A couple of months ago, a bunch of stories about women’s “”peak-nakedness” began circulating, after results of a survey found that women were most comfortable with their naked bodies at the age of 34. I almost wrote about it – as I had coincidentally just realized a couple of weeks earlier that I was totally down with my own naked bod – but I decided to put it off until today, which is my 34th birthday.
The stories I read about this survey highlighted a couple of reasons as to why women might feel more comfortable with their bodies at 34 instead of say, 26. One is that by the time women hit their 30s, they may have settled on a diet and exercise routine that works for them. Another factor is that women in their early to mid-30s may be in long-term relationships that boost their confidence. Both of these things are true in my case. I’m in the best shape of my life right now thanks to my athletic training, and I’m married to a guy I basically can’t stop gushing about and who makes me feel like I can do just about anything I set my heart on doing.
But as important as those two things have been in helping me become more at ease in my own body, there are a couple of other things that I also think played a role, and I’d like to write a little bit about them, as sort of a way of marking this milestone in my life.
1. I am more selective about the media I consume.
For most of my life I was a women’s magazine junkie. My magazine pedigree includes everything from Sassy and YM to Vogue and Elle to Oxygen and Women’s Health. At some point I realized that I would put down these magazines and feel worse about myself than I did when I picked them up, and what was worse was the realization that I was actually paying for the privilege of feeling inadequate and lousy about myself. So about two years ago I made the decision to ditch every women’s magazine that wasn’t explicitly feminist. Sometimes I feel conflicted, because I know women’s magazines are also putting out some really good journalism, but until they stop sandwiching it between woman-hating garbage, I will be missing out on all of it.
Since then I have performed a similar culling of my social media accounts. Life is just too fucking short to spend it staring at page after page of airbrushed abs or reading lightly-disguised eating disorders play out on blogs, especially when there are so many people creating body positive, feminist fitness media. I don’t have unlimited resources in terms of time or money, and I am very protective of how I spend them. That means no more glossy Photoshopped photo spreads, no more fitspo featuring an endless parade of women in g-strings and no more blogs that try to pretend as though a restrictive diet and obsessive exercise is a healthy way to live.
2. I value my relationships with other women.
I’ve always had female friends – with the exception of the period of time in my 20s, when I was in my crappy first marriage and I was basically isolated from having any genuine relationships – but it wasn’t until I hit my late twenties that I looked at the women I knew and was basically blown away by how impressive they all were. Somehow I found myself in the middle of this whole generation of talented, motivated, creative, inventive, kind, generous and loving women, and somehow I was lucky enough to be friends with a lot of them.
My relationships with other women have sort of taken on sort of a symbiotic quality. I was more readily able to love and value them when I loved and valued myself, because I did not feel as though I had to compete with them. In turn, their love and appreciation for me has helped me to love and appreciate myself. After all, if all of these amazing women want to be friends with me, it must mean I’ve got something going on myself, right? Right.
3. I’m older AND wiser.
I know this is a cliche but you know the funny thing about cliches is that they are often cliches because they are true. There really is something about having been on this earth long enough to collect enough experiences and observations that allows you to start making a little bit of sense of the world, and to be better able to discern when something is valid and worthwhile and when something is unmitigated bullshit. You start to understand that you don’t have to believe something as gospel truth just because someone says it, or that you don’t have to uncritically absorb what the media tells you, or that you don’t have to accept the world as it is presented to you.
A bullshit meter is an invaluable tool, and I believe that age and experience can help one develop a pretty finely-tuned bulllshit meter – notice I said “can” because you have to be open to it – which is part of why I think our culture these days tries to pretend as though women basically shrivel up into flesh prunes and blow away in bitter poofs of estro-dust as soon as we hit our thirties. What better way to undermine the power of older women than by making female aging seem undesirable and awful? Don’t buy into that. It’s a lie told by people who are terrified of being called out on their bullshit.
4. I’m bored with my body image issues.
It’s true. If you tallied up all of the time and energy I’ve spent thinking about my negative body image over the course of my teens and twenties, I probably would have been able to use it to earn myself a graduate degree. And I have to be honest with you – my body’s “flaws” are just not that interesting. In fact, those fake “flaws” are probably one of the least interesting things i can think of. There are so many books to read and essays to write and conversations to have and things to try and skills to learn and social justice battles to wage and adventures upon which to embark! This world is full of fascinating and miraculous things!
The cellulite on the back of my thighs – who cares about that in the grand scheme of things? If I care at all about my thighs, it’s because I want them to be strong enough to do things like pedal me across Europe or help me run the Keys 50 ultramarathon next year. I really cannot be bothered at all to care about anything else.
I know that a lot of women and men struggle with their own body image issues, so this is not to denigrate the very real pain and suffering experienced by them. This is just to say that I’ve simply lost interest in obsessing over all of my body’s so-called “flaws.” Which, let’s be realistic about this, are basically made up things that don’t actually exist. Does your body work? Is it healthy? Then you aren’t flawed.
5. I’m now highly aware of my own mortality.
When I say I’m aware of my own mortality, I don’t mean it in the sense that i know I could die someday. I mean it in the sense that I know I will die and that it could happen at any time. This little bit of knowledge came to me a couple of years ago in a really embarrassing way, and I almost don’t even want to share it because it is so embarrassing. I had taken a sample of steak from the Publix Apron Works demo, and it was too big but instead of just spitting it out, I tried to chew it into submission, and then I accidentally tried to swallow it. Problem was, it was too big, and when I tried to roust it out by harumphing, what happened instead was that my throat opened up just wide enough for the piece of steak to settle on top of my windpipe.
Somehow I managed to keep my shit together long enough to find a guy in the beer aisle and basically force him to give me the Heimlich maneuver. (Quick tip: if someone comes up to you and their face is turning purple and they keep putting their hands at their throat, don’t just slap them on the back, okay?) Then I got my ass out of the grocery store and I sat in my car, sobbing tears of terror and relief with my head on my steering wheel. I was so horrified by what had just happened. I kept thinking about all of the things I quite nearly lost out on in my life, and the three things I kept thinking were: I never got to see New Zealand, I never wrote a book, I never had a baby.
And what I never once thought about? That I never had six pack abs, that I never reached 18 percent body fat, that I would never know what it was like to have a big rack. That really threw some shit into perspective for me. I realized that what I valued in life were experiences, accomplishments and relationships. My body is the conduit through which all of these things happen. What’s more, I realized that my body – and by extension, my life – is something that can be taken from me at any moment. Maybe i don’t choke to death on a piece of steak, but maybe I get in a serious car accident while driving home from work, or maybe I have a brain aneurysm while out for a run, or maybe I go see the ob/gyn and she finds a cancerous tumor on my ovary. These things happen all the time.
Why spend the precious moments that make up my life in waiting until the mythical day when my body finally meets that made-up bullshit beauty standard to start appreciating her for what she allows me to experience? I refuse to behave as though I can take my health, my body and my life for granted, because I know that I cannot. Instead I have chosen to treat them as the irreplaceable gifts they are, and to treasure them as such, because without these things I do not exist.
So these are a few things I would say have helped me to become confident and at ease with my body as I approach my mid-30s. I hope, though, that the articles about this are wrong, and that I don’t peak at the age of 34. I hope that I continue to grow more comfortable and confident with myself, even as my skin starts to wrinkle and my boobs start to sag. I hope that I can continue to find power and joy in something other than my body’s ability to meet a superficial standard of beauty, because I have to say I like where I’m at these days, and I can only imagine that it is going to get better.