Our Bodies, Our Terrains

By Kathryn Miles

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Field Notes

I turned 39 this summer, a daunting occasion made all the more so when my partner, five years my junior, ended our relationship. Women often joke about having a “scary age,” and I always thought mine was 35. But when I saw my fifth decade looming and considered the prospect of entering it alone, I felt a different, more primal kind of fear. I’m still trying to come to terms with it.

Bundu girl adornment
From an early age, Bundu girls learn to adorn their bodies with a mixture of white clay and animal fat, while painting their faces with elaborate patterns.
Photo by C.H. Firmin, courtesy Customs of the World (1912).

Before I go any further, let me say I feel guilty admitting to this in print. Mine is a pretty cushy problem, even by first-world standards. Dedicating a column to it probably seems narcissistic—or worse. I wish that admission were enough to make my concerns go away, but it’s not. At best, it just helps keep them in perspective.

We humans suffer from a phenomenon psychologists call self-enhancement, which is to say that we think of ourselves as better or younger or more attractive than we actually are. We freeze our conception of our appearances at a certain age (mine seems to be 27, though why I have no idea). Meanwhile, the topography of our body continues to change and ultimately deteriorate, despite our brains’ ardent desire to believe otherwise. Sometimes it can take a candid look in the mirror to remind ourselves of that fact. And that look in the mirror can feel positively jarring if you’re not ready for it.

Lately, my mirror reflects a woman beginning to go gray, though you’d never know it, since I guard my roots as if they were a national secret. Other signs of my advancing years are harder to hide. Age spots mark my face. My skin is losing its elasticity; my hands are those of someone who has been around a while. I tried on a new bra the other day and didn’t like a certain puckering it seemed to create. The very beautiful shop owner tried to comfort me: Just wait until you’re my age, honey.

I wish I were here to tell you that I am okay with these things, that the lines around my eyes are proof that I have lived, that my scars are a prized narrative of my great adventures, that looking good in next-to-nothing doesn’t really matter. I want to say that I love my aging appearance—or at least feel confident enough in my other attributes not to care. I know I should believe these things, and I hope that someday I will. In the meantime, though, I’m struggling with the fact that my personal landscape is becoming an unfamiliar one. It doesn’t matter that the process is elemental in every sense of the term, or that it’s the price we pay to ride this pony we call life. The stone cold truth of the matter is that, these days, I find myself resisting the suggestion that I am beautiful.

Pompeo Batoni's "Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty"
Pompeo Batoni’s “Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty”, circa 1746.
Image courtesy The National Gallery (UK).

I don’t think I’m alone—particularly among so-called intellectuals.

What we’re talking about here is a difficulty in navigating—and even constructing—our physical geography. That’s a destination many eggheads would much prefer to race past with their windows up and pedals on the floorboards. The idea of stopping for lunch there is repugnant. Moving in can feel inconceivable.

Let me illustrate.

I am smart. I’m great at schoolwork. I’m an auditory-visual-absolutely-anything-other-than-a-kinesthetic learner. I always have been. As a third-grade softball player, I would go to bat praying for errant pitches. In sixth grade, our class put on a musical version of Tom Sawyer. I auditioned for the role of Aunt Polly – the strong, comic foil to sweet Becky. Instead, I was made a dancing sunflower. I hated everything about this role: the fact that I, a chubby kid, was compelled to wear a green leotard and even greener tights; that I was swathed in yards and yards and yards of yellow tulle—not so much a tutu as a Technicolor commemoration of the emerging hips bequeathed to me by my Eastern European ancestors (those are birthing hips, an older cousin with the same build would remind me).

To be fair, none of the other sunflowers were any more excited about this consolation prize role than I was. At least the second-string boys in our class got to be hobos. Hobos! Oh, how I yearned for overalls and corncob pipes. But instead, I dutifully learned our song, “We are sunny sunflowers, sunny sunny sunflowers, plucked from Amy’s garden just today,” and muddled my way through a rudimentary choreography none of us managed to master.

In the years since middle school, I have dedicated myself to a life of the mind all the more vigorously. It feels safe here. Along the way, I have found a few ways to compensate for my lack of innate physical ease. I began by becoming a long-distance runner—the perfect sport for someone who finds putting one foot in front of the other a challenge. (And if you think I’m being absurdly self-effacing here, consider my former colleague, a philosophy professor, who was once so absorbed in postmodern ruminations while on a run that he didn’t notice he had somehow ensnared both feet in a discarded wire hanger, which had the immediate effect of catapulting him halfway across a busy intersection. Really. This sort of things happens to people who choose to live mostly in their heads.)

Besides, committing to your own fitness can also be a dodge around other, trickier spaces. Believing you are strong often feels easier than believing you are attractive. As for being truly comfortable in your own terrain, that can sometimes be the biggest challenge of all.

