Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I want to be a ferocious crone

Julie had a good post at her blog recently about the anti-aging industry and how it seeks to warp our perceptions of ourselves. I couldn't agree with her more. It would be nice to think that we could just resist the propaganda, but it's become so pervasive that I don't believe it's possible to remain untouched by it. I made a conscious decision around the time I turned 40 not to pursue anything in the way of time-stopping strategies--no Botox, no chemical peels, no surgery, no hair dye--but the mere fact that I felt I had to decide shows just how far the issue has wormed its way into my consciousness.

The irony of our obsession with the cosmetic aspects of aging is that it distracts us from the real problems of getting older. Perhaps that's the point. It’s much easier to obsess about “fixing” wrinkles and sagging breasts than to ponder their meaning; i.e., that Death has turned the corner at the end of the block and is sashaying toward your door. Unfortunately, the end of life won’t come any later thanks to an eye lift, and every minute spent in the 100% futile effort to halt the body’s transformation is a bit of that precious life gone forever.

Actually, the things we do to look younger are worse than futile. I’m not talking about the medical disasters that leave women looking like Barbie after a turn in the microwave, though that seems to be an increasing problem. I’m thinking of all the opportunities to strengthen body and mind that we lose in the pursuit of make-believe youth. Let’s say I’ve got 2 hours and $150 dollars to spare. I can go for a long walk in the park, enjoy a really nice lunch with a friend, and have enough cash left over for a few good books; or I can sit in a salon, listen to the other customers gossip and complain, and let someone pour chemicals on my head. Which option will do more to keep me young?

I feel very lucky to have grown up around happy, fierce old women. Both my grandmothers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their lives past 70. They did as they pleased and spent very little time looking in the mirror. They were both beautiful, not because they looked young, but because they inhabited their old bodies with grace.

I feel lucky, too—in a perverse sort of way—to have had a taste of what the real challenges of aging might be like. Most of my 30s were spent disabled by severe anorexia. Years of semi-starvation gave me the body of an 80-year-old. My muscles wasted away, becoming stiff and weak as old rope. My skin was like paper. It would break or tear from the slightest impact. Pain was constant. There was no position I could sit or lie in that did not hurt. Because my legs didn’t work very well, it was hard to climb stairs, hard to keep my balance. I was incontinent.

Having lived through that and recovered, I just can’t attach any importance to my graying hair or my frown lines. Who gives a damn? The real ravages of age are decades away, if I’m lucky. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy my body and get ready to be a fierce old woman.

Old Woman Reading a Bible, Gerrit Dou, c.1630. Image from Web Gallery of Art.


Mary said...

Brava, sister!

I turned that corner around age 40, I think. I had a good old chat with myself. "You're not 25 any more, honey. So be the best damn 40 year old you can be." Very liberating.
And now I'm on the threshold of 50 and feeling pretty relaxed about all that.

I dye my hair and probably will for a long time yet, and I have a lot of makeup, creams and potions. But I think that's more about pampering and enjoying the fact that I'm paying attention to myself.

Finally, I love that women are re-claiming the word Crone.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Mary. It's good to be a crone!

As far as potions, etc. are concerned, they seem like a good thing when they're about pleasure and fun. I have my share of makeup, lord knows. I just hate to see women thinking they have to do that stuff.

chayaruchama said...

Kudos, Gracie and Mary..
And thanks for Julie's post- I read and responded there, as well...

I refer to myself as a tribal elder, and a Crone.

I care for myself well, to ward off the self-loathing, to express creativity and self-respect, and for talismanic reasons -

I need to have some boundaries to keep the intrusive at bay.
[It's like whistling in the dark]

But I do it all consciously.
And I deal with the issues at hand.

I tell my friends:

The mirror is NOT your 'friend'-
Do what you must, do what you desire-

And go do something else...

Love you women, BTW.

Anonymous said...

Brava, indeed, BG. My wife has also aged naturally and gracefully and, I swear, she's more beautiful than ever.

jmcleod76 said...

Wow, thanks for continuing this train of thought over from Julie’s post.

I think I was about 20 when I decided that I want to “grow old gracefully.” I was on a bus in Manchester, England, and sitting across the aisle from me was a woman who appeared to be in maybe her mid-60s. She had wrinkles and grey hair, but she was absolutely vibrant! I couldn’t stop looking at her. Her very presence leant me an energy I hadn’t been feeling yet that day. She didn’t seem to be doing anything to slow down the physical aging process, yet she carried herself with a level of certainty and contentment that projected a younger image. Comparing her to the many women I’ve known who dye their hair and get facelifts and such, it was immediately clear who was the more attractive, in my estimation. Those other women were mere pathetic shadows of that lovely woman on the bus.

That seems cold to say. Understanding how unyielding the pressure is to conform to some unrealistic standard of youth and beauty, one should be moved to compassion for those who feel compelled to waste their lives chasing after this moving target. And I am moved to compassion. In my view, these women (and men … let’s be fair) throw away their real beauty in pursuit of something that’s no more than an idea. There’s a reason that, in Buddhism, we call this kind of clinging “the root of suffering.”

