Caitlyn Jenner is making headlines. And, although the transgender aspect of her "change" is clearly being addressed, her physical appearance is what seems to be garnering the most interest. It brings into focus the premium we place on what we look like. For many menopausal women, the topic of physical appearance hits a nerve. It is similar to the nerve that gets drilled on when we are in the dental chair; painful!
Many menopausal women talk to me very candidly about the physical and emotional changes they're experiencing: hot flashes, sleepless nights, or difficulty concentrating. But when it comes to changes in the mirror, I notice that very often they bring up these issues last, at the end of our discussion, and often as a joke or an offhand remark. "Things" are happening. Body weight and shape change gradually, yet we're sometimes shocked when we suddenly notice the difference. The face in the mirror may look like a new kind of woman, one we're not quite comfortable with. Girlishness has disappeared in menopausal women, and a new maturity informs our appearance.
Our perception of our changing bodies has everything to do with how comfortable and serene we feel during menopause. Changes in your looks can bring you up short. It's not as if you wake up one day in your fifties and find a completely unrecognizable face in the mirror, but every once in a while a realization that you do indeed look different catches you off guard.
Lying behind the reticence is usually a mixture of emotions: uneasiness ("Whose body is this?"), and concern about sounding vain or indulgent ("Isn't it silly to worry about a few wrinkles?"). But most of all, many women have an uncertainty about exactly what physical image they're supposed to inhabit now that they've reached menopause. After all, there are no strongly defined cultural standards of attractiveness for menopausal women. That is why we must create them, putting our own signature on what attractive means. We have the opportunity to replace the goal of an idealized hour glass figure with the conviction that our bodies are changing in the way nature intended, and that our goal is to be fit, strong and toned.
Women of our generation are reversing the social disdain of previous eras for older women. We gain power, wisdom, and beauty as our lives move forward. We measure our worth not by outmoded definitions of sex appeal but by the joy, strength, and peace that we can feel and that our looks can radiate. Yes, our bodies change. But we can understand the physiological reasons for these changes and move toward them with confidence. We witness nature's great wisdom and protectiveness in some of our changes, and we see ways to celebrate and welcome them instead of using precious energy to struggle against them.
It was during the baby boom generation that Twiggy, with her gaunt look, gained international attention as someone women should aspire to look like. While women our age are now taking a lead in dismantling this notion, there are still very strong media messages that wafer-thin and hour glass figures signal; elegant, rich, and disciplined while other body shapes are sloppy and lacking in class or even intelligence.
We can turn and face our changes, acknowledging that it can be hard to leave certain parts of our lives behind but recognizing that it is not artificial standards of beauty we want to preserve. I recently sat in the same room with two women who had very different perspectives about their physical changes. One of them sounded troubled as she said, "I don't like what I see in the mirror. I spend a lot of time putting cover-up under my eyes, and I've started to color my hair." This woman actually had few discernible signs of aging, but because she firmly believed "everyone in America wants to look young," she steadfastly resisted growing older. The other woman who was several years older and who had a more mature face, said quietly, "I want to keep every line on my face because I worked so hard to get them." She was raised in a culture where age is associated with wisdom and respect, rather than dread or disdain, and she had taken that philosophy to heart. Her face was lined, and her hair was threaded with silver, but she had a peaceful, contented air about her that I wish I could have bottled and passed around to women who fight so hard against changing.
I was genuinely curious when I asked her about her secret for respecting, rather than fearing, her physical changes. "This is the way I'm supposed to look at this point in my life," she told me. "If I looked any other way, I would be out of rhythm with the choreography of my life. I have always believed there is a very elegant and natural order to the way my body and mind change together, and I've tried not to go against it as it unfolds."
If we adopt the eloquent and vivid view of life as an exquisitely choreographed dance, we can look at our menopausal and post-menopausal years as a time when the movements are very powerful and complete. We can celebrate the fact that we have a transformed sense of wisdom and beauty, and that this womanly grace is something we possess only after living enough years to have earned it.
Founder of Full Circle Women's Health in Colorado, Stephanie Bender has significantly contributed to a much larger understanding of women's health through her books, lectures and television appearances. Her most recent book is, "End Your Menopause Misery, " which she co-authored with Treacy Colbert. You can post a comment or read more about Stephanie on her website, by clicking here. You can also follow her on Facebook by clicking here.