On Sunday, my sister surprised me with a trip to LA’s Koreatown. My face lit up! For me, this meant one thing only: seshin! A full body scrub Korean style!—twenty years had somehow flown by since my last scrub; twenty years that I had deprived myself of clean skin and barrels of laughter that were always part and parcel of this type of indulgence. This time, my daughter also joined us, and to think that the last time I was there she was only seven years old. There’s always something that triggers an uncomfortable thought or a feeling that you may be suppressing, and for me, it was the sudden realization that twenty years had gone by in the blink of an eye. I was young the last time I went, and now I would enter the premises as a middle aged woman, damn it.
After my initial screech and multiple yippees, I fell dramatically silent—my mind drifted to those good old days at the Korean Spa, when I’d parade around in the nude in front of loads of women and who knows who, but feeling unhampered by my surroundings and my body.
“Ilana, why’re you quiet—you don’t want to go?” asked Sharon.
“No, I want to go!”
She gave me one of those “then what’s your problem” looks.
“Nothing, just the last time I was there—I probably weighed ten pounds less so—“
“Who cares!” she snapped, “don’t tell me you’re intimidated all of a sudden?”
“Are you crazy!” chimed in Maya.
I shrugged, weight was not an issue for me; it was just a passing thought, a symbol of how much I’ve aged. It takes guts to go for a Korean body scrub. It could very well be that in my mid-fifties and especially on my 55th birthday as it were, my youthful confidence had dissolved into reticence, just so much more self-conscious about what was and what’s left of it.
“You know it’s the other way around usually.”
“Wait, how’d you know what I was thinking?”
“You’re not supposed to care at this stage what people think about you or your body, not at this age. And you’ve never cared anyway.”
“Right, I didn’t and I don’t even though my body has changed. But still, it used to be so easy, you know.”
The truth is that the older we get the more we care, otherwise how do you explain the multi-billion dollar beauty and cosmetics industries as well as rejuvenation treatments offered to women all over the globe, and especially sought after by women our own ages? And the spas for heaven’s sake, right there in Koreatown you see a tradition of skin care rituals that are as normal as brushing teeth in some parts of the world—people very much care about their skin! Possibly more than they care about their teeth . . .
And then we walked into this other world. We entered the building and the receptionist handed us our locker keys and told us to undress and put on the robes and slippers that were inside our lockers, and like compliant little schoolgirls we followed her instructions to the dressing room.
When I entered the main bathing area, also known as jjimjilbang, it felt as though I were thrust into another dimension, so strange, like a silent movie when there’s action all around you, but no sound at all. The room looked drab, lacking all the bells and whistles one is accustomed to seeing in high-end modern Western spas, but we didn’t care. We knew what awaited us around the corner. I watched the women, all of whom seemed indifferent to nudity, engage in toweling themselves dry; comb their hair; apply creams; get dressed, undressed. It’s a shock all right, especially if you’re not used to this type of thing. There was perpetual movement all around us and I did my best to keep to the spa’s etiquette of “act like you’re not noticing a thing while your mind catalogues every single image before you.”
I continued to scrutinize my surroundings until the receptionist peered through a little window and barked at me to undress already, because I needed to shower and prep my skin before my scrub. I knew what to do, but she thought I was a newcomer to this strange world of Asian-style holistic relaxation. My sister and daughter were already submerged in water, so I hurried to undress, wear my robe, and join them. Though honestly, why bother with that robe in the first place.
I found my sister and daughter in one of the soaking pools, there was one with regular water, another with tea, and a third with arctic cold-water. There were also a number of therapeutic rooms to choose from, such as dry and steam saunas, including a herbal sauna, a gem room, a salt room, and a red clay ball room. Along the walls there were low faucets where I watched women sitting in groups of three or four in a row, family members I assumed, busily scrubbing each other’s backs in a rhythmic motion.
Communal bathing is a centuries-old tradition, but for someone like me who’d been accustomed to bathing alone it felt like a vivid hallucination or a voyeuristic Peeping Tom show. I watched the women engage in an activity that for the rest of us has always been a private affair. The three of us decided to begin our cleansing steps inside the steam sauna.
Thankfully, there was no one inside, I guess it had something to do with COVID precautions, but in the old days I recall that weird sensation inside this particular woodsy-scented room when it was at full occupancy, and the women looked blankly into space, pretending that no one else was there, and from time to time you’d hear the thud of a bucket of water splashing on stones to generate more steam. This time we had the room all to ourselves so we included a few naked dances, and without a doubt, my sister won first prize for the oddest moves.
Next, we entered the red clay ball room; we watched Maya zip over the balls with the ease and elegance of a ballet dancer in a glissade (glide) across a dance floor. When it was our turn, gravity took over and we sank right in, and looked like two idiots trying to escape inevitable branding. Yes, Maya had a good laugh. Once we figured out how to drag our fatter asses to the center, without burning our bottoms, ta-da—we relaxed. I would have stayed longer but we wanted to try out every single room, so once again we attempted to drag our bodies off the clay without sinking. We managed to sauna hop and visit all of the amenities, even the freezing arctic water—the smiles on all our faces said it all.
On the other side of the room, several naked women were lying down on stone beds covered in vinyl. They looked placid as an army of underwear-clad women labored hard, scrubbing every part of their bodies. The process looked invasive and there was no shame, no modesty involved in the way they were positioned on the beds, and the treatment of their bodies seemed so crude—a smack here, a slap there prodding them to change positions, and buckets of water splashed all over them to rinse off their dead skin as though they were animals on a farm rather than dainty women who’ve come for a beauty treatment. The three of us avoided eye contact with each other because we knew that we would easily burst into fits of laughter.