1920s beauty contest
A local American beauty contest in the 1920s.
Photo by National Photo Company, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

I never really had to confront this fact until I began dating the partner I mentioned at the beginning of this column. He has an intellect that towers over just about everyone I know. But that isn’t where he spends much of his life. He’s a sailboat racer and an incredible surfer. His kiteboarding style helped define the sport. The beach is his world: and it’s a world of exceptionally fit, seriously attractive men who have every right—nay, who do the universe a favor—by walking around in nothing but board shorts and flip flops. It’s a world populated by really beautiful women who look really, really good in skimpy bikinis. This world knows terrain in a different way: they feel it, rather than think it. They trust in the wisdom of their bodies and understand that that is a legitimate currency. They know they look great.

They scare the bejeezus out of me.

And now let me say something controversial: a part of me really wishes I could occupy their world. I would like to walk through life with grace and a haptic sense of where I am in space and time. I would like to have an innate relationship with wind and waves: an intimacy there that feels natural, like my own skin. And, yes, I would like to look amazing in the world’s tiniest bikini.

Now let me say something even more controversial: I think a lot of so-called intellectuals secretly feel the same way. We want to look good—we want to be desirable—even if it’s embarrassing to admit it. We even see the merit of enhancing appearances.

This is not a uniquely human pursuit. Cats large and small spend an inordinate amount of time grooming themselves. You could make the case that they do so to be stealthier in a hunt (clean = less odiferously noticeable), but what about other animals? Certain species of pelicans dye themselves with iron oxide; other birds powder their feathers before trying to hook up.

Swordtail platyfish stamp
Swordtail platyfish postage stamp image courtesy Shutterstock.

When it comes to finding a mate, there can be significant implications to this sort embellishment (or lack thereof). Cover a budgie in sunscreen so that its fluorescent plumage is no longer fully illuminated, and that bird will quickly became a wallflower at the dance that is hot and heavy parakeet sex. Swiss scholars have demonstrated that female stickleback fish seek out mates with the brightest hues. These females also choose a new beau based on the attractiveness of their previous one, and they almost always trade up. In some cases, it doesn’t even matter if this attractiveness is real or artificial: a 1990 study found that female platyfish were more attracted to males wearing long plastic tail swords than they were to males with shorter, entirely natural swords.

(Let me pause here to say that I want more than anything to meet the scientists who spend their time attaching tiny, phallic fishy prosthetics. Admit it: you do too. Or are you still thinking about budgies canoodling?)

Evolutionary biologists would say that these birds and fish are engaging in purely instinctual responses to a reproductive imperative: that the most attractive, vibrant male is often the healthiest, and thus more likely to create strong offspring. They say we do the same. Women with hourglass figures and large, dewy eyes seem like prime candidates to carry and nurse a baby—and they’re probably still young enough to get pregnant in the first place. Men with broad shoulders and social status are most desirable because they’ll help provide for that child.

Many anthropologists respond by saying that these biologists are overlooking very important social aspects of attraction. There’s plenty of research on other species to support that contention, as well. For instance, those same female sticklebacks wooed by the brightest male are also easily socialized to choose a duller companion if they watch another female do the same: a kind of peer pressure which, if nothing else, gives hope to middle-aged fish everywhere.

Can we stage our own stickleback revolution? Is it even a good idea?

Palmolive Beauty that Lures advertisement
Palmolive’s “Beauty That Lures” soap advertising campaign poster, created by Rolf Armstrong, 1923. View full ad.
Image courtesy CTG Publishing.

I don’t know. But I do think we need to confront this issue of attractiveness and what it means for women of every age. That’s particularly true for those women old enough to run for president—who often feel like they live in a culture that no longer sees (let alone values) their physicality. We do women and girls a disservice when we don’t give them spaces to feel beautiful. Pretty, even.

There’s been a lot of backlash against this idea recently. Lisa Bloom’s Huffington Post column on why it’s not a good idea to tell young girls they’re cute went positively viral. In it, she urges adults to cultivate the intellect of young girls. And of course I totally support that—I even think it should be the focus of how we help girls grow. However, I also want to suggest that cultivating their physical selves is a good idea, too. For that to work, we have to cultivate all sides of their identity.

Yes, we should make girls feel strong. And yes, we should make them feel empowered. Spare a thought, though, for the wisdom in making them feel beautiful, too. Does it mean they eventually have to find a mate—particularly a heterosexual one? No. Does it mean that their goal should be men finding them desirable? Definitely not. But, please, do not deny or ignore the loveliness of their topographies. Encourage it.

Some day (and may we all hope that day is when they are both old and mature enough to be ready for this moment), these girls are also going to find their sexuality—another vital part of a lived geography. Owning that space, loving it, and feeling confident in it is a part of being whole. Few of us arrive there on our own. And as we age, it can be that much harder to get there.

All the more reason to start now.

Here is the place in this column where I’m supposed to tell you I have found ways to do that in my own life: that I have learned to relish my aging beauty; that I walk through the world each day believing I’m sexy. In truth, I’m not entirely there yet. But on the list of places where I’d like to travel, it’s at the top of my list right now. Wait until you see the guidebook.


Kathryn Miles is the author of All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston (Simon & Schuster) and Adventures with Ari (Skyhorse/W.W. Norton). Her forthcoming book on Hurricane Sandy will be published by Dutton in 2015. Kathryn also serves as a faculty member for Chatham University’s MFA program and as a scholar-in-residence for the Maine Humanities Council.

Woman on beach doing yoga photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.