It’s that date. Whichever date that may be—third, seventh, or three years into a friendship now on the verge of becoming more. It’s the first time you and a new partner decide sex is on the menu, and the first time you will see each other fully unclothed. Naked. Your entire body and all of its middle-aged imperfections exposed, your every insecurity brought to the surface as you hesitantly discard your clothing, the faithful shroud that conceals your body and the image you carefully portray to the world outside from scrutiny. And that moment can be daunting.
Feeling nervous is natural, but invariably unnecessary. Because, most likely, our new sexual partner does not see the same defective image we carry of ourselves. The criticism we fear from others pales in comparison to the scrutiny we impose on our own bodies. No amount of makeup, slimming clothes, beautiful lingerie, and beauty treatments can save us from the damaging voice in our heads, the one that chastises us for our failure to live up to mass media’s unattainable standards.
Yes, we know the problem. We debate it till we are blue in the face. We applaud Dove for hiring middle-aged female models, Jade Beall for shooting nude photos of post-pregnancy moms, and Lisa Rogers for investigating why women undergo labiaplasty in her documentary, The Perfect Vagina. Undeniably, these efforts are each, in their own right, noble attempts at dispelling the unrealistic image of beauty portrayed in society. Yet when that pivotal moment arrives, and we undress in front of someone else for the first time, fully embracing the beauty that is uniquely ours and the beauty that has drawn our new partner to us in the first place, can remain a challenge.
Always a modest person, forever that kid at summer camp who changed for swim with my towel wrapped tightly around my chest, I continue to struggle with my body image to this day. Though I exercise regularly, eat well (most of the time, that is), and generally maintain a healthy lifestyle, the years do not lie, and I am painfully aware my days of living in a twenty-something’s body have long since passed me by. At 41, I have endured three full-term pregnancies and their accompanying weight gain and loss, as well as those other fellow pregnancy stressors that have unapologetically taken their toll.
Yet, I have never been more self-possessed than I am today, and with good reason. Feeling beautiful is a function of the mind and body working in unison. When we believe we are physically beautiful, we behave as though we are physically beautiful. And when we behave as though we are physically beautiful, we simply become beautiful.
Our bodies, much like new cars that depreciate from the moment they are driven off the lot, deteriorate beginning on the day of our birth. From the moment we gasp for our first breath, the passage of time steadily brings us one step closer to our death, each passing minute marking the further decay of a vessel we only borrow during our time here on Earth.
Though my middle-aged body shows the wear and tear of a life half spent, I display my flaws well. Those dings in my hood are the legacy of a road well traveled, and the scratches in my paint−those subtle lines that form my laugh lines from decades of smiling and my frown lines from periods of sadness−are the features not of a flashy new sports car, but of a timeless classic, one that grows more valuable with age.
Conventional wisdom reminds us a new car needs to be driven conservatively before it can be properly broken in. But when it is, and we take that car out on the open road, it is then we realize we are about to experience life as we never have before. In middle age, I am finally taking that drive but, today, I am planted firmly in the driver’s seat.
And for the first time I am enjoying the ride.