There was an assortment of breasts on display: small, common C’s, sagging, enormous, tuberous, and stiff mounds that pointed to the ceiling, as well as bottoms of all shapes and sizes jiggling to and fro as they were subjected to vigorous cleansing and orders spouted by authoritative ajumas (aunties). The pruning and grooming of their nether regions was also on display—and my eyes naturally veered below my own navel area for a quick check, just to make sure . . . Could I really do this again? But I’m so dirty, layer upon layer of dead skin and only those scrub bullies would be able to restore my skin. I needed this!
Three ajumas emerged from the scrubbing area, one of them called out my number and without an introduction she grabbed my hand, and led me to my designated bed. I looked back at my daughter and sister—the three of us giggled.
Her name tag read Jenny; she looked older than me, something about her eyes and their deep gaze—but her skin was flawless. Her grip around my hand was tight, she let go to tie my hair up with the rubber wristband attached to my locker key, then she instructed me to lie face down on the bed, fully naked. That’s when my internal monologue kicked into high gear; I wondered whether they used anything to disinfect the beds, perhaps nothing more than a bucket of water to wash off any remains from the last occupant? I looked to my side and noticed how submissive and relaxed the rest of the ladies were, and whoosh came the first warm bucket of water without warning. I let out a combination shriek and giggle, now I knew firsthand what the floor must’ve felt every time it was mopped clean!
A forceful circular motion crept along my back; prickly tingles kept my eyes open–ahhh, I could almost relax despite the scratchy feel of it all, almost, if it weren’t for my overactive brain and intermittent popping sounds signaling the end of someone’s treatment. She leaned into my head and I couldn’t tell whether it was her belly? breasts? vagina? Oh who knows, and why were these women forced to work in their underwear instead of a bathing suit? Would that not be more dignified?
Jenny continued to buff and polish my skin as if she were a Roman tanner, circa 800 BCE, beating and scraping animal skin, then treating it with urine, even biting into it in order to masticate the hides until they turned softer. I was pinned under the pressure of her hands as she roamed the surface of my body until I could finally submit, at last drifting into nothingness. I wasn’t thinking or over-analyzing, not a care in the world—my body melted into the bed. Her hands continued to drift downwards, and I thought nothing of it other than don’t let this moment stop. The circular motion rotated round and round and round and round–and then nothing. She probably needed more soap. Once she resumed the treatment, I felt sandpaper on my butt and my eyes popped open, albeit there was a towel covering my face.
“Hahaha, pimple!” she blurted as though it were the highlight of her day. She made sure to scrub it and I thought I was going to die of shame. But it was a mosquito bite and not a pimple, damn it—couldn’t she tell that I had a few of those on my legs too ( a result of spending hours upon hours tending to my garden). And why were there curtains around my bed, around everybody’s beds if no one bothered drawing them.
What? N-n-nooo, don’t go there, not inside, no no no, don’t let that glove vanish between my cheeks. What’re you doing Jenny?! Oh my goodness, there was not an inch of me that was off limits to Jenny’s slippery hands. She worked methodically on every part of my body, scraping between my toes, behind my ears, under my arm pits, my boobs were also exfoliated. I felt like a plank of wood in the hands of a carpenter handling a power tool to sand down and smooth out all the bumps and uneven parts. Layers of skin, which resembled bits of mud, were scrubbed loose and littered my bed then smeared under my body every time she ordered me to change position. I’m guessing that she must have scrubbed off at least a pound of dead skin and she too proudly pointed at it, in case I had somehow missed it. So gruesome, but such shameless enjoyment had taken over; I could feel the transformation through the shedding of my skin and nothing else mattered from this point on.
Feeling sedated, my muscles had turned into Jell-O and I didn’t care that my legs were split apart, and that she was now diligently smoothing every part of my inner thigh all the way up to my groin. After an hour-long scrub, Jenny tossed a few more buckets of water on top of me, this time with skin as sleek as a dolphin’s, I floundered helplessly like a fish on the pier. She kept me from slipping right off the bed. The next part comprised of cold mush she rubbed on my face and neck. I inhaled the fragrant scent of fresh cucumbers; their cool feel on my skin lulled me to sleep, even though I was completely exposed for all to see and judge—I didn’t give a damn and felt strangely comfortable. Especially after she began to shampoo my hair. I was out. I felt weightless. My body had erased its memory of tendons, muscle, and bone—my mind drifted into emptiness. I could feel the concoction slowly dripping to the sides like the gentle stroke of a hand. The best part was the scent, like a blast of salubrious air, as if I were on a beach somewhere, sitting by the water, enjoying the sea breeze and feasting on a fresh, crisp watermelon.
Once the cucumbers were washed off my face, it was time for the massage. This part was not enjoyable, more like a slapping and pummeling with oil. Oh, but the first part of the treatment was so out of this world that I was still spellbound and smiling. Then I received the dreaded finale pops, a series of them to indicate the end of the session. She didn’t have to shock my system, a gentle whisper would’ve sufficed. But I still felt so good, relaxed, uninhibited, and extremely clean. I looked radiant, the layers of dirt that washed away revealed polished, glistening, glowing, mango-colored, silky, shiny, smooth baby skin.
After showering off the oil, neither one of us bothered covering up with the towel or the robe, so we got the same bewildered stares from the newbies who arrived for their turn of out-of-this-world pampering.
“And to think that you were worried over a few extra pounds when you had a huge pimple on your ass,” said Sharon.
I laughed, even though it was really a mosquito bite. I swear! But who cares, right. Anyway, at this stage there was probably no evidence of it any longer. And that’s what a few hours at the Korean Spa will do for your mental and physical well-being.
Just Google to find the best Korean spa near you. What are you waiting for? Run.
Elbow Wrinkle: Hi, it’s nice to meet you–I’m so excited to be moving in with you!
Me: Oh dear, I’m–I’m sorry–did you not read my last text?
Elbow Wrinkle: Um, no, I didn’t. Why?
Me: Yeah, well, Youth has decided to stay with me a little longer.
Elbow Wrinkle: No no no, not Youth! Not again.
Me: Afraid so.
