The other day, as my grandson, Eli, and I crossed Mass. Ave in Cambridge, on the way to a shop where children select and paint pottery for firing, he took hold of my hand. We let go when we reached the other side. For reasons I can’t explain, I looked down at my hand, now gnarled and misshapen, and wondered what Eli’s thought of it. As a child, as I recall, I was put off by the wrinkles of elderly bodies. Eli didn’t seem to notice or care. But that got me thinking about aging and body imagery.
For the longest time, I liked the effects of aging on my body, especially my hands. They looked strong and weather beaten to me, signs of physical labor and a life well-lived. Recently, the weather has battered them even more. Not that I find them ugly. I still like the look but now I’m pretty sure others don’t.
That got me looking for clues about how common my experience was. I began reading in the psychological and sociological literature on body imagery, where I found pretty much what you’d expect. The aesthetics of bodily decline, for example, is profoundly influenced by culture. In a youth-oriented culture, smooth looks good and wrinkled looks bad. African Americans are more comfortable with large “body mass” than are Caucasians. Men bemoan growing guts and loss of muscles. Times are changing: Looking soft is unmanly even if you are slim. Women focus their displeasure on fat. As they age, their wrinkled, droopy, and heavy bodies damage their egos and they resent that comparable changes seem to make men look distinguished.
All of us—men and women, Black, White, Brown, and Tan—are encouraged to look young. We are taught to exercise, to make ourselves up, to cover unsightly parts of our bodies. The popular literature on staying young or looking “ageless”—and, by the way, looking ageless is supposed to make us feel ageless—has grown beyond the fondest corporate imaginations. Pop psychologists encourage the pursuit of agelessness, but more politically attuned psychologists tell us that agelessness is a pernicious form of “internalized agism.”
Most of us already know what the experts are saying: that our self-image is heavily influenced by cultural preferences, or, if you like, by cultural bigotry. But this knowledge does not help us to shed the cultural stigma. They are deeply ingrained. My hands are my hands. And the loose skin on Nora Ephron’s neck is hard to affirm. I could go on about my knees, after two surgeries and thousands of miles of hiking, tennis, and basketball. My legs just don’t look so good.
I have written numbers of essays whose core strategy is turning lemons to lemonade, finding new and affirming ways to understand experiences that have troubled us. But I don’t think that approach applies here. I know that some people try. For instance, there is a lovely article in the Huffington Post: 8 Artists Who Explore the Beauty of the Aging Body. And I see the beauty in Joan Semmel’s nude self portraits. I do. But they feel like exceptions to me.
Aside from culture, there is a second influence on body image that may point a way out of my dilemma: functionality. As long as our bodies do what we want, as long as we can trust them, they remain more temple than burden, and they are easier to affirm. “It may not look great,” we can say, but, through long practice, “it still works just fine.” There is research to show that sexual interest and activity continues for many of us well into old age. So it seems that we may look good and feel good to someone. Maybe there’s a kind of visceral imagery that can supersede the visual.
That’s an inspiring idea but let’s admit it, mostly our physical capacity declines over time and, at some point in old age, the decline is precipitous. That’s when it becomes harder to convince ourselves of our body’s beauty.
If I can’t find some smart or quirky way of affirming this old body, what’s left? Acceptance. That’s what I’ve always invoked when I couldn’t seem to change some aspect of my personality or social interaction. I try to relax deeply into whatever difficult reality I’m confronted with. I look at it straight on. No denial. No effort to make it any different than it is. And eventually, I grow less critical and more at ease with what I see.
Sometimes I feel skeptical about acceptance, wondering if it is any more than numbness. And numbness seems like an illegitimate solution. Aren’t we supposed to experience our feelings in all their intensity? Not necessarily. Why shouldn’t we permit ourselves the protective embrace of feelings like resignation and acceptance.
There is one further destination to this journey, though. The older I get, the more I seem to replace what I look like with who I am. I don’t think this is merely convenient, though the timing is clever. very good. I find that I am more reflective these days, that I spend more time think about the meaning of life and other such themes. In other words, I haven’t stopped looking in the mirror—heaven forbid—but the mirror that holds my attention has changed. If I am self-conscious, it is mostly about the state of my mind or the legacy I might leave. My vanity is more focused on the wisdom I have and have not achieved. In that light, this wrinkling body of mine seems like the right one to have.