Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Derrière Sagging? Watch the Olympics


Just look at those Olympic contenders! As if anyone could turn away. We marvel at their skills. Also at the courage and grit written on their faces. And their bodies look like what they are--athletic and vigorous. Compare them with what passes for beauty in the media these days: thinness to the point of anorexia, figures sculpted by cosmetic surgeons going for the ideal of fashion magazines. These same magazines that, not long ago, touted the "heroin addict look"-- vacant, kohl-rimmed eyes, disheveled hair, spindly bodies with ribs that could be played like a xylophone.

In a culture that worships appearance, Olympic beauty is the kind we ought to be glorifying: healthy, strong, whatever the body type. And those types come in incredible variety, from the sleek but sturdy compactness of the gymnastics teams to Missy Franklin, the amazing 6 foot 1 inch Gold Medal swimmer. Though there are optimal (note that word--not "ideal") body types for particular sports, even within a sport they vary. Consider women's weightlifting champs China's Wang Mingjuan, a contender at 105 pounds, and Cheryl Haworth, a bronze medalist in 2000 at nearly 300 pounds. Such variety presents a clear message: in the Olympics, bodies are respected more for function--and how beautifully they execute their moves--than for intrinsic form.

Which is a notion we midlifers should celebrate. Of course we're looking a lot different today than we did at twenty-five. As I say in one of my poems, "Gravity wins, hands down--also boobs down." So our boobs may not be perky, but if our mammograms are clear, let's count our blessings. Our waists may be thickening, but we can still bend and snatch a six- month-old from her crib. Our thighs are webbed with spider veins, the flaps under our upper arms could lift us in a high wind, but our legs still get us through a bracing walk and those arms through a set of tennis. That's gold medal quality performance on my scorecard.


My daughter at 8 with Aunt Ruth at 88
At eighty, my great-aunt had a chinning bar installed in the bathroom of her miniscule New York apartment. Aunt Ruth exercised--pull-ups on that bar and sit-ups on a mat near her bed-- every morning, and walked brisk miles through Manhattan streets well into her nineties. She was determined to stay as fit as she could as long as she could. Now that's a winner. 
Almost every competitor at the Games is young. The most senior this year is a seventy-one-year-old equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu. Dana Torres, the swimmer who almost made it to London, was considered way past her prime at forty-five. Of course youth reigns at the Olympics. But those kids are positive examples for our kids and grandkids... and for us. They're living illustrations of a maxim that applies to bodies of all ages: function over form. Keep that in mind, keep that in muscle memory, midlifers! 
Why do so many of us have body image issues? Beyond using the Olympics as a teachable moment, what can we do to reinforce positive body image in the girls and young women in our lives? And what about us...is it ever too late to appreciate our bodies for the work they do instead of focusing on the flaws we see? Let's hear from you.
  






18 comments:

  1. Amen, Toby. I've had the same thought - yes, some of the athletes are slim and trim and muscular, but some are thicker through the middle than others, taller, shorter, bigger, smaller. It doesn't matter. They've tuned the body type they were born with into whatever is optimal for their sport. Yes, gymnasts tend to be short and volleyball players are taller. Swimmers come in all shapes and sizes as do divers. It's great to be reminded that no matter your shape, you can become your best if you work for it.

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  2. Loved your blog, Toby! You're absolutely right. When we stop moving, we shorten our lives. Everyone, keep moving. Mary Hart Perry

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  3. Thanks for your input, Wila. I love when body types throw us a curve--like the weight lifter at 105 pounds. And the "little girl" physiques of the 70s' most successful gymnasts have given way to the more developed figure of young women in 2012. The International Gymnastics Federation decided, in 1997, to raise the age of particpants in their competitions from 15 to 16. Consensus is, that one year didn't make much difference. But a 15-year-old today seems to be significantly more mature in body development than a female of the same age thirty years ago.

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  4. No woman of any age is happy about her body or her hair or anything else about her appearance. But our culture has become ridiculous. You do remember that Marilyn Monroe was a size twelve? That's now way too big.

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  5. I'm trying a new thing, reminding myself to think of my own body the way most men think of theirs. They are almost all studs in their own minds, no matter what. That's how I want to be. Not arrogant, but simply satisfied with myself. It's an uphill battle.