Elbow Wrinkle: Damn–well, let me know when there’s room for me, will ya?
Me: Sure, of course Elbow Wrinkle, without a doubt. I promise!
When we think of growing older, there are a few expected scenarios such as wrinkles, grey hair, and drooping overweight body parts that inevitably cross every single person’s mind. Even when we don’t have a natural inclination to care about these types of changes, or there’s an initial ambivalence and health is a priority, we’re definitely reminded of negative imagery associated with a woman’s appearance by the flood of ads on television or magazines that bombard us daily. In the waiting area at the dermatologist’s office, it’s hard to stay focused on a book or even a phone when a plethora of youth-enhancing remedies lure you to take that extra glance, look up and inspect the possibility of looking wrinkle-free and gravity-free and absolutely flawless for at least the next six months, without invasive procedures.
However, despite the inevitable change in one’s appearance, menopause is another inescapable stage of life, but it’s one of those far-removed thoughts that we seldom attach to ourselves when we’re younger, at least that was the case for me. It’s comparable to the chapter about C-sections that I purposely skipped in that all-too-familiar book for expectant mothers, and then I ended up with not one, but two C-Section births. Similarly, menopause is not something I ever thought about, or read about and perimenopause, yikes, was a totally new term but, boy, what a can of worms, and how displeasing to usher in this stage of life that comes with an assortment of symptoms for most of us. When I was thrust with night sweats, nighttime sleep was more like a fading memory and akin to a nightly swim fest.
Menopause is a dramatic drop in estrogen, a hormone that affects emotions. As a result of this decline in ovarian function, many women suffer irritability, or sadness, or anxiety and perhaps fatigue or hot flushes/flashes, and night sweats. When these symptoms take center stage, I can assure you that any other superficial age-related issues are suddenly not as urgent, not that much of an eyesore either. I think that a good quality of life trumps any other concern at the end of the day. Whether you’re into the organic approach to aging and beauty or a fan of modern medicine and erasing all notions of aging–at this juncture, trust me when I say that your mind becomes concerned with hormone therapy or new supplements instead.
So Damn Sweaty
When I say “night sweats,” medically termed as “sleep hyperhidrosis,” I mean the kind of sweating that leaves no other option but to wrap one’s body in a towel, place another one on the sheets while your partner opts to wear a bathing suit because, let’s face it, your king-size mattress is more like a pool than a bed these days. It also means so much more laundry!
Once the night sweats happened to me and I figured it was perimenopause, I had time to think about this stage–this word. It’s not one of those beautiful- sounding words and although this isn’t a lesson is phonesthetics (from the Greek word meaning voice-sound and aesthetics), I’m sure you can agree that it doesn’t sound particularly pleasing. It’s not poetic or exotic like other words such as “serendipity” or “epiphany”—words that I deem beautiful—but instead, menopause and her younger sister perimenopause connote old, undesirable, prone to disease, and unsexy. In ancient times a woman’s value was placed on her reproductive abilities, so once she was infertile she was deemed useless. I think that somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds this thought does come back to haunt us; it’s the reason that in some cultures women still prefer to ignore it rather than discuss it, or they don’t even have a specific word to define it, or any of the symptoms.
The word is also misleading; does it mean that our cycle merely pauses—that it’s a temporary change then? In 1821, de Gardanne was a French physician who coined this phrase when he published his book “De la menopause, ou de l’arge critique des femmes.” He adopted it from the medical Latin word “menopausis.” The etymology of this word is “men” which is month or moon otherwise known as “mene,” and “pauein” means to “cease” or “stop.” So in no time did anyone think it was ever coming back. It was always final.
But Whales Can Breed Until Age 80!
That’s a thought, and elephants breed until well into their 60s. I’m also aware that the ocean quahog is a type of clam that lives to be 500 years old and even older, so it would be interesting to know a little more about its reproductive cycle. However, generally, most animals continue to reproduce until they die and the only exceptions we find are in humans and some whale species. In evolutionary terms, we should not even be alive once our ovaries shut down for business. When apes stop breeding in their mid-30s they usually die, yet humans and whales live many years past the end of their reproductive lifespan. A number of evolutionary biologists believe in the “grandmother hypothesis”–that longevity promotes the survival of our offspring and the continuation of our genes. We thrive when our mothers stick around apparently, and it’s the same for whales. Elephants on the other hand continue to reproduce until they die, because their offspring tend to leave the herd so the mother’s nurturing abilities do not extend beyond that time as is the case with whales who remain in the same pod and thus can benefit from the older whale’s experience of the wild–the females become repositories of ecological knowledge and their influence also means the successful passage of their genes.
It’s A Matter Of Perception
How interesting that the menopause experience differs from country to country, for this reason it’s viewed in a biocultural paradigm. There are a variety of factors that shape women’s ideas and attitudes towards menopause. It’s important to consider biological, psychological, social, and cultural approaches to this change. There’s either a positive or negative approach to menopause and in some instances it’s a non-issue altogether. You see that some view it as the “end of youth” while others feel a great relief–more sexual freedom when contraception becomes obsolete. In Asian countries, for instance, there are lower numbers of reported incidents of symptoms relating to menopause, they don’t even have an equivalent word for hot flushes/flashes. Lucky. This has something to do with genetics, although once Asian women move to the West these statistics change, which means that cultural and environmental factors should always be taken into consideration. In the Native American culture, a post-menopausal woman is considered a woman of wisdom—she ranks higher in society, so it’s a positive experience. In places where women spend the majority of their lives pregnant, there are lower incidents of reporting menopausal symptoms because they’ve spent most of their lives with lower levels of estrogen. Therefore, in this instance loss of fertility is not a major life-changing event. In societies where women are valued according to their reproductive abilities, if they have not produced the right amount of children menopause is a negative experience. In Arab countries the word for menopause is “desperate age,” so for those women it’s also a negative experience. In the West we tend to put less emphasis on a woman’s reproductive abilities, we tend to focus on things like wrinkles and small boobs more than we do on procreation so menopause does not carry with it the same weight.