And I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m immune. At 32, I have plenty of white hairs, but very little in the way of wrinkles. To the contrary, I look a bit like a pubescent boy, and I still get carded for beer at the store around the corner from my house. I don’t expect that to change soon, but I know it will change, and probably too soon for my liking. Rather than worry too much about it, I try to focus on making sure my future wrinkled face is a friendly-looking one. They say we get the face we’ve earned, and I know lots of older women whose faces seem to be crunched up into a permanent scowl. Anytime I see that, it reminds me to stop, drop whatever hostility I might be projecting on my face, and smile. It’s not only good for my face, it’s good for my blood-pressure, my interpersonal relationships, and my sanity. Of course, I tend to scrunch up my face in thought a lot, so I don’t think there will be any escaping having a permanent Michael Stipe-esque “birdie foot” (as I like to call it) right between my eyebrows. Ah well …

And thanks for opening up about such a personal, and painful, aspect of your life. It shouldn’t, but it always surprises me to hear how many people have dealt with this issue. As someone who went on a few crazy, unhealthy boxed food diets as a preteen just to get my mom to stop nagging me, I can understand the draw of feeling like you’re in control of your own body. I’ve never felt in control.

(Sorry for the length of this comment!) Much love, jjm

Alexa said...

Hi, Maria ... I've just found your blog for the first time ... I'm totally with you on the "anti-aging" attitude! I figure, we're all aging from the moment we're conceived, so what's the big deal?

Life comes; life goes. I'm suddenly sprouting stray hairs on my chin ... facial etchings that don't smooth out ... etc., etc. ... that's alright. I don't do anything outrageous to hide my age. It is what it is ... and besides, if it's all heading south (so to speak), I'm going to sit back and enjoy the ride as best I can!

When I was sixteen, my mother told me, "It's time for your nose job!" WHAAA...?! She and my sister both had their honkers de-beaked (there's quite a Roman nose that runs in my family) ... I stood up to my mother for the first time in my life and said NO. Yay me!

Nine years later, during a mask-making workshop, a woman told me that my profile reminded her of Queen Nefertiti. She wouldn't have seen the resemblance if I'd had the surgery! :-)

My husband and I are laughing as much as we dare at our inevitable cronings (what's the equivalent for a man? -- Woman = Crone ... Man = ? ) ... We cherish the beauty of one another through and through ... and truth be told, I wouldn't want to go back to my younger days! I'm more sane, centered, and at peace than ever before (and still wacky, daffy, and glitchy too) ... I'm becoming a merciful friend to myself ... Few qualities will matter more, I think, in the coming years ...

Bless you xo

So glad to have found your beautiful blog!

Anonymous said...

This is such a brave essay, on so many levels. Thank you for writing it.

BitterGrace said...

You are very wise, Chaya--a crone among crones! Yes, consciousness is everything.

It's nice to read your appreciation of your wife, Bozo. You are proof that it's generally not the men in our lives who are fueling the craziness.

Don't apologize for the comment, J--I appreciate every word. I know what you mean about the beauty of older women. My great-grandmother was exquisitely beautiful at 90, though she looked every day of 90. She was like a creature from another world. Someday perhaps I'll write more about the ED business. It's complicated.

Welcome, Jaliya. Glad you found us. Good for you for keeping your beautiful nose! I actually went through a stage as a teenager when I wanted a nose job, and my mother--fortunately for me--said absolutely not. One of many things for which I should thank her. I dunno what the male equivalent of a crone would be. "Geezer" doesn't have quite the same ring of respect, does it? Some men do age very gracefully, though, which is a wonderful thing to see.

Thanks, Margaret. Knowing you appreciated it means a lot to me.

Mary said...

Maybe a male Crone is a Sage? Hmmm. I know lots of Crones, but not many Sages. ;)

Julie H. Rose said...

Thank you, Maria.

Interesting that you used that painting; I used it in an older post about aging and/or body image (and I'm too lazy to look for that post).

You're lucky to have had role models of "fierce crones." I did not.

My mother had a face lift and the works at the age of 61. The sad irony is that when she recovered enough to go out, she was in a car accident that killed her. So, no, we can not put off death.

BitterGrace said...

"Sage" seems like a good masculine counterpart to crone, Mary. I guess I don't know a huge number of them, but I have known a few. Perhaps we overlook them because they're the quiet ones.

Julie, I'm sorry you lost your mother at such a young age. Even though I devoted this whole post to preaching against trying to hold onto youth, I do see that there is also a positive motivation for people who have face lifts, etc. They are at least looking forward to life, and haven't given up on finding joy. They're trying, which cannot be said of everyone. Death seems cruel most of the time, but especially so when it takes someone who still has dreams for herself.

That painting is sort of irresistible, isn't it? But I don't think I'll be reading the Bible when I am old.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this post as I was falling asleep last night, and a line from King Lear came to me: "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."

I think that's what's behind the "ick" factor of cosmetic surgery for me. Not just the fruitlessness of it in the face of certain mortality, but the way it suggests how thoroughly possible it is to age without learning anything crucial at all. I keep hoping that I'm moving toward wisdom, even though the first 47 years haven't gotten me all that close so far.

BitterGrace said...

unfortunately, the world doesn't really help us be wise. The road to wisdom is difficult even under the best circumstances, and modern life hardly offers those.

David Maddox said...

Crone:Old Woman as
Coot: Old Man

Anonymous said...

I know it horrifies some women when I say I'm in my chronage, or mention that I feel I'm too old for something (meaning "I'm too old to deal with that level of foolishness").

This makes me cackle.