In my house we have an anatomy atlas and one of the things it illustrates (literally) is the human body at different stages from childhood through being elderly. These drawings are all beautiful and fascinating: fascinating to see how the fat redistributes during different stages for different (useful) reasons, fascinating to watch the hair change colors, the eyes shift in proportion, the skin go from baby soft to muscular and tight to soft and delicate again. But when my 5-year-old son showed this to his grandfather, someone I highly associate with the Sean Connery chest-hair-sporting version of James Bond, the man recoiled. This didn’t really surprise me. Our culture doesn’t maintain that there are a lot of uses or respect for the elderly, and I can imagine my father-in-law (my 69-year-old tennis winning, whiskey drinking, paterfamilias who takes care of things as part of his identity) not wanting to give up his present role in favor of the dismissal and irrelevance that culture says might come.
Today I needed to help my Mom take a shower because she just had a total knee replacement and can barely walk. Like all people, my Mom’s body bears the marks of what she’s spent her life doing: the stomach scarred by bringing four children into the world, the shoulders bent from mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, and filling out paperwork, and the fingers twisted from pitching hay to horses for 60+ years. And I’m proud of her, she wasn’t too self-deprecating, but she still made one comment that told me she’s aware that she looks different than the young women she sees on tv.
And, heck, I’m only 33 and when I look in the mirror I don’t see a tv bod either. But right now the only thing that worries me about that is my potential to have a lack of confidence as I grow older. It worries me because I feel like I owe my husband, my kids, and the world more than that. I owe my husband my self-confidence because he needs my help leading our family and our community. I owe my children my self-confidence because they both need to know what a great woman, worker, spouse, and parent looks like. And I owe the world my self-confidence because it needs more examples of capable female leaders, fearless artists, and compassionate people of faith.
The lack of celebration and appreciation around older people’s bodies in media and in life does us a disservice because it puts an impossible pressure on us to be or stay a certain way forever, and it gives us no examples of how to cope well when we inevitably fail. In fact, even that statement equates aging with failing, which is ludicrous to begin with. And that’s my whole point: whether in media or not, somehow aging has to be equated with beauty, worth, and relevance (not that we need to get back to the powdered wigs, but you get what I’m saying). And if WE don’t become kick-ass old people who consider our old bodies to be awesome and relevant and lovable and beautiful, how will our children ever do the same?