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I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a female friend or colleague tell me she was ugly or fat. I'd be well on my way to semi-retirement or starting my own self-esteem consultancy.
There we were at work the other day, three different decades talking about body image: my two colleagues in their 20s and 50s, and me in my 40s. The twentysomething was worried she would outgrow her wedding dress over the next five days. The fiftysomething was lamenting the few pounds she had gained over the past decade. I was in the middle, one foot tenuously rooted in my youth, the other testing the waters of middle age.
I admit that body image, beauty and aging is something I think about too often. I recognize that my younger co-worker is beautiful, and that her goal of keeping her weight down for her wedding is a universal one. I realize that it's because she's a decade-plus younger than me that she still has that wonderful youthful glow, while I obsess about watching mine fade. I accept that I "had my turn" being young and fit – blessed with a high metabolism and reasonable looks.
But, like many young women, I never appreciated it at the time.
Now, it's more difficult to stay slim. There's a tiny bulge around my middle that only goes away if I starve myself. The body that once leapt out of bed moves slower, and my feet hurt when I put them on the floor. It takes a bit longer for my nighttime sleeping face to go away. I used to regularly turn heads when I walked down the street. I didn't enjoy it much, but sometimes I miss it. And sometimes it still happens.
People tell me all the time that women just get heavier as the years go by, through no fault of their own. Do we just accept it at any age, and be happy with who we are? We should, but it's easier said than done.
When I hear women talking about how hard it is to maintain a flat stomach or fit into their jeans, I know that none of us are ever really satisfied with what we have.
I've had my fair share of compliments. I used to take them for granted: I don't any more. I wish that all young women would enjoy their beauty. I hope that as I get older I will morph into the lauded "good-looking older woman" like Meryl Streep, even though the term gives me shivers.
As I get older, I have to buy into the idea that "beauty is only skin deep" and become a beautiful person on the inside by nurturing what's important – an easygoing and friendly personality, a love of learning and new experiences, enjoying every moment – instead of admonishing the face in the mirror. But it is the norm, as women, to put ourselves down: "I'm so 'fat' today, my hair's not right, these jeans make my thighs look so big."
We reassure each other: "No, dear, you look great, que sera sera, you don't look your age." But we don't tell each other enough that it's okay that aging happens. We have superficial conversations about aging, and continue to measure ourselves against celebrities who have teams of personal chefs, trainers, makeup artists and plastic surgeons.
We value women who "don't look their age." If we are the unfortunate ones who actually do look our age, we put on a brave face and pretend it doesn't bother us that much. But I'm telling you it does. At least it does me. I think about it way too much.
So here's my message to my girlfriends in their 20s: You are beautiful. You have that glow of youth that is the envy of those decades older. You may look in the mirror and see imaginary "flaws," but you are perfect, you are young. Enjoy it to the fullest and don't give it a second thought. Nurture your soul and spirit, and be that beautiful woman from the inside out.
To my older women friends: You've come this far, building a life, a home, a family and friends. They don't give a flying care that you weigh a few extra pounds, that your eyes crinkle when you smile (they find it endearing), that in those old photos you wore a size 6 that barely covered your bum. Those times are done. We don't need you to be thin and pretty: We need you to be our good friends and mentors on this journey. The real beauty of you right now is the friendship and good times you share with us.
And to my fortysomething self: Suck it up, buttercup. You're not 20 any more and you're not 50 yet.
Women need to learn to be happy with themselves at any age. Use the potions and creams if you want, but get exercise and use sunscreen, too. Don't put such importance on the fleeting physicality of life. As my 73-year-old mother would say, "Enjoy every good day." Invest your energy in the important things – learning and experiences that keep the mind young. Be thankful you had a chance to be young and pretty.
Remember you are still a work in progress – at the end of the day, at the end of this life, it's what you did that mattered, not how you looked doing it. Although it was fun to look sexy and awesome doing it.
You. Are. Beautiful.
(Note to self: Read this when you are 60, 70 and 80 and laugh at yourself for being silly, vibrant and young in your 40s!)
Heather Sanders lives in New Westminster, B.C.