In Greek society, apparently menopause is not a positive experience because it’s also seen as a demotion of sorts. However, the silver lining for these women is their ability to also fully engross themselves in church activities that are forbidden from women before this stage of their lives.
And Then There’s My Experience
Perhaps I should feel relief that in my family I’m already respected, even known to be the “wise one” (on some topics), and my husband and I share our responsibilities equally. For this reason I don’t see a change in status as I near the end of my reproductive abilities. From a personal perspective, however, I think that moving past the sweats will be the life-changing event that I will happily embrace. I have a feeling that my nightly sweats have kept my weight down, so once those stop I suppose I will need to watch my diet more carefully and exercise more vigorously, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make. I am also looking forward to the day when swimming means a visit to the beach rather than my bedroom.
In the meantime, I wish to find a credible physician who will actually help alleviate these symptoms, because seven years into night sweats I have already heard so many theories and my bloodworks are normal, but no one has been able to stop the sweats. At a recent visit to an OBGYN, this is what she said: “Well, night sweats can come as a result of many different things: it could be cancer, and another possibility is perimenopause–you are after all in the right age bracket . . . “ After she uttered the word “cancer,” I automatically shut her out. Like anything else in life, there are good teachers and bad teachers, good writers and terrible writers, good doctors and those who shouldn’t be doctors at all. I need to find a good doctor, soon.
Perimenopause is temporary and menopause is final, I can live with that notion and not feel an ounce of sadness despite its negative implications in some parts of the world. I think that post-menopause will be an interesting stage of life, and even though there’s a list of risks involved such as osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease, with the right care I’m actually quite all right with the change. Perhaps at that stage my forehead wrinkles will begin to bother me again, who knows. Maybe I’ll even have the energy to create a new line of nightware: Sweaty Wife Pajamas. How does that sound?
In the meantime, I think I may order a new bathing suit for Greg, I like a variety of looks in the bedroom.
The years you remember only through photos.
Most of us don’t remember our very first birthdays, and even though our family may have marked those events with a significant birthday bash and the photos are a testament to the wonderful time we had catching bubbles, blowing candles, eating birthday cake, and opening gifts, we rely on photos to remind us just how much fun it was. After that, most birthdays tend to blend in with each other, unless you’re Jewish and then you have a Bat or Bar Mitzvah to mark a birthday, which in the Jewish tradition is considered a rite of passage. After that, we tend to remember the significant birthdays that symbolize a milestone in our lives such as our 20th birthday, 30th, 40th and so forth. Notice that I purposefully ignored the Sweet 16 and 18th Birthdays and the reason is that I never had a Sweet 16, because growing up in Israel it was not a custom that we followed. Although birthday number 18 is definitely a milestone, again, when you’re about to start your two-year obligatory military service, freedom and emancipation have to take a back seat for a while and this gives the celebration a whole new meaning.
Somber beginning to my 30s.
When I turned 30, it was a somber time in my life and a very cheerless birthday. I was served with divorce papers only a few days earlier—what timing. This was the end of my innocence, a harsh lesson in human nature and I felt disillusioned by life in general. But during my 30s I also began to heal from my divorce, and symbolically speaking it was almost as though I was trying to shed off old skin because I wanted to have nothing to do with the old Ilana and that included ditching my legal career. It was a bold decision and one that changed the course of my life forever. But I don’t think it would have happened had I not received a formal letter from NBC’s sensor who read a spec script that I wrote for one of the top shows at the time: Seinfeld. In the letter (I still have it), I was told to pack my bags and move to LA .
Once I moved, the show was cancelled and nobody bothered to answer my calls any longer. However, that was not enough of a wake-up call and it took me another twenty years to realize how things really work in Hollywood as well as in the literary world. One has to be recommended by someone in the industry in order for a literary agent to even consider reading their work . . . the rest is history, albeit I continued to work hard and create a body of work, which included The Original Insult Company featuring 210 insult and passion cards, and I was known as the Queen of Insults or the Queen of Passion—I would actually get phone calls asking to speak with the Queen of Passion. I worked together with my sister Sharon and those years represented a stimulating and harmonious time in my life. This project garnered me regular radio appearances across the country and even an appearance on the Howard Stern Show. I also created The Venetians—a beach talk show that I wrote and hosted; Playfilm.org was a collection of different shows that I wrote and directed, and it even included The Dr. Leon Show about advances in medicine. All this was much before YouTube, and I was definitely ahead of my time.
Just Maya and me.
So I managed a few moments of success, even a face-to-face with executives at Paramount in order to discuss my show Youthtruth, and in a very mysterious manner they decided to shelf the idea, but then it came out in the same format as a whole new show altogether and I was not included. The thing is that it would have been totally different had someone actually represented me during those years, and my experiences would have probably been more positive than negative. However, these experiences kept me focused on the prize even though I remained on the periphery of the entertainment world. I thought that since I had a law degree, someone would see the value in hiring me and giving me a chance. Uh-uh, no way, even though I was pursued by a few people who would have helped me with my career, but sleeping with them did not appeal to me so much. I don’t have room to begin mentioning all the screenplays and stories and school plays that I wrote and directed during my 30s but phew—I had accomplished so much.
Meeting Greg for the first time in England.
The highlight of my 30s was meeting Greg.
A highlight from my 30s was meeting Greg on JDate, and when realizing the random nature of our finding each other, it makes it all the more spectacular. He has been the one and only man to love me just the way I am. He supports me in every way and loves my writing and always helps with all the complicated technical issues that arise from being an independent writer. And boy, I admit that I do test his limits with my endless requests! He even cooks breakfast every Sunday and serves it to me in bed. Okay, it’s only egg on toast and he’s never tried anything new, but the way that yolk oozes on my slice of toast is absolutely perfect–and with his expert sprinkling of salt and pepper, and toasting the bread to my liking, this egg dish is quite delectable.
