Ditching the Rectangle

Heads-up: This Blog Post is all about body issues related to women going through Transitions. But just in case my younger Readers think they should probably “pass” on this one, I’m here to tell you that I underwent ‘menopause’ (after an extremely stressful life event) at age 40. So, changes can happen anytime.

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Another heads-up:  This Post is going to provide some straight talk about what our bodies do and why, as we age. So, anyone thinking that they might be unhappily ‘triggered’ by brutal honesty (with suggestions, I promise!), please proceed with caution. I am not a medical doctor, nor am I related to one. I do have a few friends who are doctors, but I didn’t consult them on this topic. This Post is based on my own experiences, observations, research and discussions with friends. It’s also going to offer how I Ditched the Rectangle.

What’s the ‘Rectangle’ I’m referring to? It’s the body shape that many women develop over time. We lose our waists by gathering a little padding in our upper backs, hips and tummies. So, from the back view, we look like rectangles from the hips up. Now, this might not be a big deal to some women, but not having a waist anymore…? Well, I wasn’t having it, so to speak.

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How did my ‘rectangle’ develop? It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t ever related to being overweight (so my doctor tells me, I’ve always been in the correct ‘range’ for my five feet and ten inches). But happen it did. It crept into my life while I was paying attention to more important things and believing I was behaving myself:   eating healthy food, exercising, and trying to address ever-present stress levels that fluctuated between medium and high. Long-term stress (my life), as I found out  (“What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause”), messes with our hormonal levels. Specifically, with a stress-related hormone called cortisol. Think of cortisol as your favorite, most decadent mac ‘n cheese recipe. Comforting, soothing, stress-relieving. But too much cortisol can create extra fluffiness – around our middles, primarily.

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Hormonal balance is, in general – as I learned – the absolute most important factor in staying healthy and looking the way I want to. As our bodies move away (thankfully!) from baby-making, Mother Nature creates shifts in our hormone levels. Most recent medical science advocates not messing with the perfection of this system (in other words, avoiding hormone replacement therapy). For at least ten years, I didn’t listen and grew steadily more out of whack. On my own, I went online to ZRT labs for a test kit. But your doctor can also give you an Rx. I asked my doctor to review the results I got back from ZRT.

So, how did I lose my ‘rectangle’? It. Was. Not. Easy. I began by deciding that I wanted my waist back. Next, I got my hormones straight, with the help of an outstanding Ob/Gyn (like ‘gold’, when you find the right one; took me a minute). I kept exercising (alternating days of walking four miles, with at-home stretching and weights). Hardest of all? I gave up all processed foods, any kind of sugar and…cocktails. The weird thing is, as my body re-gained its equilibrium – hormonally – cravings for low or no-nutrition ‘junk’ went away. I also used my now-favorite Cleanse.

Patience. It doesn’t happen quickly and it takes persistence. But my shape returned (never had, never will be ‘hourglass’, but my waist and hips are no longer one long expanse). I’m also no longer partial to ‘midriff concealing’ blouses and sweaters, or still scandalizing my jeans with a muffin-top. One final word:  when you do get there, maintenance has to become your new religion. No lipo, no freezing, no spanx, no body-tubes. Just you and your beautiful inner strength brought this about.

Image vs. Reality

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a high-stakes first meeting:  an interview; the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness. It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality, all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)

As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.

Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?)  Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.

One of the most image-conscious  jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.

One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality:  the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are.  Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.

Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”

The “Sell-By” Date

So, I thought I’d just let this go, but my mind kept circling back to it. With me, that means, Time to add my two cents’ worth of commentary.  I’m referring to a recent Instagram ‘flap’ (creating a collective gasp and flurry of chat in our cyber world) over 53-year old model Cindy Crawford’s decision to Post “racy” (her word) photographs online. Nicely done, Cindy. I mean that. The pictures are tasteful, yet undeniably sexy. Crawford’s still a beautiful woman, regardless of how much air-brushing or photo-shopping was done:  The Bones are there.

