In 1985, a young photographer friend asked me if I would pose for her in the nude. I was feeling beautiful for the first time in my life, and I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I was 44 and had just discovered that I was in charge of my own body. I had started running every day 3.8 miles, and was thrilled with the changes my body was experiencing.
In college I weighed 195. I ate anything I wanted and I wanted everything. I had never even considered exercise.
I have a faint memory of my grandmother saying sports were violent and reading was holy.
In gym class in the ’50s, girls were stopped at mid-court in basketball to protect them from too much exertion. My gym teacher was “compassionately” complicit when I told her I had my period every week each month. So I sat and watched the other girls rope-climb (violent), run laps around the gym (violent), and do jumping jacks (such a waste of good reading time). And don’t get me started on sweat, I mean perspire, something a proper lady would never do.
The photographer said she wanted to celebrate aging. I don’t think I really realized the impact of what she meant at the time. Aging was a theory, not a reality, then, but I was game.
So every year she took me out to the beach or into the woods or floating in the pond behind her house and snapped away. I think I loved it mostly because I was watching or better still, actually collaborating, with a real artist.
As the years rolled by, the few times I saw the images I barely looked, and when I did peek, it made me wince. I must have intuitively known if I really looked, I wouldn’t continue with the project. Somehow underneath my ego that was screaming, OMG look how fat you are, my artist self, my soul (is that too weird?), knew this was important work she was doing, and maybe that meant it was important work I was doing too. Besides, it was great fun.
So yesterday, 35 years after that first session, when I thought I looked gorgeous, she brought me the book she had been working on all these years, “Sovereign.” And my ego had a heart attack. (You can read an article about the book in the New Yorker: bit.ly/nymaga6.)
Then I read her introduction.
Jocelyn Lee grew up with a mother who was comfortable with her body. As a kid each night when her father came home from work, she watched the two of them kiss on the mouth, her words.
The book, she says, is an affirmation that women and their bodies will not be made culturally invisible.
She writes, “Through these photographs I am striving to crack open a punishingly narrow image culture of women, and pushing toward a much needed paradigm shift. It is time to revolutionize how women are seen and perceived, to show publicly, joyfully, proudly images of real women in real bodies living sensual and expansive lives in their very human skin.”
Well, it’s been time for that revolution for years. But it’s hard, nearly impossible, to look at yourself old and flabbed out. It’s not only hard, but it’s down right shocking and if I let it be, really embarrassing.
I told my friend Rich one day, after scrutinizing myself in the mirror at his house, I was shocked at how old I had gotten. He said, “You’re not old, you’re aging. You’re vibrant, you have energy. You’re alive!” He said, “Look at the new shingles we just had put on the house, and then look at the old ones. The old ones are weathered. They’re so much more beautiful. You’re weathered.”
That helped, but part of me still wants to write under those photographs, “2015 was a fat summer, that summer,” or quip, “See, that’s why I wear clothes,” or “Why didn’t she put the ones in from 2016, when I was sylphlike?” And yet there is also a part of me that is proud to be among these pages. The thing is I know that when I’m 90, I’ll say “Oooh, look how good I looked when I was 80.”
In the essay by April M. Watson at the end of the book, she writes, “Although undeniably a natural process of physical change, aging is also a cultural construction, maintained through a deeply flawed narrative, that tends to define mortality as a progressive march toward death, rather than a pilgrimage through life’s joys, sorrows, tragedies, ecstasies, and wonder.”
As I was thumbing through the book (and it is gorgeous) despite what I have shockingly come to look like, I realized how different I think I look than I actually look. I’m walking around in Cronig’s feeling 38, but then I get it; maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Denial is not just a river; maybe it’s a way of seeing life as a pilgrimage through life’s joys and sorrows. And wonder, I might add.
I plan to buy several copies of the book and give them to close friends, hoping instead of cringing, they’ll make their own tiny paradigm shift into the celebration of the inevitable.
But first I might rip out a few pages. Oh, stop it, Nancy.
I’m just kidding.
You are such a gem, Nancy. The most honest, raw, and authentic person I have ever known. What an amazing project to be a part of! Bravo! The quote by April Watson you included really made me take pause and think…then it filled me with gratitude. Rich is a good friend and he’s so right. Weathered things and people have a unique beauty that rises above convention. Another beautiful and thought provoking piece!
Wonderfully brilliant Nancy!!!
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