When the first pictures of Brooke Shields’ Jordache jeans campaign hit the media a few months ago, I took a moment to pose before my mirror in a similar stance as Shields, revealing a hint of breast. As I peered over my shoulder, the image staring back at me was nothing like Shields’ toned shoulders and the crease-free back. Instead, the reflection spat back the reality of being sixty-three. A fold in my skin, just below my bra line, caught my eye first. I studied the soft, squishy skin, replete with speckly age spots and sun damage. Perhaps if I, like Shields, benefited from intense five a.m. workouts, the unsightliness of sixty-three-year-old skin folds would have been minimized or even eradicated. Instead, they glared defiantly back at me, reminding me that a smooth back and a perky side breast mean little. The landslide of aging requires constant tamping down and demands time that some of us of a certain age choose to spend more productively.
I think back to being fifty-six, the age that Shields is now. A mere seven years and a multitude of health and personal issues ago, I remember the feeling of empowerment she touts. I understand Shields’ comment that she possesses “a knowledge that comes with age.” At her age, I believed I was enlightened, too. My body gushed with bottomless productivity and energy bubbled inside me like a cauldron. The energy distracted me from the tug of impending mortality. Back then, retirement seemed so far in the distance that I gave it little thought. I knew my career and my meaningful contribution to the world-at-large had an expiration date, but it was years away. I had work to do, and some days, I even regretted there was no end in sight. My physique, pear-shaped and petite, suited my age, or so I thought.
Now at sixty-three, the wisdom of my fifties, the “knowledge” of which Shields speaks, has been replaced with a full-on, five-alarm, in-your-face reality check. In the time since I reveled in being the best version of me, a fifty-something whose life experience fueled wisdom that helped reveal my full potential, I have accomplished many things. Three years ago, I retired from a career as an educator, started my own independent college counseling business, wrote the first draft of my memoir about being the child of hoarders, and began a graduate program in Creative Nonfiction. In between, I completed two intensive writing courses at GrubStreet in Boston. I resisted boredom by keeping busy. I also kept busy to silence the low-pitched wails of impending aging that lived in my head. The forward movement kept me alive.
My body hasn’t gotten the message. It reminds me every day that, no matter what I do, it will work against me so I choose my commitments wisely. When I exercise, it is to maintain my health, not for my appearance. I look at the photos of Shields owning her fit fifty-six-year-old body. She flaunts her attributes, planting a flag on the surface of time, freezing the moment. She parades “her best self”–an ideal for all of us to admire, but few of us will ever attain. Knowing what I know now, the things my fifty-six-year-old self didn’t, time will catch up with all of us, and after sixty, the passage of time feels like a dragon’s hot breath on my neck. Life, it seems, moves at a speed faster than I ever imagined.
As a society, we pledge to move away from judging others by their appearances. We say things like “beauty comes from within” and “weight is just a number,” but advertisements like the Jordache campaign only reinforce the ideas we outwardly spurn. For the rest of us who do not have the benefit of a trainer or the perfect raw material to begin with, publicizing images like Shields’ bare back and “side boob” demonstrates a callous tone-deafness that proves how far we haven’t come.
In a 2017 New York Times piece, Ashton Applewhite reinforced my concerns. “When women compete to “stay young,” we collude in our own disempowerment,” she wrote. “When we rank other women by age, we reinforce ageism, sexism, lookism and patriarchy.”
Applewhite professed my belief that what lies within matters more than how we look. I took her comment to heart when she said, “Of course, aging brings wrenching losses, but it also confers authenticity, confidence, perspective, self-awareness (and my mother said her legs got better). Priorities are clearer. It’s easier to manage emotions. We want less. We care less about what people think, which is really liberating.” The claim that empowerment comes with age along with the ability to overlook what people think gives me hope. Then, along comes Brooke to blow up that theory. Thanks a lot, sweetie!
While Brooke flaunts an ideal, I live the reality of aches and pains, embrace wisdom borne of experience, and accept that looks are fleeting. I commend Ms. Shields for her self-awareness and her self-confidence, but without the intensive intervention she has enjoyed, the physical landslide will rev up and age will win in the end. Perhaps, fighting against the inevitable isn’t really so wise at all.