Here I was in a Budapest change-room surrounded by naked women. We were headed to the Roman baths outside. Mountains of jiggly, saggy, crinkly, dancing flesh encircled me. All the women were over 70 I guessed. I was a mere 50 then, and I’d never seen so many ageing, naked females before. It was awe-inspiring.
The variety! The shapes! The sizes! The scars! Nothing could have been further from the airbrushed, gym-toned bodies of the young that chide us from every advertisement, movie or magazine. But more amazing was the sheer nonchalance, the abandon of these naked women bestriding the tiles. They didn’t care what the world thought. Was it possible they were proud of these lived-in, flawed bodies that had carried them into old age? They would plunge into the warm waters and enjoy themselves – hugely.
More than ten years on I’m in Malaysia where the Malay women cover themselves head-to-toe to swim. I decide to treat myself to a massage. And just before I lie on the massage table, I’m suddenly gripped with embarrassment. There’s so much to explain to the young woman with the sweet-smelling, oiled hands. So much has happened since Budapest. So much is now written on my body.
“There’re a few things I have to tell you,” I say as I pull the scarf off my head. “That bald bit is from some recent chemotherapy. And this scar is from a recent operation so please go gentle there.” (It’s from the lobectomy I had in June after the discovery – early – I was one of the non-smokers with lung cancer.) “And this scar,” I said, pointing to a faint one from the long-ago lumpectomy for breast cancer, “no problems with that one.”
She was looking at me wide-eyed. And I was just starting. The lumpy bit on my hand, for example….I didn’t want her to think it was warts when it was merely an “age-related” condition, the GP had assured me. And my right shinbone…. “Too much information,” I hear you cry. So I’ll refrain from telling you about my right shinbone but I thought my masseuse ought to know.
I was feeling hotter and sweatier than was normal even in Malaysia’s steam-bath climate. Why in the world had I thought a massage would be relaxing? Why had I thought of it as a reward for enduring my recent travails? Suddenly I was acutely conscious of my ageing body in its many imperfections. In that scented cubicle, I felt it had let me down badly. I didn’t feel one bit proud of it.
In the 1970s I was one of the millions who read Our Bodies Ourselves as if it were the Holy Book. Did you read it? That revolutionary tome taught us young women to understand, love and respect our bodies. No more shame or trying to conform to an ideal. Throw away the razor, sack the waxer! We were proud to be “hairy-legged feminists.” We peeked at our cervix with mirrors, abandoned makeup, and bravely faced the world. When my mother told me, “You’re one of those women transformed by lipstick,” I ignored her. Easy in your twenties.
How long did that bravery last before body-hatred re-asserted itself? All I know is that it’s rampant again. The advertisers, image-makers, pornographers are winning. Young women have been brainwashed into thinking pubic hair is disgusting and must be pulled out by the root (along with the rest of body hair). Anoerexia is a scourge. Boys still don’t like girls who aren’t thin. And stilettos are back.
And us ageing women? (Men. I don’t know your story but I’d like you to tell me). If single, women can dread the thought of being naked with a new partner. Women can share men’s horror of ageing female flesh. Do check out the website of painter Aleah Chapin and tell me what you think. The late writer/filmmaker, Nora Ephron, wrote a witty essay On Maintenance about her extensive post-60 beauty routine. I couldn’t stop laughing. But taken too far, “maintenance” can slip into age-denial, a pathetic fight against Time and Gravity. More recently Martha Nussbaum, 67, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, has written:
I fear that my generation is letting disgust and shame sweep over us again, as a new set of bodily challenges beckons……. I’ve noticed not just a discomfort with the unpopular aspects of aging (sagging skin, brown spots, loss of muscle tone), but something more general: a shrinking from the body itself, a desire to deny that this body is who we are.
We are our dodgy knees and double-chins but most of us, I wager, feel young inside. It’s the paradox of ageing. Laid out on that massage table, I tried to relax. I thought of my book group. Our ageing together over 20 years has been captured in a photo book we assembled for the anniversary. With magic potions we’re weathering well but the changes are undeniable. I realised these women have grown more beautiful as they’ve grown older. That’s how I feel about them, anyway.
And then I thought of the women in Budapest. The spirit! The confidence! I’ll try some of that. A lot’s written on my body. It’s the record of what I’ve survived. I’m learning to like it.