Celebrating my 40th birthday.
When I turned 40, I don’t think that I spent too much time thinking about it; however, I remember the day quiet vividly because I was one month shy of giving birth to Jack. I could barely move with a belly that looked like I was hiding an especially large watermelon that was sure to win first prize at the local County Fair! Look at me. However, the way I chose to celebrate my day says a lot about my mind frame at the time; I asked to go to the Wynn Buffet, where my sister Sharon joined us and we sat and ate for three whole hours. Three hours! We stuck to our well-tested buffet eating etiquette, which meant only placing one or two items on our plates and actually chewing our food instead of swallowing then dashing towards the next enticing item on the menu so that in the end everything is one mishmash and you can’t even remember your favorite dish of all.
Indeed, there was no hurry and we experimented with foods that were either smoky, spicy, sweet, tangy or tart–no rules for that because at the buffet you’re allowed to indulge in a little bit of guilt-free, temporary gluttony. We had so much fun talking and eating, and eating and talking that it was one of the nicer birthdays I’ve had.
My 40s were also very productive years, albeit I suffered from chronic fatigue for the most part because Jack was not the easiest baby, the poor little thing had colic and bundles of energy. Phew, is it a wonder that there are years that have been erased from memory . . . It was also the first time that I realized that I had aged. I remember how I felt when I woke up one morning to the sight of bags under my eyes—I was horrified. I also realized that no amount of makeup can make you look as good as before, and that no matter how you dress and how you do your hair, you just don’t look as fresh and young as in your 30s, and at this juncture many of us begin to wage war against Mother Nature!
So tired during the early years of Jack.
It was definitely a transition. I used this time to continue to create; I wrote and directed a play that appeared at The Arts Factory and I self-published all of my books. I decided that I had absolutely no patience for rejection, and there was no reason to ever have to deal with naysayers or people who ignore me.
I also began to take better care of myself; I made sure to wear a hat in the sun, apply sunscreen on a regular basis, and eat more healthily, but my workout regimen had stated to teeter. I had grown terribly sick of gyms and lessons, and lifting my legs up, down, round and round, and pressing weights and flexing my toes and stretching my arms, so instead I took up road cycling. Ahh, what fun memories I have of cycling together with my husband and father across winding paths along Red Rock Canyon or Lake Mead, or along the country roads and corn fields in Western NY, and even partaking in the Can-Am cycle while observing the incredible sights along our path. Niagara Falls never looked as beautiful as it did on that particular day on my bike. I soon discovered that I also needed to incorporate some of the other workouts too, the ones I grew tired of doing–so just like brushing teeth, which I know I can’t do without, I added a few more exercises here and there.
I also realized that I did not want to become one of those obsessed individuals who constantly worried about her looks and fretted over every new marking on my face or body, in the same way one does when purchasing a new car. How exhausting is that?–there had to be a balance for that too. There’s nothing wrong with caring about one’s looks, it’s normal, natural for every one of us, but obsessing and never liking what you see in the mirror, uh-uh, not for me. I also started writing about aging, which some would argue is a form of obsession, but I disagree, and one of my biggest pleasures is knowing that I’ve managed to help other women at a critical time of their lives that some may consider scary and unfair.
Nevertheless, as the time neared my 50th birthday I became very introspective and very unsure of how I felt about life in general. It’s a huge milestone—you’ve lived for half a century after all. You suddenly realize that you’re much closer to death than to your birth, and I couldn’t shake out of my head the idea that when Jack celebrates his 50th I will be 90. In my mind it was an unwelcomed number, so mostly it was going to be a negative transition. And all this, even though I had spent ten years researching and writing about age and beauty and feeling a measure of contentment, knowing that I was doing good work and helping people along the way.
To be fair, my negative thoughts had nothing to do with my physical appearance and more to do with what I had managed to accomplish in 50 years. Or rather, what I had not accomplished at all. I didn’t reach the goals I had set for myself, and those included getting some sort of recognition from industry professionals. I wanted to be represented by an agent and see one of my screenplays on the Golden Screen. I wanted to walk into a theater in order to experience the reaction of an audience to something that I had written. I wanted to be picked up by a traditional publisher so that my work would reach a larger audience—none of which happened.
I felt mentally worn out, and I was consumed with regret. I began to second-guess everything that I had done. I was afraid that I had wasted my time and I panicked. I also tried to imagine my life as an attorney, after all I did have a law degree but what had I done with it? All those what-ifs bombarded me day and night. There was very little sleep during these last few months.
College move-in day with my eldest, Maya.
Enjoying a visit to the Getty with Jack.
When I shared my thoughts with Greg, he looked at me as though I had turned mad. He reminded me of my commitment to my children and everything that I had instilled in them in order to make them happy, clever, confident, and talented individuals. And so many times women, especially, tend to overlook the important role they’ve played in their children’s lives. He reminded me of all of the holiday dinners, parties, and get-togethers with family and friends–my wacky, themed, over-the-top buffet decorations to boot! All of those surprised faces, tears, and smacking of lips when tasting my culinary creations. But I didn’t care to hear about that. I needed to know about my professional life: was I a failure or a success? And how does one measure success anyhow? I asked. Is it all about income or recognition, what the hell determines success? “Well,” explained Greg, “success is measured by the value that one creates in other people’s lives.” Hmm. Really? Was he not just saying this in order to somehow placate my troubled soul? I needed a little bit of time to process this idea but I think that for the first time this was an answer that eventually resonated with me. I felt a sense of relief actually.
Also during this time, I received a beautiful letter from my uncle Ami whereby he explained the significance of every age according to the Jewish tradition. Apparently, once reaching 50, you usher in the age of wisdom and as such you can now rest a little and enjoy your new role of advisor. At this stage one has already experienced it all: there is more understanding, knowledge, emotional maturity, family and a deeper understanding of man’s soul.
