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Making Peace with My Aging Body
“My whole life I look at the mirror and see the best-built man, and all of a sudden I see a bunch of crap. It’s terrible!"
These candid words from none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter resonated deeply with me.
While my body never remotely resembled a female equivalent of Schwarzenegger’s physique, it has definitely seen better days. Aging is hard on the body but perhaps harder on the mind, and our culture does not make it any easier.
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The Age of Invisibility
During a recent run with a good friend, we reflected on how in our culture with its hyperfocus on youth, beauty and productivity, aging can make you feel irrelevant. An article out of Baylor University Medical Center, “The Aging of America: culture, stress and sex,” draws a contrast between aging in traditional and industrial societies:
… in industrial societies, old age is not generally a revered status and elders may not always be honored within their families or among their friends and other associates, as well as in society at large. This is, however, more often the case of female elders.
Ouch! It is a well-known fact that as we approach middle age, women become “invisible” to the rest of society. As I enter this age of invisibility, I find it in some ways liberating. I’m less self-conscious about what I wear or how I look, and I often enjoy being a “fly on the wall” in social situations, without being bothered by unwanted attention. However, it can also be a lonely place, feeling that all the benefits our society bestows on youth have passed you by.
Aging with Grace
While myriad companies, products and potions offer promises of youth in our capitalist society, as Schwarzenegger points out in the interview, there really is no magic bullet for aging. So what are we to do with this inevitability? In the words of Schwarzenegger, “It’s not pleasurable. But you cope with it.” This is basically the attitude I’ve adopted as well. In a society that tells women we aren’t enough at any age, I’m determined to age with grace. Here some strategies that have helped me.
Expose yourself (literally!). It’s a well-known psychological principle that what you try to resist—whether it’s a thought, emotion or temptation—only gets stronger. The antidote to this is exposure. By exposing yourself to the unwanted thought or sensation without judgment, over time it becomes easier to accept. When it comes to aging, seeing the changes in my body triggers shame and the urge to hide myself. Instead, I’ve started to stand naked in front of the mirror a few times a week and just look at myself, noncritically. At first it was hard, but over time, it’s gotten easier. My body has become less the enemy and more like an old friend (no pun intended).
Build strength. Many of the changes we notice most as we age are the result of declining muscle mass and strength. The bad news is that this starts as early as 30. The good news is that we can slow the decline through strength training and exercise, according to an article from the National Institute on Aging:
“While there is no way to fully “stop the clock,” it’s possible for many older adults to increase muscle strength with exercise, which can help maintain mobility and independence into later life.”
Do what you can. This gets me to my last point, and again back to Schwarzenegger. Few of us are “perfect” when it comes to health and fitness—Schwarzenegger smokes cigars, I like IPAs and red wine—but we can all do something, whether it’s lifting weights or going for a walk or doing puzzles to keep our minds sharp. All of it counts. Asputs it, “exercise is money in the bank of your health.”
These are a few things that have worked for me. I would love to hear your stories.