I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve taken what used to be called “Boudoir Photos”, feeling the urge to capture for all time a fantasy-like beauty and sexuality. Most haven’t posted them online, however. Crawford’s reasoning for doing so – she was vocal and righteously snippy about it – is that she wanted to speak to the fact that women should not feel they have “Sell-By” dates, when it comes to their sexuality. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if they look like Cindy Crawford. In her statement, Crawford implied that the photographs were also sort of a ‘gift’ for her husband. Not going to argue with that either; but there’s a bit of a weird mashup here:  a political statement and a little eye candy for her spouse? On Instagram? You claim to be speaking for me here, Cindy, so I just want to make sure I’m understanding you.

In my view, a woman’s beauty and her sexuality are inextricably intertwined. In using the word ‘sexuality’ I’m not referring to sex, or the ability to conjure sexual feelings in anyone else. Feeling beautiful is something every woman on the planet is entitled to, and she should get to define what that means to her, and for her. But there’s a particular aspect of beauty that all women share, and that is our sexuality. Our sexuality is based, first and foremost, on the simple fact that we were born female. If we choose to embrace this (feel comfortable in our birth gender), our sexuality as females blossoms as we age. Our sexuality originates as a sense of self, a knowledge of self, a celebration of self and the ancient power inherent in being a woman. A woman’s sexuality does not , nor should it, require a male’s attention or validation in order to flourish.

Despite the “Swinging 60’s”, the brief illusion that women could truly celebrate being female in ways that suited their own bodies, minds and spirits, all women have faced a narrowing of the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sexuality’ over time. Yes, faces on glossy magazine covers have become more diverse (a good thing), but many of the images we see – within the pages of the top fashion sellers —  still project a version of femaleness that is unrelatable to most women. There are also plenty of examples (movies, music, social media) guiding us in how we should feel about our sexuality; defining what it means  for us. No wonder that, as women age, many begin to feel what Crawford called out as the “Sell-By” date fears.

I’m cheering for Cindy Crawford and her nude photos, regardless of the reasons they ended up on Instagram. (I’ll be curious to see if the next decade brings a new photo shoot). I’m just longing for the time when an Influencer like Crawford’s proclamation includes a shout-out empowering  all women, of all ages, shapes and sizes. She has a right to do her thing, for as long as she chooses to. I’m just not convinced that the 53 year-old women she’s talking to are the same ones I know.

Aging is an Attitude: Defining Beauty for Ourselves

Silent-film “siren”, Clara Bow

I feel extremely lucky to have been born female, and extremely proud of my Sisters. Women are strong, smart, resilient and have the unique ability as a sex to call upon ancient truths to guide us in a perilous, male-dominated world. I think of women as a collective of survivors, akin to the micro-animal the Germans who discovered it and named it “Little Water Bear”. This creature can survive both sub-zero temperatures, and heat near 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It does so by adapting its metabolism according to its environment. Women are, as history has shown (and as is currently being played-out in response to events in Alabama), similarly fierce, flexible and enduring.

In addition to the aforementioned qualities, my Sisters are all — each and every one of them — inherently beautiful and alluring. They know this; sometimes at a surface level, where beauty can literally open doors; but more often this self-awareness is subtle, modest and discreet. Women have been leveraging beauty and sexual allure since ancient times, in relationships and in society. Again, some do this overtly, while other women choose to influence in less obvious ways. But we all have beauty, and we all know its power.

As an emerging young woman in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I benefitted big-time from the atmosphere women were so much a part of creating. Social-media was not yet the guiding light it has become, so women communicated through music, art, speaking and writing. A pivotal book of the times was, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, which not only educated women about their physical bodies, but encouraged them to honor their sacred femininity in every way. Not every woman embraced such freedom, including the option of eschewing makeup and shaving hair in places our mothers always did. The self-proclaimed “sexploitation” of actress-turned-activist Jane Fonda illustrated just how conflicted women could feel. On other continents, French actresses Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, and Catherine Deneuve maintained a firm grip on the power of sexuality and the art of seduction through film. These women were seen by many Sisters as traitors to the Movement, but I never viewed them that way. They had a clear understanding of their goals, the tools they had at their disposal, and had no qualms about using those tools.

