People used to ask me if I ever had a boob job -- because people have no decency, manners or boundaries -- and I would tell them, "Why, yes; I had my breasts reduced, and I'm so pleased. It took the pressure off my lower back, plus I was suddenly able to understand high school algebra."
It was a good line. But it occurred to me, when I started writing this, that it's been a while since anyone gave me an opportunity to use it. Manners haven't gotten any better, and my rack hasn't gotten any smaller. Maybe it's because those molded foam bras that stand up all by themselves -- I don't know what you call them; we used to call them "falsies" -- make everyone look like they've had breast implants. Or maybe it's because everyone these days has gotten breast implants... during lunch hour, at Jiffy Boob.
So I decided to take a good look at my boobs to see if they've changed. And they are just "my boobs," by the way, and not "the twins," or "the girls." I would no more think of naming them than I would my kneecaps or my ears. (Guys name their penises to avoid responsibility for their actions... I don't have to emulate that.) I stripped down and stood up in front of a full-length mirror. In daylight.
I do not recommend this to anyone over the age of 12.
This is what I discovered: My boobs are fine, thankyouverymuch. They haven't changed. It's the rest of me that's shifted, like the stuffing in a cheap polyester pillow. Time has inexorably pushed me down, out... and across that amorphous line where a woman goes from being prey to being invisible. Never again will a construction worker yell at me to show him my tits, no matter how drunk he is. You wouldn't think I would miss that.
Here's the thing about aging. You never think it's going to happen to you. I thought I was somehow immune from reading glasses and crow's feet, from liver spots and heartburn, and from getting choked up over the In Memoriam reel at the Oscars. "Look how he's aged!" my parents would say, pointing to a Jimmy Stewart or a Gregory Peck. Hell, they always looked aged to me. The old folks would laugh when Jack Benny pretended to be 39, and I would think, "If you're going to lie about your age, why pick 39? Who wants to be 39?"
Let me tell you a little about life after 39. Conventional wisdom has it that you gain a pound a year after 30. What they don't tell you is that you gain all of it the day you turn 41. One minute you're shopping at Betsey Johnson, the next -- Lane Bryant. At 48 or so, you start considering comfort when buying a pair of shoes, not just price and how they make your calves look. I remember rolling my eyes when my mother suggested buying a coat or a handbag or a car because it was "practical," as opposed to important qualities like sexy or cool or exactly what Lauren's cousin from Miami has. I've adopted the phrase "user-friendly" regarding such purchases, because I really don't want to sound like my mother.
It's around this time that the skin on your thighs starts slipping down, like knee socks that have lost their elasticity in the dryer. The elbow suddenly bears a striking resemblance to an elephant's knees. And those cute little freckles that come out in the summer sun? They don't go away in the fall, and you start checking them for uneven edges because that could be melanoma.
My back fat has started to creep up and over my bra straps, no matter how carefully I had the bras sized. I am ten pounds away from developing Back Boobs. I live in fear of underarm angel wings, those flapping appendages associated with everyone's immigrant grandmother, and I can and will do bench-dips for an entire episode of The Colbert Report to avoid them. (Full disclosure: I don't watch the interviews.) But guns of steel still don't keep my skin from doing this weird ruching effect. Um, I asked for No Pleats.
First, you can't read the newspaper without glasses. Then, you can't remember where you put the newspaper. Then you feel like an idiot because you still read a newspaper. And it's not that I'm some kind of neo-Luddite who can't figure out FaceTime or Skype, but do you have any idea what my neck looks like from that angle?
I always thought of myself as a woman who made her way in the world based on her brains, wit and force of personality, not on her bustline. I wanted to grow up to be Dorothy Parker, not Sophia Loren. But the fact is, our sexuality is a part of who we are, and a smart woman knows as well as anyone when a high heel or a low neckline is going to work to her advantage. It's a superpower we keep in our back pocket. Feeling that power inexorably sapped away by the diabolical kryptonite that is menopause... frankly, my dear, it sucks.
The sad thing is, I am as guilty of sexual ageism as anyone else. I am horrified at the idea of Bruce Springsteen, AARP cover boy, and a Paul Simon who looks like my Uncle Davey in Boca Raton. "Look how he's aged!" I went to see Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in Hope Springs like a good boomer. Every time the idea of them getting naked together was proposed, I shuddered: Ew! Ew! I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I love Dame Judi Dench. I love Bill Nighy. I don't want to see them kiss. You know why I will never make a sex tape of myself? Because I would never want to watch it.
So if you are under 39, all I can say is: Enjoy it! None of us is ever going to be any younger than she is today. Appreciate the fact that your skin is all one color. I never stopped to think about that quality when I had it. Embrace your zits. Revel in the messy predictability of monthly menstruation because, baby, you will miss your hormones when that well runs dry.
Of course, none of this will happen to you. You are immune. And if anyone asks... I'm 39.
This piece was originally performed live onstage at That Time of the Month, a storytelling evening raising funds to fight breast cancer.
Follow Ethlie Ann Vare on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LoveAddict_Book