This essay was prompted by actress Ashley Judd. She ignited a national conversation recently when she took umbrage at comments made about her appearance in a recent television premier. My concerns about appearance began years ago. When the aging process began its stealthy inhabitation of my body.
It must have started around thirty. A friend and I were watching our children on a playground when she spotted something out-of-place near my dark brunette ponytail. She said, “Emily! You have a grey hair!”
“No I don’t!” I replied. “That’s ridiculous! Prove it.”
She reached behind to the nape of my neck and plucked the offender, rather painfully, I might add.
The only nice thing about sporting a few grey hairs was the attention I got from my middle daughter, who loved the game of finding them and pulling them. The pain turned to guilty pleasure as year after year passed with my monkey-daughter searching my head for the tiny white treasures. Then one day she said, ”No more plucking. Too many on top.” I started scouring Walgreen’s for dye identical to my color immediately.
During this period, I noticed a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there but nothing significant since I didn’t get a lot of sun. First, there were tiny lines developing at the edges of my eyes when I smiled really largely. I only noticed this in pictures; I didn’t pay much attention to the image reflected back to me in my mirror in the mornings. Why bother? I was still getting carded for alcohol at 42. This was before it was required for alcohol purchases. How do I know this? I asked the clerks each time, challenging them with “Why do you need to see my ID?”
“We have to card people who might not be 27,” was the answer each time.
“Twenty-seven, TWENTY-SEVEN?” I then proceeded to call my sister, my mother, my husband, my girls and a few close friends to tell them the news. This was after I did a little dance in the aisles and thoroughly embarrassed the clerks.
Then came reality. “Why are you frowning when you talk?” my oldest daughter asked me one day.
“I’m not frowning,” I answered her. As I looked in the rearview mirror of my car, I realized that she was right; I was screwing up my forehead when I talked. I saw two deep rivulets between my eyes directly over my nose. What the?
I realized I was doing it more often than when gesturing during animated conversations. I was pulling that delicate skin together when I concentrated. When I smoked my occasional cigarette. Heck, I was doing it all of the time! Thank goodness for Botox, Photoshop, and an understanding husband! These three miracles saved my sanity when I turned 48, and the rivulets turned to canyons.
Then came the sagging knees. One day after mowing, I showered and looked down while standing. Dry legs? I wondered. “No!” I said aloud to myself. “My knees are sagging!” I quickly got online and Googled stars in short dresses. Surely enough, I was not the only one! Even Demi Moore’s skin above her knees was wrinkled by sagging skin. And she had a personal trainer! Whew! What else was I going to have to get used to?
Yet another day I showered after gardening and happened to catch a glimpse of myself in my large bathroom mirror. Huh? It can’t be! “No!” I yelled to myself, startling my dog, who was napping on the bath mat. It was something I had not fathomed. My butt cheeks were sagging, and I could see them between my legs! Horror of horrors!
As the aging process was in full swing on my skin and hair, I noticed another trend with something else that mattered to me almost as much as my skin: metabolism! Yikes. At 5’7” I used to weigh 115. By my mid-thirties, I was forced to accept 125 pounds. Still, my family made comments like, “Did you know I could strum your backbones? Strum strum. That’s not sexy for women, you know.” This from my brother, who did, in fact, strum my backbones whenever he came around. Then my mother would chime in, “You really need to wear lipstick. Your skin is so pale, and you are too thin. You need a blood count.”
I knew I was thin (and borderline anemic), but I was powerless to rev up my metabolism. So, I just enjoyed every steak and dessert I could cram in, laughing all the way to the scales at my great fortune.
By mid-forties, my weight had crept up to 135 pounds, my size increasing from a 2-4 to a 6. Now, I seemed to be the only person at all disturbed by this weight gain. For not only did I have curves after being scrawny for so long, but I also had my big boobies back! The only difference from my high school years was that it took Victoria’s Secret to keep them properly erect. Other than that, the cleavage just blossomed! My husband loved the changes in my body. All I could really see, however, was the small muffin top threatening to spill over the tops of my jeans. After three pregnancies, no weight gain, and no stretch marks, I finally had proof that this body had accommodated infants. I hated that skin. Fortunately, I still had a smallish waistline.
This is where Ashley Judd comes in. I read her article in the Daily Beast spanking reporters and others for commenting on her “puffy face” and rounded body after her appearance on her new show, Missing. When I first noticed her, I thought to myself that she looked lovely and that she was experiencing the same forty-something body changes I was slowly trying to accept. But no, in a snappy, chiding essay she called her critics to task, articulately denouncing each and every snide remark referencing her appearance. She said she was on steroids for a medical issue, certainly an explanation for a rounded face.
In the article she says, “That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.”
Judd continues, “A case in point is that this conversation was initially promulgated largely by women; a sad and disturbing fact. (That they are professional friends of mine, and know my character and values, is an additional betrayal.)”
One of Judd’s valid points is that women are held to outrageous standards for beauty and weight by men and, sadly, by women. Though I am more concerned about my own standards, to be fair to Judd, I am not judged by the media or the public. Over time I have been forced to accept changes that I never even considered. Sags, wrinkles, grey hairs and weight have crept into my body, forcing me to face getting older, making me wonder how far I will go to stay young.
Judd lashed out at the idea of having some “work done,” while millions of women, primarily her film contemporaries, are doing this daily. I hope I will not fall into this trap, but I will make no promises. All I can admit to at this point is accepting myself at my age. It has been gradual, one wrinkle at a time. My husband tells me I am more beautiful than I was in my twenties. Bless that man for keeping my confidence up! He also tells me that my beauty is not just about my appearance. Bless him for showing me what is most important! I know all about the “love is blind” thing. Doesn’t matter when the most important man in my life makes me feel the way he does.
I hope Ms Judd and other prominent, beautiful women change their dialogues when the time comes (or when age does catch up) to say that it is exciting to grow older, that we women can accept our bodies with each step. I doubt they can be as open and honest about dying hair, sagging skin, Botox, and a few pounds creeping up because of their industry. Sadly, then, there will always be the speculation that Judd so despises. But along with this speculation will be analyzing and discerning by a few aging women like me who just want to see someone else in the limelight who shares the flaws and still feels good about herself.