For some reason, my vain side thinks of Dylan Thomas when it considers aging. It whispers at me, “Do not go gentle into that dark night.” And then my English-major self gets irritated at the shallow self for invoking poetry about living life to the fullest and resisting death and applying it to resisting wrinkles and gravity.
Back when I was that twenty year old English major and thought I knew everything, I remember telling my friends I would never, ever consider plastic surgery. The whole concept seemed so incredibly narcissistic and unnecessary. I mean, why would a woman mess with her body in that way? Women everywhere should embrace their figures and be proud! Go girls!
Yeah. Back when I was twenty I was a size 4 and a 34C and had flat abs without even trying. Actually, I had flat abs despite all the Natural Light I drank at frat parties and the cheese quesadillas I consumed after the frat parties.
Now I am not a size 4, my chest has shrunken with each pregnancy and my abs will never be flat without surgery and perhaps a little bit of a miracle thrown in. I own three pairs of imitation Spanx which help only enough to keep the tears at bay when I look at myself in the mirror on my way out the door.
In a strange way, I care less about how my body looks now than I did when I was in college. I remember freaking out when I bought my first bikini at the end of my sophomore year. Now I will wear sleeveless tops even though my arms aren’t as toned, and I will wear skirts even though my legs are ghastly pale and covered in spider veins and stretch marks. Instead of worrying, “Oh my gosh, is everyone looking at me? What are they thinking? Is this too tight? Am I showing too much cleavage?” I think, “No one is looking at me, I’m a plain ol’ middle-aged mom, I’m practically invisible, so who cares if I forgot to shave my legs today?”
And yet, despite my knowledge that it shouldn’t matter how I look physically, I let fretting over my post-child figure fill too much of my brain. A brain which should be focused on other important things like caring for my children, balancing my bank accounts and deciding whether to watch Downton Abbey or Orange is the New Black.
I want plastic surgery now. I want it in a way that that can only come from yearning for something you cannot have. If I had the means to go out and hire an amazing plastic surgeon, I am not sure I would go for it, but right now, it’s all I think about when I see my body before I get into the shower. How can I fix that paunch or that shapeless chest?
Exercise can’t do it, which is something my 20 year old self never considered when she chastised women for making the choice to enhance or correct their bodies surgically. I’ve lost the baby weight but exercise can’t return volume where it was lost or repair the canyon in my midsection that was created by carrying four very large babies in my short body. The envy I feel for moms who never got stretch marks or who look better after babies is boundless.
Strangers tell me I look younger than I am and I drink up those compliments like I’ll never receive another. I’ve become so concerned with keeping the lines on my face at bay that I fully intend to go to a great dermatologist this year to see what I can do about stalling the inevitable. If I can’t have perky breasts and smooth abs, I want my face to continue to convince others I’m not getting older.
I will be the 108 year old woman in the nursing home still sporting dark hair because I refuse to give up the gray.
Maybe this obsession with my youthfulness (or lack thereof) is a mid-life crisis hurdle all women hit as they look at their reflections and see unfamiliar crags and valleys. Or maybe it’s amplified in me as I find myself single again (for the first time since I was 21 and wrinkle- and stretch mark-free) and the possibility of a man who is not already my husband seeing this wildly imperfect body makes me want to crawl into a deep and very dark hole. No flashlights allowed. My fear, which I feel is quite rational, is that if I do ever decide to be in a relationship again, I won’t be able to attract someone when I look the way I look. The physical reality does not match my activity level, and I’m terrified someone promising will be disappointed to discover that.
I no longer think plastic surgery is a sign of vanity or extreme self-consciousness, but I’m also not convinced I’d feel confident after going through with the alterations. Surgery alone can’t fix my self-image.
I’ve worked hard to lose the baby weight, and, when clothed, I don’t look terrible for someone who’s given birth four times. How’s that for confidence? People say, “You look great for four kids!” But I don’t want to look great for four kids, I want my exercise and eating right to actually mean I get to look good in a bathing suit. I look at plastic surgery as a reward I could give myself for committing to taking care of my body as I age and for having the financial means, on my own, to splurge on something for myself,. I admit that even after I lost 40 pounds and was smaller than I’d been since my wedding, I questioned if the effort was worth it if I couldn’t truly get that pre-baby body back.
And then I cringe inwardly because I realize that it’s not just me for whom I want to look better – I want other people to think I look good, too, like those hypothetical future men I may or may not date. I want those compliments from people who will have a hard time believing I have children at all. Which leads me back around to wondering why I should care so badly that I’d spend thousands of dollars on elective surgery. I struggle with deciding if I should think plastic surgery could be empowering and confidence boosting or if I am supposed to think it’s a poor fix for deeper issues of self-loathing or a society that places impossible expectations on women to look perfect, even when they’ve gone through the very natural process of pregnancy. Or something.
For now I’m grateful to the undergarment industry for inventing push-up bras and material that squeezes my innards back into their proper places, allowing me to pretend for a a few hours that my body is still firm(ish).
Image used under creative commons license from Aimee Heart.