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The Lost Art of Growing Old Gracefully

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This week, British psychotherapist Susie Orbach will host a summit in London to challenge the cult of the "body beautiful." About time, too. The pressure on young girls (and, increasingly, boys), as well as women of all ages, to conform to a stereotype of beauty has never been more intense. Indeed, soaring rates of labiaplasty (designer vaginas, in the vernacular) suggest that Western women are internalising this trope to an ever greater extent. Western cultures criticise African tribes that practice cliterodectomies, but Western women, of course, "choose" to self-mutilate (and, in both cases, the risks are immense). I don't, personally, see much of a difference. I can see why many dub this trend "pornification."

I have an eleven-year-old daughter who climbs trees, swims in rivers, runs as fast as any boy of her age and who dreams of being an artist, a sailor and learning how to guddle fish. How do I protect my child, and her younger brother, from this creeping sickness that is infecting our society? I want her to enjoy this part of her middle childhood, not feel pressurised to wear a push-up bra, slap makeup on skin that does it need it and stagger around in high heels and damage her growing feet.

Yet, at secondary school, peer pressure, encouraged by the media, will come down on her like a ton of bricks. Even the friendlier versions of the media, such as the clearly kind and pro-women TV presenter, Gok Wan, only this week presented a programme where he exhorted three mental health workers, all keen cyclists, to dress up and be more "feminine." Why? Why shouldn't three women doing a good job, wearing visibility jackets to prevent themselves getting killed on the roads, be dressed up like mannequins? Aren't we worth more than this, as women?

I think the only answer we, as women, can give to this increasing pressure is to sign some kind of collective pledge -- to draw a line in the sand and to resist. My pledge to my daughter, and to all the other daughters in this world is this: You will see me grow old. You will see my hair turn grey. You will see my hands become the hands of an old woman. Look at the beauty of the hands of older people sculpted by Ernst Barlach and Kaethe Kollwitz, and you will see why this is important. You will see my body change, as it should, into that of an older woman. This is not to say that I have not enjoyed, and will not continue to enjoy, wearing lovely clothes and putting on makeup. But this is a body that has a use, too. It has given birth to two children, fed them, worked for its living and is not afraid to shovel horse shit to feed the soil on the allotment. It's a wonderful machine, and I'm so thankful to have the use of it. So I will not mutilate my body or tinker with its workings just so it looks good on the outside. I want my face and body to bear witness to the wonderful and joyful life that I have lived. I want my story -- one small part of our common history as women -- to be written on my body. Because the older body has its own beauty -- think of Rembrandt's self-portrait of himself as an old man, for instance. We have to let time work its changes on us. We may become ruins of what we were when we were younger, but what magnificent ruins we could be.

The alternative might be the dystopia rendered masterfully by the writer, Scott Westerfield, in his book, "Uglies," where young people have to submit to cosmetic surgery as a form of entry into adult life.

Which way do we go now? I don't think there's been a starker choice for many decades.

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