    Chin ups at eighty! I couldn't do a single one right now! Impressive!

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  6. I'm hoping this obsession with rail thinness that looks unhealthy (and in many cases is) will cycle out, Rebecca. Our great-grandmothers wore Victorian corsets that resulted in wasp-waists and compressed vital organs. Then girdles in the 40's and 50's tortured women. For a while in the 60' and 70's, some of us (not I, alas!) literally let it all hang out--going braless. Ahh, a liberated time. Now we have body shapers, some so tight they're cutting of circulation. What's wrong with curves, anyway? Marilyn Monroe was lush and luscious.

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  7. Toby-

    I have to admit that during every winter and summer Olympics, I indulge in an orgy of watching. And I find myself obsessed not with the athlete's body types/images, but with their accomplishments. I particularly love the diving and gymnastics, but will watch just about any of the events. OTOH, I must admit that those male Olympians, particularly the swimmers, divers and of course, the gymnasts, are absolutely ripped.

    Binnie Syril Braunstein

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  8. Elizabeth, you're spot-on regarding men's more secure self-image. But they aren't being constantly judged by their appearance. Unless they're film stars (and we cut Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone a lot of slack),they get a pass on baldness, wrinkles and paunch. On the other hand, even when women are high achievers in top level jobs, we seem to focus on their appearance. The flaps over Hillary's hair style or Sara Palin's hem length command way too much attention.

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  9. Yup, Binnie, it's the accomplishments that really count. And there's nothing wrong with admiring a six-pack on a swimmer. That immediate, gut response to the beauty of physical form is inherent in the species. Probably part of what keeps us reproducing. But, bottom line, what we're cheering for his courage and skill in his sport. The Olympics helps put what's important in perspective.

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  10. As always, very insightful and thought provoking. Fortunately, as my waistline and "perkiness" decline, so does my vision. The result? A somewhat blurry image in my mirror - and my mind. Might be a blessing, but I'm far too busy competing in Sandwich Generation Olympic events to have time to care. Marathon food shopping for three families. Lifting elderly parents. Chasing young grand kids.

    P.S. - speaking of declining vision...wish this site had adjustable font sizes, or a slightly larger default font.

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  11. I wonder how much of female insecurity with our body image has to do with the fact that women undergo far more in the way of radical change in their bodies than males. Puberty brings breasts and menstruation. In ages past, the changes of childbirth were almost an inevitable consequence of being a woman, then menopause. It seems that just as we have reached a comfort level with one stage of our development, the next hits us. Add to that the manipulation by the media and fashion industries to keep us in a perpetual state of self-dissatisfaction to promote purchasing and it is little wonder that so few women can look in the mirror and like the image they see.

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  12. It's not just gravity that wins, it's entropy. As Rebecca says, at our age none of us in love with his body, male or female. At least I've accepted mine and stopped being envious. In other words, if beauty is more than skin deep, I must be VERY beautiful.

    Now I can look at Gabby Douglas's smile and just smile back.

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  13. Linda,

    Sandwhich Generation Olympic events? Sound strenuous, Linda--physically and emotionally. Make sure you take care of yourself, as well. Also: please note increase in type size. Very good suggestion. Thanks.

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  14. Interesting, Pearl. I agree we're more body conscious than men and attribute that mainly to the changes we experience physically throughout our lives. I never considered your comfort theory, however, and it's a good one. As soon as we make peace with our body at one stage, that particular self-image is snatched away and replaced with another. Men are accorded the luxury of adjusting to small changes along the way: graying or thinning hair, gradually expanding girth. Women go from zero to 36D in a year, from flat stomach to big belly in nine months, and then when estrogen diminishes, it's an entirely different body we're living in. The shock alone can make us judgemental. And you're right, the media's emphasis on youth doesn't exactly feed our egos.

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  15. Would love to see the poem you mentioned about gravity winning. It sounds funny. Can you post it?

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  16. Nice hearing the baritone voice of a male responding to that post, Alan. I'd have thought men were immune to the media's obsession with appearance since historically the messages boys receive in childhood value accomplishment above all. But maybe at midlife and beyond, it takes a healthy, well integrated self-image--whatever your gender--to get beyond this culture's obsession with youth and superficial beauty. More power to you.

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