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Recently, I looked at a picture of myself at 37. I remember being so concerned about aging then -- I look great and so young. Twenty years from now (or even 10), I will probably look at a picture of me today and think I look great and young. It would be a shame to miss enjoying what I have now ... to have it only in retrospect.
To age gracefully, we need to balance health and vanity. I am propelled by both to take care of myself -- and I have had opportunities to explore my attachment to both as well.
Back in 1994, after two weeks in bed with serious AIDS-related pneumonia, I had not "lost my looks," but I had lost my body. The flesh hung on my thighs. My body had less muscle tone than my energetic 84-year-old father's. I was tired after walking across my small walled garden in Santa Fe.
I decided to see what I could do about it. I remember doing three push-ups one day, 12 leg lifts the next day, and building incrementally until about a year later I was at the gym when a man approached me and said, "You look like you are in good shape and might be able to give me help with this machine ... " Only then did I realize that I had fully brought back my body.
A few months ago I saw a dance performance of a piece titled GIMP. The choreographer was working with several "other-bodied" dancers and two or three dancers from her regular company. It was startling to actually be invited to watch a one-armed woman dance a sexy duet with a man with cerebral palsy, a gorgeous woman with one hand, among others. In one section they spoke about being looked at, challenging us to stare, about proudly being their beautiful, different selves. For me, the most confrontative dancer was a man from her company who, to me, looked to have HIV-related lipodystrophy, visible signs of illness, or medication side effects. He was who I might have become. Who I might still become ...
In the car riding home, I turned to my boyfriend, both of us brought
to tears by the exquisite courage and odd beauty we had just
witnessed, and wondered aloud, "I forget to be grateful for my body ... I
am obsessing about having a six-pack when I turn 60. Perhaps I've
lost perspective ... "
Now, as I enter my 60th year, I am nearly giddy at the state of my health, my strength, and my vitality. I have challenges: My knees hurt walking up the stairs, one shoulder rotates only partially, and in order to function, I consider Advil almost as important as the antivirals and vitamins that sustain my immune system and the hormone replacement therapy that contributes to my energy level. In sum, I am a successful holistic science project -- reaping the benefits of good genes, good medicine, a healthy lifestyle, and discipline.
I enjoy my body, and it is a challenge to reconcile my vanity with my desire to be fine with any circumstance. When I was so ill, I was surprisingly peaceful. I knew in my gut that I was not just my body. Along with my health, my vanity returned, tempered by an experience of loss that had turned out to be temporary. Certainly, the future will include loss of energy, further loss of skin texture, and more lines in my already craggy face.
Accepting the aging process is part of dealing with internalized ageism. A little vanity pushes us to care for ourselves. A lot of vanity usually takes away enjoyment of who we are. This is a practice for most of us, considering the pressure to be "young" in our culture. I pray that I can embrace this process and enjoy what I have at each stage fully ... and move on with some measure of grace.