During the week preceding my recent 50-year high school reunion, someone posted a picture on Facebook of me at 16. It looked exactly like me, even a little like I look now. Still, how I felt about that girl the night that was taken, versus how I feel about her now, is radically different and eerily the same.
There I was, in a T-shirt and shorts I don't remember, cutting up with high school friends I haven’t thought about in years. And when I look at that girl, I think she looks good—strong, funny, bright. I did not think that then. I did not, in any way, appreciate that girl or that body. I’m sure I was standing at that slumber party hoping no one was looking at me, wishing I were as cute and blonde as the other girls who were there, and feeling confused about how my life was ever going to take a more interesting turn.
I have never had what I would call a confident relationship with my body. Back then, I considered myself overweight, a long-familiar feeling I have carried with me most of my life. There have sometimes been as many as two years in a row when I have embraced my physical condition, but even that limited confidence was the result of constant effort. Now, a half century later, I have a different connection with my body, but one that feels almost as foreign. These days, I’m much more conscious of what I need than I was when I was young, but I'm more than a little surprised at how fragile everything related to our bodies really is.
When we’re old, we long for that body of our youth, despite how much it didn’t live up to our unrealistic expectations
I thought about this last night, as I got ready for bed and went through my nightly regimen: brushing my teeth with the electric toothbrush my dental hygienist promised me would revive my aging gums; applying eye drops to soothe the allergies I never had until I was in my 60s; dabbing on a new ointment my doctor suggested for the cold sores I only started getting when I passed 65; and taking a magnesium tablet with a warm cup of Sleepytime Tea, which does wonders for the insomnia I’ve suffered from since the early days of perimenopause.
The latter was so long ago I can barely remember the beginning of these sleepless nights narrated by my busy brain. Still, in my thoughts, I feel very much like I felt in that picture of me when I was 16. Despite the arc of my life—the successes I’ve enjoyed and the pleasures I’ve earned—I still feel kind of big and fumbling and awkward and like I wish I were as attractive or as good as someone else.
To add to the oddness, I actually feel young in my brain, despite being frighteningly close to 70. And that’s really the weirdest part. When I step onto the bike path to run in the morning, it's easy to forget that I have creaky knees or an achy lower back. I’m still 35 in my consciousness, so I’m always just a little surprised when the mile that used to take nine minutes now takes 11. I’m even still kind of shocked that getting myself out of bed to go on the run in the first place is such a slog.
For much of my life, I didn’t even think about what was going on with my body or what it might need. It did whatever I wanted it to, no matter how I treated it. I could sleep when I wanted to, eat practically anything, and I rarely even got a cold. Nothing hurt, nothing felt wobbly, and I rarely even had to take an aspirin. Now I’m reaching for Ibuprofen before noon and doing a double take when I look at the bags under my eyes while I’m applying the moisturizer with sunscreen that the dermatologist begged me to start using.
It’s cliché, and I get it, but the changes in my body are definitely worth noting. It’s simply the way life goes, of course, but my body is the one thing that continually reminds me of how old I actually am. I forget it about it when I’m just doing my life, but from time to time the package shows its age. I lament it regularly, especially when I wish I could live forever, but a big part of me just wants to accept it. Not accept it like sitting down and giving up, but loving where I am no matter what.
Looking back at that high school photo, it makes me sad that we spend so little time on good terms with these bodies of ours. When we’re young, no matter how lovely we might be, we want to look like someone thinner or stronger or more beautiful. When we’re old, we long for that body of our youth, despite how much it didn’t live up to our unrealistic expectations back then. The ideal goal must really be to just love ourselves where we are. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s not too late.
So here’s to embracing this body—as it is today—and making up for all that lost time spent wishing we were more like someone else.