Beauty and sexuality have always been inter-twined, and part of the female toolkit. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. I tease my bewildered male friends (although most have finally become wise to my antics), with a promise (always delayed for some reason or other) of a book about How Women Think and why they do what they do. Men, despite their power and authority in most of the world’s cultures, have no idea of the sleeping-giant of the Sisterhood — but they suspect, and they fear. Our only limitation as women, they way I see it, is not being fully aware of, and “ok” with, the process of getting all of our needs met; nor are we as supportive of one another as we could be. 

When you next look into the mirror, channel a little bit of the 1960’s vibe: remind yourself of your fundamental wisdom as a woman, and of your beauty. Then go ahead and enhance and deploy that beauty however you choose!

Aging is an Attitude: What’s wrong with your face?

Every woman in my circle has bemoaned the way aging eventually shows up in our faces. Thankfully, we seem to have swapped-out hideous words like “marionette” and “crows’ feet”, for “laugh lines”. We’ve learned to appreciate these changes as badges we’ve earned by living and loving, losing and grieving. Life is a package-deal: no one gets out alive (as the saying goes), and no one gets to avoid wrinkled skin.

I, for one, applaud any woman who chooses to enhance her appearance by any means she deems necessary, appropriate and absolutely worth the expense. Having said that, I was surprised to observe lately, that women in their 20’s and 30’s are now the targets of advertising for the product Botox. Listening to the messaging, the underlying claims are that “Your face can, and should be exactly how you want it to be!” “Whatever your eyes do when you laugh? Don’t put up with it! Whatever that space between your brows does when you’re worried? If it bothers you, get rid of it!” Of course, Botox Cosmetic is the benign name for the neurotoxic protein that removes lines by paralyzing facial muscles. The medical hazards are clear, but are playfully minimized by advertisers. And, there’s even more of what the media-messaging doesn’t reveal…

Not long ago I went to an aesthetician (who’s licensed to perform all kinds of facial and body miracles) to have a scar looked at for possible treatment. After checking-in, a young and attractive young woman in a lab coat appeared and introduced herself as my Beauty Consultant. While I waited for the actual professional, my Consultant handed me a pink brochure with a scrollwork menu of cosmetic procedures that were currently discounted (my visit being close to Valentine’s Day; I didn’t see the connection and still don’t).

Not wanting to seem rude, I focused on a few strange-sounding products (that turned out to be what are referred to as ‘injectables) and asked a question or two. My Consultant was not only knowledgeable, but had experienced most of them herself. I could not resist asking, “Howold are you?” Her facial skin, to my eyes, looked as perfect as a baby’s. With total seriousness she responded, “I’m 24, and you should have seen my lips before injectables!” Of course I immediately looked at her lips. They looked pretty average, but my Consultant assured me that she had no lips at all pre-treatment. Ok. I tried not to picture that.

Getting to the point of my story, I was compelled to ask this young woman more questions — not because I was interested in having my lips plumped, but because she continued to relate other cosmetic procedures she’d had done on her face to make it “more perfect”. I had to know the downside, from her perspective. She started with the obvious: the expense. She continued with the fact that whatever gets injected eventually gets absorbed by the body. Read: it lasts for a few months, then your ‘look’ goes away. What floored me was this young woman’s acknowledgment that injectables were a lifetime commitment. “You know,” she emphasized, with her eyes looking directly into mine, “like going to the gym” (I felt that). She didn’t plan on “getting hooked” she said, “But once I saw how my face could be,” she beamed, I just wasn’t happy going back to how I looked before.” My Consultant claimed that most of the business’s clients kept to their four-or six-month schedules and that this was just another beauty routine, like hair appointments. 

If I had ever considered having “work” done on my face before, those thoughts were gone forever.

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