I am a conventionally attractive young woman. I am happy and sure of myself; I have wonderful people and relationships in my life; I’m doing well in college and I’m excited about my future. However, despite my immense luck and privilege, I spend a stupid amount of time thinking about my appearance. I examine my face and body every day. Even more oppressive is my fear of getting old – I’m constantly anxious about how my appearance will deteriorate as I get older.
I know this is a sexist waste of time; it is disrespectful to me and to all older women I am terrified of becoming. But I can’t seem to shake myself. I wish I cared less. How I can?
Eleanor says: First, don’t be too impatient with yourself. It does not make you vain or empty to have this concern. A billion dollar industry is designed to leverage your attention and money though You know it’s a sexist waste of time
It might have been 80 years since it was acceptable to say that appearance was the only measure of a woman, but that’s just two or three cycles of daughters sitting on the edge of the tub, watching their mothers put on makeup and step on the scales. Most of us have spent a tragic amount of time, whatever it may be, staring in disappointment at the only body we will ever have.
I love the way you put it – that this is disrespectful to the women you are terrified of becoming. But I really don’t think you are afraid to become them. I think you’re terrified of being seen the way they are, even, in some way, by you. I think you are afraid of how it will feel to live in a wrinkled and softer body if a part of you subscribes to the system that condemns them.
The good news is that it is possible to retrain what you consider beautiful. I know this because I once needed to gain a lot of pounds in a hurry and my friends recognized that that might not be easy for a woman in an Instagram world. They made a concerted effort to blur the thinness and beauty: they showed me beaming, smiling photos of people taking up space; they would point to a woman passing by, whose breasts hung low and moved as she did so, and they would notice aloud that she looked shapely, feminine, free, fun. They would praise parts of the body she had never thought of: Aphrodite’s soft, intimate curve of a stomach above the pubic bone, the look of the crease where the arm meets the chest under the strap of a T-shirt.
Over time, it literally changed my viewing experience – now I don’t feel thin as beautiful. I don’t like when I can see my ribs. I like to feel a great density between the chair I am sitting in and myself. I feel more beautiful when I weigh more.
I think you could do something similar, especially with age. Lines can be the etching of your biggest smiles, the scowls you learned from, the proof that you change and grow.
Delete anyone on Instagram who is skinny and 20. Seriously, what are they teaching you? Nothing you want or need to learn. Focus on the parts of yourself that won’t diminish over time – humor and wisdom are not like collagen. You will do more of them as you get older.
And remember that our default ways of seeing are neither natural nor necessary. Any statue in any gallery testifies that we didn’t always think of skinny teens as the pinnacle of beauty. Seeing is entangled with belief; don’t let either of them hand it to you young men in boardrooms who want to take your money.
Ask us a question
Do you have a conflict, crossroads, or dilemma that you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.