I'm trying to work out this issue I have running in my head. It's all messy up there, being a mushy blend of fears about my own mortality, the reality of ageing, and the difficulty of viewing myself as being on the decline. I'm trying to separate out my own ideas of beauty and success from my culture's images of beauty and success, and they are so bound together, it turns out, that it's going to take some work to come to a point of any clarity.
I don't actually believe the hype about youth and perceived sexual availability, but I find that I judge myself against this yard stick constantly.
We live in a culture that values youth and beauty as some kind of innate success in women and value them above any other kind of active, intelligent success. I could be intelligent and creative and even rich, but if I was larger than a size four and over 25 years old, I would be like day-old bread: still good, but you probably wouldn't serve me to guests.
I was lying next to the Palinode in bed the other night, and something hit me.
"Yeah?" he said.
"Yeah," he said.
"I am at an age where I am not going to get physically more beautiful."
"What do you mean?"
"Little girls are raised with so much pressure to be beautiful and, not only that, to become more beautiful, and I knew when I was a little kid that I would never be a raving beauty, but there was always this hope, even into my early thirties, that I would hit a stage of being really beautiful and not just passably okay looking. I'm good with being okay looking, but it's weird to know that what I do now to be attractive is more to maintain what I have and not lose it than it is about hoping to grow into more beauty."
"I'm not a kid hoping for the future anymore. The kind of beauty I used to hope for when I was eleven pretty much reached its zenith already. And that was a while ago. Middle-aged women either end up looking like they're trying too hard or they're lesbians in this hyper-feminized climate."
"True," he said. "And we all know which side you fell on."
And then I didn't punch him in the face, because I love him THAT much.
I do realize that there are different kinds of beauty and that we can't all be measured against some 21-year-old, white-toothed, bouncy-boobed ideal. Hell, I don't think I ever could be measured against that ideal. I don't even particularly like that ideal.
Still, though, that ideal has been firmly implanted in my brain over the last 37 years, and I'm not alone in this. It has been implanted in most of your brains, as well, and it is bound up with our ideas of worth and success, because most of the women we see publicly as being successful are women who maintain a very specific ideal of sexiness.
And please don't throw Helen Mirren up as an example of an ageing woman still being viewed as successful and beautiful, because she meets the requirement that is sexual allure, as evidenced by leaked pictures of her in a bikini. She passes our test for generally accepted fuckability. Not that she is primarily measured against that, but, if not for her continuing fuckability, I doubt that we would still be paying attention to her in the same way, talented or not.
I want to measure myself in terms of things that do not involve my fuckability.
This is the rub. I never really wanted that kind of youthful beauty, the kind that pointed to fuckability, because I had this internal life that was more real to me than my external life, and I had this need to be seen beyond what my body had to offer, but now I am 37 years old and beyond that point where my body just accidentally, because of its newness, falls into socially accepted fuckability. My body's not terrible, but I would have to work pretty hard to mould it into that kind of more youthful shape that used to be effortless.
My body is no longer accidentally hot, but this is not really what I'm worried about, either. It's that I feel like there's a loss of power in my waning fuckability.
I guess I have become aware that I am really moving into my mid-life, and my new wrinkles and silvering hair and the way my body is subtly rearranging itself keeps pointing out how I'm not where I was and I'm not growing up anymore. The future isn't a magic thing that will happen to me on the other side of puberty or romantic love or what have you.
It has never been more clear to me how nearly inextricably bound together ideas about beauty and success are when it comes to women in our culture. I have not ever fit that idea, both by nature and by choice, but now that I have come to a point in my life where accidental youthfulness is conceding to accidental middle age, it is also becoming clear to me how much I need to redefine success for myself and carry that success like a huge, freaking sword of awesomeness to trump the red herrings of youth, socially accepted beauty, and the allure of publicly perceived sexual availability.
The future is now, it turns out, and it's a bit jarring.