This makes a whole lot of sense doesn’t it? I think that my 50th birthday will be a reason to celebrate, and it’s also a reason for my parents to celebrate. It’s definitely solidified a few thoughts; it has forced me to take a long breath and take stock of it all. I know what’s important and I have a better sense of who I am and what I want to do with the rest of my life, but most importantly I know how I want to live the rest of my life. I cherish my family and my friendships, some of which have carried on since my childhood years in Israel and England and have overcome such great distances. I realize that success is not measured by one’s career only but rather by the quality of life that you have led, and this further translates into so many different things.
And it’s all because of these two.
When the clock strikes 12:00 a.m., I realize that there will be no significant change, I will still look the same, but I believe that something magical will happen as I have spent a lot of time pondering questions surrounding my life. I think that when I wake up tomorrow morning I will want to celebrate and make more memories with the people who matter to me the most, and I will continue to create because it’s part of my identity. I believe that as long as I feel good about myself, getting older won’t matter as much especially because most of the angst is in our own head anyway. Turning 50 is not the end of the world. I promise.
Old Poetry Similar Ideas
How interesting to read old poetry and learn about the prevailing attitudes towards youth and beauty through this art form. We’re all familiar with paintings by the Masters that depict full-figured women as their objects of beauty, so in a way, it’s strange that when reading old poetry the notion of acceptance that you might assume as commonplace years ago, isn’t generally reinforced by most of the old poets. Wider hips and a protruding belly were considered beautiful enough to be immortalized in paintings, but a woman’s age remained an essential component of her desirability and usefulness. In those poems time is the enemy of beauty and love.
To the Virgins
In Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem titled “To the Virgins to Make Much Out of Time,” the theme is about making the most out of life and seizing the day; although, I can also see a little more to the poem’s initial positive stance. Taking into account the era and women’s inferior standing in society, I can’t help but think that Herrick remains steadfast to preconceived notions of beauty and aging. In this poem he emphasizes the need to act fast before the passage of time, “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may”—a nagging reminder of a woman’s precarious position with respect to time that we never see when mentioning men. “And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying”—this personification cuts straight to the point, and it emphasizes the fleeting nature of a woman’s beauty. If that were not enough reinforcement of the obvious, he goes on to say “That age is best which is the first When youth and blood are warmer“—a woman should take advantage of her youth and virginity if she ever wants to marry. And today, what’s different really? I remember that when I was single, my own grandmother would express a similar sentiment and tell me that I didn’t have much time left, and I was wasting my best years etc. Honestly, all I could do was giggle, she meant well and had married young and her own mother married at age eight! These days people tend to marry at an older age, at least in the West, and have kids in their forties, but with respect to work and career those archaic notions of age as a determining factor to one’s success, still hold true today, especially for women.
You Never Can Be Old
Those of you who’ve read my novel The Diary of a Wrinkle may remember the Shakespeare quote in one of the opening pages of my book:
“To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still.”
In other words, in Sonnet 104 Shakespeare is saying that as far as he’s concerned his friend will never age; in his eyes he will always look just as beautiful as the day they met for the first time. Indeed a very powerful message. He goes on to describe the transience of time but his love interest remains as green as before, “Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned, In process of the seasons have I seen; Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned, Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.” Green coveys renewal and rebirth, youthfulness—the type of positive outlook we’d love to hear more often, I’m sure. We all want to be viewed as beautiful and relevant, regardless of age.
Shakespeare employed ambiguity in his writing, and he loved to tease his readers about his love interest’s identity. There is so much speculation about these sonnets and the identity of a young man he often addresses, or the true identity of a mistress whom scholars have called the Dark Lady, because he describes her with dark features and a dark nature. It’s widely believed that his love interest in Sonnet 104 is none other than a man, and in that case it’s just as interesting to see whether his generous ideas on beauty and aging differed with respect to women.
In Sonnet 18 we delight in his use of the sun as a metaphor to describe his beloved’s beauty, but the sun doesn’t quite compare to that beauty either as his love’s beauty is “more lovely and more temperate.” Shakespeare is concerned with the idea of fading beauty and he continues to distinguish between the unstable nature of the sun and his love’s beauty; it can be too hot, too dim, the season doesn’t always last very long, whereas his love’s beauty will never fade. But in the final quatrain Shakespeare is determined to make this beauty last forever, in a way he concedes to inevitable aging because he tells us that only the written word could survive the passage of time. But he uses this to his advantage by promising to immortalize his love’s beauty through the eternal power of his words. “When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Shakespeare was talented and prolific but he also suffered from a healthy dose of prejudice towards women, which was pretty commonplace among the white male population during the Elizabethan era. Ironically, this was the case even when Queen Elizabeth was known as a talented linguist, with impressive fluency in several languages. For most women, only very basic education constituted the breadth of their knowledge and while the privileged may have furthered their education more—adding to their overall charm and appeal—though heavier emphasis was on home economics as there were no career opportunities for women once schooling was over.
Disparity in the treatment of women is further expressed in Sonnet 20. Here, the object of Shakespeare’s affection has natural beauty, as opposed to made-up and unnatural beauty. His love interest has the grace and features of a woman but is devoid of guile and pretense, and this too is a generalized idea of female characteristics and so is the idea that all women suffer from mood swings and empty, false flirtation.
To be fair, for proper insight on Shakespeare’s ideas of love and beauty, one must look at his entire body of work, which is impossible to do in one post but with the few sonnets I’ve mentioned we are still able to get a general feel for aging and beauty in Elizabethan times. However, if I’ve learned anything of value from Shakespeare’s writing, it’s that he can’t help but humanize even the most vile and hated characters and he’s employed this type of empathy when describing his female characters as well. In The Merchant of Venice, there’s no doubt that Shylock is portrayed in the same racist light the rest of society had viewed Jews, but then Shylock says: “I am a Jew, Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” He’s giving the audience a chance to empathize with Shylock, with a Jew. Some scholars believe that his mistress, the Dark Lady, was really Emilia Bassano Lanier and she was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish, Italian musician from Venice named Baptista Bassanoa. In the play, one of the characters is named Bassanio, and Shylock is definitely portrayed with a little bit of humanity.
