Social media has gotten on a kick of traipsing down memory lane… whether you wanted to be reminded or not. However, just the other day, a friend posted a picture of herself from a few years ago on her social media page. It was not even that many years ago that the picture was taken, but her own comment was “I wish I felt that pretty again.” The post sparked a number of rebuttals from her friends and family to say she was still remarkably beautiful. I was one of the contributors, and it prompted a conversation between her and me about the self-image downswing that we were mutually experiencing.
Like it or not, the majority of individuals in western society are consistently comparing ourselves to an arbitrary image set forth as ideal beauty. Whether you are male or female, young or old, chances are that you have at some point in your life fallen prey to the superficial grading system imposed by public assumptions of what is attractive. It isn’t anything new. This stuff has been going on for decades, centuries, hell… probably millennia. I expect that if someone invents time travel, we can take a trip back to the stone age where we will watch as Og or Una looks at their gender rivals and thinks, “You know, I wish I had a heavy brow and back hair like Erm,” or “Wonder how she gets her hair to mat like that?” It is something to do with competition for resources and mates. We want to look our best and most attractive to make sure that we get more hubba-hubba from our chosen ones than the next individual of the species.
And no… I may be oversimplifying, but we don’t develop these ideas about our own appearance just because we want to stare at ourselves in a reflective surface… well, at least most of us don’t. Even our internal opinions of worth and attractiveness originate from some sort of external input and observation. While we may embrace the idea of looking good for ourselves, the ideas we have of what looks good are still sadly over influenced by the collective opinion of society. The good part about that is that it tends to evolve and change itself. The bad part is that society hasn’t always reflected health and wellness as beauty.
For instance, the ideal beauty image of 19th century fashion in Western Europe involved looking consumptive. I’m serious. There was a fashion and beauty trend of the time where women tried to appear as if they had tuberculosis. Not so much the coughing up blood bit, but they would exaggerate pallor and wasting physique and spots of color in the face… Yep, sure enough, what was thought to be lovely was actually symptomatic of pulmonary contagion. What fun! Let’s not stop there. To swing the entire opposite direction, we can visit the 20th century and the tan generations. People worked very hard and exposed themselves to extended quantities of UVA and UVB to achieve the golden and darkened skin tones found to be attractive from the 1950’s through 1980’s. We’ve all seen how that turned out for some of the rich, Corinthian leather types, at least those who managed to narrowly avoid melanoma. Finally around the 1990’s people started heeding the advice of dermatologists and respecting their natural skin tones enough to invest in sunblock and avoid over tanning.
No matter what the trend or the evolution of image ideal, we all risk that day when we look in the mirror and think “What the hell happened?” It is the natural consequence of living a full life. We age. We change. And yet, our society still wants to tell us that the only way to stay beautiful is to stay young. In truth, some of us are gifted in that department. Genetics and self-care can be seen on some people as a fountain of youth. They do not appear to be ravaged by time, while the rest of us note every line and crease and bulge and dimple that changes the surface and circumference of our physical form. For others, medical science has provided various options to attempt to turn back the clock.
I cannot tell you the number of times that I have looked up into the bathroom mirror to be startled by the middle-aged (or old) woman that looks back at me. Why am I startled? I know precisely how many times I’ve made the trip round the sun. I understand how time and biology (and gravity) work on the body to result in certain effects. I know precisely how much sleep I did not get the previous night. Knowing how it all works and knowing my own age has not changed the impact of seeing it reflected in the mirror on upon other measurement devices like my bathroom scale. In my mind, I’m still supposed to have the physique of that 25 year old (who, despite all evidence to the contrary, also felt herself to be ugly and falling far short of the “ideal” of the era). I see the extra bulge here, the dimpled skin there, the uneven complexion due to hormonal changes of pregnancy and age (and yes, too much sun), the lines on the face… and I’m appalled. Who is that? That isn’t the image I have of myself in my mind!
Fight as I might against the idea of succumbing to social pressure, I have still absorbed all the unnatural expectations that say I must be thin, athletic with perfect skin and hair, looking like the models I see in clothing, lingerie, and fitness adverts whether it bears any resemblance to my own genetics or not. Anything else falls short of that ideal and must mean that I am no longer even passably tolerable to look upon… and I want to run and hide.
Usually with a little bit of effort and sufficient time away from the offending reflective surface, common sense and humor return. I look my age. I should be pleased to do so. It marks me as a victor at least in some aspect of the war with time and element. I’m still here. I’m also in decent shape (decent meaning that I’m still motivating under my own steam and without an entire pharmacy to keep me so). I could possibly take better care of myself. Who couldn’t these days?!? I could pay more attention to my diet, my fitness routine, my sleep schedule… So, why haven’t I done so? Was it because I gave so little value to that 25 year old that she deteriorated from neglect? Maybe. Perhaps if I had seen then what I now appreciate I would have retained some part of her to be visible now?
Again, that is just silliness on my part. Each of us can be happy with who we are by accepting that it is all part of normal growth and evolution. Does it help to make healthy choices and occasionally pamper ourselves? Sure it does. One of the most beautiful ladies I ever met was about 98 years old when I was called in to see her in the emergency room. She was genuinely the loveliest woman I had seen. Her hair was perfect, silvery white and still very thick. Her skin was not without lines, but was clear and a beautiful cream. Her eyes were bright hazel like light on water with very mischievous twinkles, and she had also had her nails done that day in a shocking pink tone that most nonagenarians would never have chosen. I won’t go into the reasons I was there to see her. I just recall being stunned by her beauty and thinking to myself that I would never be so lucky to arrive at those year with that much stunning loveliness. In my reverie, I heard her say, “You know, gal, you are very pretty.” My immediate response was to think, No I’m not. I masked it quickly, but the lady was too quick. She said, “You were about to contradict me. Don’t you do it. I don’t say things that aren’t true. So, don’t pull some sort of false modesty bullshit with me. Stand up and accept it.” Whereupon I realized that the twinkle in her eye was no lie, and I laughed. I had to. She had called me out on my southern upbringing and lack of self-esteem. So, against all that self-defacing programming, I thanked her and proceeded with her exam. I still didn’t believe her, but that was ok.
That lady had made me think. I wondered if she recognized her own beauty or if when she looked in the mirror she merely compared herself to what was likely the stunner she was as a young woman. I hope she saw the truth at every age. I hope she recognized the image in the mirror for the loveliness it was, and I hope that at some point I can look at the reflection in my own glass and appreciate what is there without weighing the present image in the scale against a past that is gone.