Saturday, August 05, 2006

Drawing the female nude at 40

Dr B has pulled off something tricky and rather courageous, I think---an extended virtual nude scene.

Telling the story of a day she and Pseudonymous Kid spent at the community pool last week to escape the heat, Dr B very cinematically places herself naked in the camera's eye, so to speak, describing herself and PK changing into their bathing suits, showering afterwards, and drying off, a process that for Dr B herself involves letting the air do most of the work and takes time, time during which she does not bother to wrap herself in a towel, and since she's an excellent writer, her descriptions are vivid.

Not explicit.

Just easy to picture, like a movie or a painting.

The pictures I conjured up for myself were Hopperesque. The scene as Dr B writes it is realistic, matter of fact, not un-erotic, but non-erotic; Dr B's nudity, and PK's, are details of the scene, like the lockers, wet towels, sticky wet bathing suits, and---a key detail---the embarrassed looks on the faces of the other mothers and the teenaged girls in the locker room with them, who are decidedly not naked---the beauty of Dr B's nudity in other contexts is not denied but not dwelled upon.

If Dr B's story was a scene in a movie, her nudity---or the nudity of the actress playing her, which would have to be total, no coyness with the towels or camera placement---would not be gratuitious. Dr B's post is about Dr B naked, because it is a meditation on a number of things of which her own body is either a problematic example or an affected innocent bystander: Cultural attitudes towards nudity, aging, beauty (male and female), gender roles, and child rearing; the discomfort a lot of women, especially middle-aged women, feel inside their own skin, and Dr B's own acceptance and even appreciation of her self as her body apporaches the age of 40.

At the end of her post, though, Dr B writes that she wishes:

more men would write honestly about sex and sexiness. The only time you see guys writing about sex is when they're playing stud, or bragging on how hot some 19-year old model is.

Is she talking about me?

I think she's talking about me.

Ok, maybe she's not talking specifically about me. But I feel accused.

If her comment thread hadn't already reached 150 comments and I didn't think a comment from me would get lost in the shuffle, I'd leave one defending myself.

Dr B, [I'd type] I have written honestly about sex and the sexiness of Gen X women. In fact, you may not remember it, but you have read what I've written in praise of older women.

Dr B contiues her wish, though, with this observation: private (comment threads, chats, conversations) these same guys talk about women who look *nothing* like 19-year old models in ways that demonstrate real appreciation of, and love for, real women. But in popular culture we continue to perpetuate the idea that all men find 19-year old models to be the creme de la creme of female attractiveness.

Ok, now we're in my territory.

I am a true connoisseur of late blooming female beauty. I love the bodies of older women and I have the pictures to prove it. I'd post them but the wife and professional woman who lives inside the particular forty-something body I love would kill me.

On the beach on the Cape this year---and I swear once more that I bring my binoculars to the beach to look at the seals and birds and do not train them on any human wildlife---I was again struck by the differences between the women in middle age and the men. The beach at Chatham does not present a truly representative sampling of Boomers and Gen Xers because the summer population of middle-aged women is generally more affluent and they have the time and money to spend on keeping themselves in shape.

The men probably don't have the same amount of time, but, as a group, they clearly don't devote whatever time they do have to exercise, nor do they watch their diets.

The consequences of this were again, as they were last summer, that the view was much more enjoyable for me than for the blonde and Uncle Merlin.

An odd, and probably too self-revealing an aside: the bikini seems to have made a big comeback. I don't remember seeing so many the past few vacations. My first thought was that a sizeable cohort of teenagers made the jump from little girls to young women over the winter and so there were just more bikini wearers everywhere I looked. This was unsettling, because I try very hard not to ogle anyone who is not old enough to serve in the United States Senate. Not because I'm so mature or such a gentleman. It's just too embarrassing to be caught looking at a 16 year old even if she does have the body of a centerfold and is not dressing to disguise the fact.

But there were plenty of their mothers in bikinis to distract me. Now another odd fact. I am ambivalent about the idea of women in their 30s and 40s and up wearing bikinis, no matter how good they look in them. I can't get over the idea that for older women wearing a bikini is as appropriate as wearing a pinafore and patent leather shoes.