We can find the same sentiment in Sonnet 130, which is a parody of the ridiculous standards attached to women generally or the clichéd way that other poets describe their beauty. “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.” “And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” He then qualifies all of those disparaging remarks with “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.” Shakespeare’s mocking of other poets is interesting to me, it means that despite the prevailing views about women and beauty, despite the many literary devices he used to portray negative images of women in some of his works, conversely he was also sensitive to the majority view of beauty and felt the need to express otherwise. His wife, Anne Hathaway, was eight years older than him but I am not entirely sure that this had any impact on his ideas of age and beauty because all we have is a lot of speculation about the state of his marriage. He also left his marital home and spent the majority of is life in London. I think that what it comes down to is a type of hubris, and his ability to argue conventional ideas in the most literary means possible.
And you see this further in Sonnet 95 when he demonstrates a balance of sorts because as he describes his love’s beauty, it’s not devoid of a realistic observation as well. He compares the young man’s behavior to a rotten spot on an otherwise beautiful flower. In other words, the young man’s beauty will allow him to get away with bad behavior, but bad behavior will also distort his beauty. There is a moral question he addresses in this sonnet, it’ one of personal and moral responsibilities and those will determine one’s visage at the end of the day.
Has Anything Changed?
Centuries later, we find that the very same ideas about beauty have remained intact. And we see it now, more than ever, the notion that youth is the one and only answer to achieving success, whether in the workforce for a better job and career, or with respect to our ability to find love, or a “good catch.” If that were not the case then we wouldn’t be bombarded with so many treatment options for enhancing our youthful appearance, it wouldn’t be necessary for a female news anchor to fill her face with Botox and fillers in order to secure a prime time position in front of the camera. Why can a male newscaster sport grey/white hair and still be regarded as a top notch journalist or anchor? Anderson Cooper’s hair color has never been a deterrent for employers or viewers, he’s been able to hold on to his position on CNN for years but where have we seen a grey-haired female journalist or anchor before? I haven’t.
Of course I can see the appeal in young and flawless, and when I’m watching one of those pretty women on TV, after the initial reaction of “wow she’s pretty,” I become more focused on the content rather than how beautiful and flawless her skin is. On occasion, when I’ve watched Barbara Walters on one of her specials, I’ve never been concerned with her age, albeit she’s had a few procedures done, it’s obvious, and her older looks would never be the reason for which I’d switch to a different channel either. Similarly, Joan Rivers never fooled anyone with her artificially enhanced younger looks, she talked about it openly and with much humor, but the point is, she still looked like an old woman who had altered her looks, so I never really understood her need to keep pulling and stretching her skin.
The Pressure to Change
I liked her for her humor and bluntness anyway, and for anyone who remembers what she looked like before she started to alter her looks, well, it just doesn’t make any sense. Unless she too was influenced by the domineering male presence in her field of work where there was stiff competition, including a few lots battles, maybe that’s what drove her to the plastic surgeons table.
I’m not a critic of all the Joan Rivers of this world, but I’m definitely carving out a different path for anyone who’d like to join me and feel that it’s okay to show age; it’s okay to have wrinkles or grey hair and still feel confident and beautiful. And it’s okay to demand that first-class job. Let’s read old poetry in the context in which it belongs, in a time long gone when women barely had a voice. So much has changed since that era, and change is a good thing most times, it shows progress and the acceptance of new ideas.
My hope is that this generation’s idea of beauty will be a brief phase at best and that less emphasis will be placed on one’s looks and that a varied interpretation of beauty will open doors for so many women who would otherwise be ignored and missed. Join my Wrinkle Revolution will ya.
Recently, I viewed photos of Jennifer Lopez performing at the iHeartRadio Fiesta Latina in Miami, Florida, and as usual, the public’s comments didn’t disappoint. Someone wrote that “she should retire her fat ass and legs from the stage already.” The quality of her voice and ability to command the stage, with her notorious dance moves, were not a factor worth mentioning in any of the comments I read, either. Yep, everything revolved around her surprising weight gain.
Immediately, I set out to research why this would be the case and I came across an interesting study, which suggested that certain aspects of the female body may be attractive because they signal “evolutionary fitness.” Confusing? I will eventually explain. While delving into the scientists’ findings and mulling over this topic hours later, I recalled the days that “Barbie Ass” was the nickname that one of my friends had attached to my derriere. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it for years, decades really. In those days, the size of my ass was a non-issue; it was so small and firm that it fit beautifully into every single pair of pants, skirt, or dress that I wanted to wear. Seldom did I even bother to turn around for that extra, studious glance in the mirror, the one that would help determine whether the pants stayed on or whether I would need to look for something a bit more flattering—something to make my ass look small, perky, and round. At least that was my idea of a perfect behind, but the nickname attached to my ass also helped strengthen the notion that I knew what I was talking about, and the need to memorialize that “perfect” ass with a photo did not occur to me either.
The skinny me years
During my student years in Buffalo, NY, I used to model underwear for a local department store and my photos would appear in the local newspaper on a weekly basis, clad with nothing but a bra and panties (my mother has those photos somewhere in her attic). I remember the carefree, confident feeling I had when the makeup people would powder my body, including my nether regions and there was no concern or shame because I felt that every single part of me was the right size and in the right place. But that was in my 20s, and these days, even though I do not consider myself obsessed with my looks, I must admit that almost 30 years later and 10 pounds heavier, my youthful confidence is a thing of the past and I too find myself taking a good look at what I look like from behind before deciding whether or not to wear certain clothes. This of course begs the question of why we perceive certain aspects of our body as attractive, and why we care so much about how big our ass is or how much we weigh? Is this something that is hard-wired into women’s brains or is this the influence of the skinny-obsessed media and its idea of beauty? Or is this a preference that men communicate to us because it’s actually hard-wired into their brains, poor souls, even if they don’t mean to be less attracted to heavier women or certain body types, it’s all nature’s fault in the end, I suppose.
