odette had told me to come out for it. I did, and fell head over heals for the Colombian drummer. He made me think of that Heart song, “All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You.” Soooooooooo fucking cheesy, but bear in mind I had no clue about sex…at thirty-two.
I told Felice, a friend from Nogales since kindergarten. And what did she do? She went right up to the drummer and told him to come and talk to me. I wanted to turn into a puddle of shame and seep into the Arizona dirt. But he did talk to me. In French. I was too embarrassed to speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English. We flirted for an hour and then he had his manager give me his business card. I kept it for a week and then threw it away because I figured I had no chance and he’d just been kind to a fat fan girl.
I got the surgery, but I never got thin. So I dressed like an Italian widow and prayed that no one would notice me existing.
I didn’t have sex from way before my marriage ended up until I was thirty-six. When I started dating at 35, I was terrified of rejection. And why not? Everything I’d ever known was that I, as I was, was never going to be enough. The first date I went on was with some guy I couldn’t pick out of a line up now if my life depended on it. I took a spatula that I’d bought at Williams-Sonoma to the date as a gift, hoping that it would make up for me looking like me.
My rediscovery of me came in a very strange way. Soon after getting out of a mental hospital in January 2016, I joined the board of a local non-profit. Two of the men, both younger than me, and one of them a 26-year old I had directed in an educational video when he was 11 and I was 22, showed aggressive interest in me. I didn’t have the slightest clue why. It scared me, to be honest. But I parlayed that surge of outward interest into inward curiosity and I signed up for dating apps in earnest. What they saw in me, I couldn’t tell you, but I think it was that I finally had rejoined the world of the living.
Dating, funny enough, saved my life.
I stopped apologizing for what I looked like and started inviting men to like me for everything I was. I couldn’t stop men from seeing the outside, but I could pretty it up enough to keep their interest until they got to know me over a couple of drinks. Never, ever, ever did one man reject me for being fat. To the contrary, men thought I was hot. Who knew?
At first I stuck with guys I thought were at my “level.” And then hotter guys. Younger guys. Ninety-five percent of them were younger, some of them ridiculously so but still legal. All of them smart and interesting. Some of them were utter douchebags, don’t get me wrong. But they didn’t stick around long enough to do damage. And lucky me, I’d been doing the work on myself with my therapist to build up my boundaries and refuse to integrate their bullshit manipulations into my core sense of identity. At 36, I allowed myself to make mistakes and shake them off the way that 22-year old Vene could not have been capable of.
I’ll tell you another reason why I started dating aspirationally, too. Tucson is small, and I’d run into people who knew me while I was on dates with the not-so-good-looking guys in the very beginning. My vanity and sense of shame pushed me to only go out with guys I wouldn’t feel bad about if I ran into someone who would tell D or my parents that they’d seen me with. Or God forbid, D himself! I didn’t care that they were cute for me, per se, I needed to prove to D and my mother that I could pull cute guys. It was twisted logic, for sure, but it worked in my favor.
Every guy I dated gave me an infinitesimal amount of more confidence to date cuter. And goddamit were they cute. And successful. Brilliant sometimes. Rich. And then gorgeous. And fit. Guys from every ethnicity whose only common factor was that they found me attractive. Even if I didn’t believe it myself, they all seemed to hold the common delusion that I was worthy of attention. It was an overwhelming amount of objective evidence that I had something…something worth coveting. I had to stop believing the ingrained voices in my head telling me I was ugly and gross and start being gentle with myself…if only because every attempt I’d made at running away from my body had ended in failure and misery.
So now I’m 40 and living in Brooklyn. Men here, honestly, call the shots. That’s just math. They’re successful and good-looking and the women in this city are beautiful but disposable. The only way to beat the odds is to walk around like you’re doing them a favor by giving them attention.
I still don’t understand fully why it works. It just does. My whole life strangers have approached me out of the blue to tell me that I’m beautiful. Men and women. I’ve written about this before. It can be unsettling because it reminds me that I have an exterior, when most times I feel like I’m a floating head unattached to a body. I stand out and that isn’t going to stop any time soon. But now I know how to direct the attention so it works for me and not against me.
But I know that eventually it might. What happens when they stop looking? The thought terrifies me. Moreover, I perform on stage with regularity, and for whatever size the crowds might be, the pictures are forever. They get posted to social media and I get tagged in them without my prior approval. I try not to look at them or allow them to make me feel bad when they are less than flattering. Giving up control of my image is a lot less frazzling than trying to control what gets out there in the world and worrying that I’ll be judged for some candid photo taken mid-gesticulation.
In order to be gentle with myself to make it through the course of a day, I have to remind myself that my own opinion of me is not the final say. It’s a precarious position because I cannot stem the tide of time or control what others think of me. Well, that’s not completely true. I get Botox. I have since I was 31, and it’s been really successful at preventing my preternatural Shar Pei-ing. But Botox can only do so much.
The irony of my life is that I am finally approaching being comfortable with being seen only to reach an age at which most women start the slow descent into becoming invisible. Let’s face it, I’m never going to be JLo. But that doesn’t have to stop me from taking pride in how I look because I never will. All I can do is be the best me I can be. It has to be enough for them and for me.
So, onward into the great unknown I go. I look to bold women who have aged without apology. Anjelica Huston for one. She was such a goddamn knockout in her youth. And now she honors that same face of hers that has morphed into something less youthful and more regal, if that’s possible. The English seem to have a corner on aging with passion. While Jane Fonda apologizes for her late in life surgeries, other famed beauties such as Helen Mirren take pride in every wrinkle. They have earned their age and they refuse to retire to obscurity.
Evolutionally, older women play an important role in society. I want to honor that role, but it’s hard to let go of vanity, especially when it only turned into self-confidence in my late thirties.
I don’t know how to navigate my middle age with aplomb. I think it’s ok to say that I am scared. All objective evidence in modern society points to women losing value as they age. Even pointing out JLo’s fountain of youth at 50 sends the message that she is still worthy in spite of her chronological age. What I’d like to project is not confidence in spite of my age, but because of it. I want lots of sex into old age. I want strangers to keep approaching me and reminding me of what seems to keep slipping through my own fingers. But, ultimately, what I want is to be able to look in the mirror and be really ok with the crags and the sags. I want smile lines earned from a happy life finding joy in the every day. My life won’t end because I no longer look like I did when I was fifteen. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back there. Being gentle means not looking back with regret, but looking forward with hope and courage.
My head rests much better on my pillow at night with the later as opposed the former. That way I can get my beauty sleep.