I think that's cultural conditioning on my part. Too many Beach Boys tunes in my youth plus the fact that one piece bathing suits were the fashion for the last twenty odd years and I learned to appreciate the middle aged female form in a tank suit.

I'm against men wearing bikinis too. No man of any age, no matter in how good a shape he's in, should wear a Speedo unless he's on his high school, college, or Olympic swim team and actually competing at the moment.

At any rate, I wish that more middle-aged women would be as comfortable in their skin as Dr B and would dress, act, and pose for pictures accordingly.

I see signs that as the Gen Xers hit 40 this is happening, but I also see signs that they are being as pressured by impossible ideals of beauty set for them by advertising and Hollywood as they were when they were teenagers.

This morning as I was out picking up some breakfast treats at the convenience store I saw a magazine on the rack that promised to tell women how to look great at 20, at 30, and at 40. The name of the magazine didn't register on me. I'm just half-blind to those kinds of magazines. Might have been Glamour. The cover photo featured three beautiful women, celebrities, of course, one in her 20s, one in her 30s, and one in her 40s. The first two I didn't know. The fortysomething was Sheryl Crow, who I was surprised to find out is 44 already and who looks great.

But great turns out to be she looks pretty close in age to the 30something and not all that much older than the 20something.

Now, Crow is probably blessed with good genes and, here, a talented photographer. But I'm sure she also gets a lot of execise, having the time for it that most women her age don't, and, like a lot of celebrites and rich women her age, she might very well have an excellent plastic surgeon's phone number on her speed-dial.

Gen Xers have entered middle age with advantages over their mothers. Generally---generationally---they don't smoke as much or drink as much and they get more exercise and they have learned---a little late, but better late than never---to take care in the sun. They had fewer pregnancies. As children, too, they got better medical attention and were better nourished. (Their children are going to be even more beautiful when they reach middle-age.) So they do look younger than their mothers did at their age.

And simply by looking younger and being healthier they are sexier.

The warpings and perversities of the fashion industry and advertising and Hollywood aside, there are biological reasons why we respond to a youthful ideal of beauty.

I include male beauty in that statement as well as female.

Nevermind Jack Nicholson. Most male movie stars stop being romantic leads in their forties.

One of the things I like about Pierce Brosnan is that he has recognized this about himself and seems to be happily determined to make himself a character actor.

Back to my point.

While fortysomething women are now allowed (?) to be sexy the way only twentysomething women used to be, the picture of Sheryl Crow on that magazine cover was trying to tell them that the way to look good, meaning sexy, at 44 was, through personal training and strategic cosmetic surgery, to look 24.

Thirty-four at most.

Writing about Sex and the City last weekend, I touched on the idea of female narcissism as a temptation but didn't expand upon it. This might be a good time.

Much has been written and said about how the Media's constant exploitation of a certain standard of female beauty to sell stuff creates anxiety and self-loathing in young women in respect to their bodies. Presented with an impossible ideal, they learn to hate their own looks and long for an alternative self-image that of course they can't achieve, leading to more anxiety and self-loathing, but which they spend inordinate amounts of time and money on trying to attain anyway.

But I think that there's another, equally damaging effect.

The constant fetishization and eroticization of female beauty in magazines and on TV teaches many young women to eroticize and fetishize their own bodies.

I don't think it's too much to say that they fall in love with their own reflections.

I wouldn't go as far as blaming the whole Girls Gone Wild phenomenon on a generation of narcissists falling in love with their own reflections. But I do think there are probably more women, young and middle-aged, who learned to admire themselves as objects of desire and who need to have eyes upon them to know they exist. They need the camera's gaze, not simply the male gaze.

They need to see themselves reflected in order to see their own reflections.

The problem, of course, with falling in love with a body, your own or anyone else's, that's 15, 16, 17 years old is that you won't have it to admire for long. A teenage body, even a 20 year old body, is an unfinished body in the process of finishing itself in a hurry.

Bones keep growing into your thirties, which means that no matter how hard they resist it, through dieting, excercise, and surgery, young women get bigger as they advance towards middle-age.

The result of this for a lot of them is that they get ugly in their own eyes.