During my 30s I would not have survived famine
In some of my older posts, I had quoted Desmond Morris and his findings on the influence of evolution and the shape of the human body, which have everything to do with attracting the opposite sex and the survival of one’s genes. This time I relied on a study conducted by the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, which determined that “evolutionary fitness” is the key to explaining what types of women men find appealing. Researchers wanted to figure out what role does body weight have in physical attractiveness, and in order to find out they used culture-specific data and tested it across the range of different cultures, using a common protocol. However, this particular topic of weight and attractiveness is not so simple to understand and there were quite a few parameters that were excluded from the research that would have probably affected the results to some degree (see https://peerj.com/articles/1155/). Most surprising is that their new data comes in complete contrast to earlier studies, which suggested that men were naturally attracted to heavier women since, in evolutionary terms, extra fat meant better chances of survival during famine.
In their new study, fitness was divided into two elements: survival and fertility. The mathematical model that the scientists created for this study predicted that people would view as most attractive women with BMI (body mass index) of between 24 and 24.8. Then they tested their predictions on 1300 test subjects from different countries around the world (Europe, Africa, Asia). They were all shown images of women with varying BMI and WHR (waist to hip ratio), facial features were not included. The results showed that beauty preferences were pretty universal, and that people actually preferred thinner women with a BMI of 19 as opposed to their earlier predictions. Waist hip ratio was not included as an indicator of attractiveness because in the past it’s been associated with cognitive abilities and not health. The new data concluded that the ideal female body preferred by most males and females was tall and skinny, with a small waist; long, slender limbs; small bottom, and smaller breasts believe it or not.
When the test subjects were asked to guess the ages of the women in question, the heavier women were perceived to be much older than the skinnier ones. So now age had become a strong indicator in evolutionary fitness. The researchers then included the age into their calculations and, voila, the BMI corresponded exactly to the images that people had already found most attractive.
In short, most of the people in this study preferred Taylor Swift type bodies to the more hourglass shape of the Kim Kardashian types. The results proved that nowadays attractiveness of women is equated to their youth. Subconsciously, this means maximal fertility and minimal risk of disease. Again, these findings were in complete contrast to our evolutionary history and genetic disposition for gaining weight since we were exposed to famine quite often, which made body fat an attractive trait when fat equated survival.
Elongated Peruvian skulls, just another beauty practice
D’ya get it now? The public has a preference for the skinniest of the lot and it’s become somewhat of a universal trend albeit some cultures have a preference for extra weight on the bones for a few different reasons actually. But since western beauty ideals have permeated the globe, the idea of attractiveness has become a bit more uniform. I see this as another cornerstone in our evolutionary path really; tastes have continuously evolved and changed over the centuries. Ancient civilizations would engage in the most extreme beauty practices, e.g., 8000 years ago Peruvian parents would alter the shape of their newborn’s skull by binding it for 6 months; once upon a time the greatest European artists would paint subjects with belly fat and wide hips and a large bum. That represented beauty in their eyes since evolutionary fitness back then determined that fat represented survival and fertility. In the West, famine no longer plays a pivotal part in our lives, things have changed so drastically, and with the advent of plastic surgery and a new beauty ideal that is led by the entertainment and modeling worlds, as well as the cosmetics-crazy multi-industry conglomerates that promote the idea of youth and erasing the years from ones face and body, we are left to ponder whether we have been affected by them, or whether they are merely reflecting our changing tastes in beauty.
No ass photo per se, just don’t have any, but still weighing more
A few weeks ago I watched the very controversial “Choose Beautiful” video, which was the new installment of Dove’s original campaign called “Campaign for Real Beauty,” first launched in 2004 and meant to empower women and boost their self-esteem. The first campaign came about as a result of a study titled, “The Truth About Beauty,” which was conducted by Dove with the input of world-renowned academics. Their goal was to explore the notion of beauty in women today, and what they found was that a mere 4% of women from around the world considered themselves beautiful, and at least 75% of women would have preferred to see diversity in the images of beauty, which are broadcast daily through film and all other forms of media. So this, in fact, was the genesis of the campaign that began to introduce images of women who did not fit the bill of traditional beauty because they had gray hair or a flat chest etc., but nevertheless, for the first time they were given the platform that was usually reserved for “traditional” beauties. Read More
From my Insult Card collection
Before I get a load of criticism for my eye-catching title, allow me to explain. First of all, it’s not such an original title when the likes of Shakespeare had used a similar metaphor in “The Tempest”:
“What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell . . . a strange fish!”
Let’s be honest about this: everybody sweats and therefore unpleasant odors are a fact of life, and some of us smell more than others. I admit that smelly people have also been a good subject matter for my Insult Card line, but let’s keep our sense of humor in check here, and not become overly sensitive please. I don’t adhere to politically correct writing. Read More
A typical spider web-like tattoo.
The only glimpse I’ve ever had of life in Myanmar (formerly Burma), has been through Anthony Bordain’s gastronomical adventures around the world, as a person who is crazy about adventures and wanted to buy gun optics, and the random National Geographic article about this country. But as an avid reader with a yen for learning as much as I can about different cultures and customs from around the world—specifically as they relate to women—of course I could not resist to learn more about the last tattooed women of Myanmar. Read More
I thought that I had created a fictional character with Poker Face Polly when I wrote The Diary of a Wrinkle, until I came across a little blurb about a real person who has not smiled in 40 years in order to avoid lines on her face. I promise you that I have not made this up. Read More