I stand naked in front of the mirror, like I have done countless times since I can remember, checking for signs of aging, of diminishing returns on investment. I can be merciless, a trait I never dispense on others but that I apply to myself with superhuman ability: the frown line between my eyebrows is becoming a burrow; the laugh lines around my eyes have multiplied overnight; my boobs, they are still small; the skin around my biceps is sagging; the skin on my décolleté is crepe-y; there are thin blue veins on my legs that will become more noticeable as time goes by; tiny brown spots are starting to appear on my hands.
In a few weeks I will turn 52 and here I am, still standing naked in front of a mirror, finding fault with my amazing body. I see the blemishes that I have been trained to see – a lifetime of experience in watching my refection in the eyes of others, in feeding my insecurities through images of unattainable beauty or a careless remark from my mother, a girlfriend, a man. Me. Strong, smart, fearless and unstoppable me. I can’t focus on the happiness in my beautiful eyes; my flat stomach; the small boobs too small to have sagged; my weight that hasn’t fluctuated in over 30 years; my athletic legs; the near absence of grey hair. No, the cellulite dimples take precedence over what is right. Not least of all, my health.
Voicing these thoughts out loud – or clicking them on my Mac as the case may be – makes me feel like a complete asshole, one unable to fully embrace my good fortune: I know so little about discrimination. Through no choice of my own I was born in the easiest race to belong to; in a lovely country, with little knowledge of poverty and none whatsoever of violence or abuse; there is nothing remarkably different about my appearance.
It’s commonplace to blame the media and the fashion industry for fueling women’s desires to attain what only a mixture of airbrushing, uncommon genes and a team of experts can concoct, but that is not my case. Not entirely at least – I came of age along my namesake Claudia Schiffer, and Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen. I worked in an industry where beauty was prized by the multitude of men alongside me but never once would have I traded smarts for uncommon beauty. I was quite content with what the luck of the draw had bestowed me. Still, I couldn’t help looking for appreciation and acceptance and, I suppose, validation, in the eyes of the men I met, or just walked by in the street, thus gifting them with a power they don’t deserve, or maybe even want. Blame it on a culture, the Italian one, where sex is front and center from an early age; on a well-meaning mother who wanted her daughters to be smart, yes, but also pretty; on the general insecurities of any young girl looking for acceptance in a male dominated world. I became a contradictory product of my generation: I liked to be looked at but not remarked upon.
When was the last time I didn’t worry about how I looked? How old I was? Ten, eleven maybe? Who ever rejected me based on the way I looked? It’s often more subtle than that: walking hand in hand at 13 with your best girlfriend and noticing she gets asked out by boys more often than you; it’s the popular girl in class whose breasts draw all the attention; it’s that endearing (in hindsight) mixture of awkwardness and geeky-ness every teenager doesn’t walk away from unscathed.
It was my childhood friend Michele who, driving me home on his Vespa one night, when I was 17, said to me “You know you have a great ass, right?”, in that non judgmental way only someone who has known you since birth can deliver. “I do?” I replied , wide-eyed. I remember that moment very clearly because it’s when I started worrying in earnest about my appearance. What did people notice about me that I never gave a thought to? I began to wonder.
In retrospect, I wish I had the wisdom of 17 year old Savannah Brown, whose spoken poem about how we cannot let others define us is all the more wondrous because of her age. There is hope still, for stronger women than me to not let themselves be defined by the judgmental eyes of others.
At 52, I certainly cannot count on finding affirmation in the eyes of strangers anymore, which is liberating in more ways than one. It’s given me more confidence, in a strangely reverse effect. I always wanted to be the “what you see is what you get” type, and now, finally, I can. For the first time in my life, I dress truly for me, I cut my hair the way it pleases me, I wear or not wear make-up depending on the mood.
I can’t wind the clock back – I don’t do regrets anyway – but I can share who I was with younger generations to make the point of how pointless it all is, and that you get where you want to go on the strength of other attributes. Don’t ever play that angle because it will come back to bite you in the ass. As lovely as that ass might be.
Savannah Brown got there in much less time than me, although I suspect every single woman has always known but between conceptually knowing and avoiding playing the game altogether there is often a gulf with a very rocky bridge.
I wonder if, 30 years from now, pretty Savannah Brown will look back on her words and feel she stood by them, always.
I won’t deny I still battle with the mirror, but less than I used to. And when I do, I tend to walk away with more positive thoughts. Because, no matter what others might think a) I don’t care anymore and b) I feel fabulous. Inside and out.
All images copyright of C&S – Savannah Brown’s still taken from her video