I think this explains why so many of the professionally narcissistic---young actressess---have taken to starving themselves. They are trying to maintain the adolescent body shape they fell in love with in the mirror (the mirrors in their bedrooms and the mirrors in magazines and on TV), a body shape they only approximate through an excessive thinness that very few straight men respond to.

To answer Dr B's request that men write about female beauty in a way that corresponds to what the evidence of their own choices for sexual partner shows they actually admire and desire, I think lots of men have made it clear that whatever the starlets think they're doing we wish they would stop it.

One of my favorite fortysomething beauties, Teri Hatcher, has made a gargoyle of herself trying to look 20.

They're still real, they're still spectacular, but they're hard to focus on because of what all the botox is doing above them and the starvation diet is doing to the rest of the body around them.

To a much lesser extent, but still to an extent, the fashion industry and advertising and Hollywood push an almost impossible ideal of male beauty too. Look at a Banana Republic ad, if you doubt this.

But straight men have learned through long habit not to look at other men and certainly not to judge them as erotic ideals.

And while you'd think that our obsession with professional sports would have some effect on our body images---the athletic ideal of male beauty includes broad shoulders and narrow waists and muscular thighs and calves, but how many middle-aged men do you see even trying---the reason it doesn't is that the ideal of male beauty in sports is a body in action.

This is also the Hollywood ideal. Gary Cooper when he was young was more beautiful than many of his leading ladies. So was Cary Grant. But they rarely stood still to be admired as beautiful objects. They were athletic and they moved and in motion their beauty transfered itself to their actions and did not remain locked within their bodies and faces.

The leading men who managed to stay plausible romantic leads through middle-age and even into early old age---I'm thinking of John Wayne, particularly---were able to do so because they were always active and competent on screen.

Action movie heroes don't manage the trick becuse they are only violent and their competence is merely brute strength triumphing over someone else's brute strength. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became ridiculous self-parodies in their 40s. That never happened to Wayne.

Well, not counting MrQ.

And Brannigan.

And The Green Berets.

But it's why it almost works that he gets Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo when he was not a particularly trim and youthful 52 and she was barely more than half his age at 28.

And this has allowed men to identify with them and to internalize a flattering self-image based on being active and competent.

A middle-aged man has only to pick up a hammer and start banging to fool himself into thinking he's young, virile, and sexy.

A middle-aged woman is still required to stand still and pose.

I think that's changing. As women become more active, not simply in their professional lives, but as they play more sports and exercise more and take on more formerly male-only tasks, like picking up hammers and wrenches, they are beginning to redefine female beauty as an active ideal too.

The female ideal of beauty will become like the male ideal a body in motion.

Dr B probably didn't intend this repsonse on my part, but I'm sorry, I can't help myself, and I hope, if she reads this, she won't mind. The most atttractive aspect of her nude self-portrait is that she describes herself always as a body in motion:

And after an hour or so, the whistle blows, and we go back into the locker room to change, and I--as I always do/did when I swim--strip in the shower and rinse my suit out thoroughly. No one else is stripping in the shower; everyone is washing their hair with their swimsuits on. (?!?) And PK is playing around in the shower with me in that "I shower with mama all the time" way. And somehow I realize that I'm the adult woman whose body used to freak me out a little when I was an adolescent--it just looks so frank, with the belly, and the softer ass, and the larger areolae. But what I realize now is that the frankness is largely a function of just not trying to hide when naked.

I wrap a towel around myself and one around PK, and we march back to the lockers, where I drop our towels on the bench and bend down to get our clothes out and PK gets out of his suit, and suddenly I can feel the sidelong glances we're not-quite-getting from the teenagers because omg that's a little boy naked in the women's locker room. And I help PK get dressed first, of course, without being wrapped in a towel myself because managing a towel while dressing a little kid is a hassle (plus I want to air out a bit), so I'm naked for a good long time. But no one else is naked, because they've all sneaked off into the side rooms to change. And he gets dressed, and then I wrap my skirt back around myself and pull my tank over my head and no way am I going to comb my chloriney hair so we walk out of the locker room, sans bra and underwear, tangled damp hair dripping down our backs, past the women and girls drying their hair at the mirrors and re-applying makeup (?!?!) and back out into the now-tolerable heat.

Like I said, Hopperesque.

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