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Suzanne Braun Levine

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We Still Undress in the Dark, But the Sex Is Great!

Posted: 11/14/11 08:15 PM ET

Whether we like it or not, being 50 or 60 means that we aren't in Kansas any more -- body wise. There is no way that the belt we wore in our thirties will fit, even if the hip-huggers we also wore at the time still do.

Many of us have had body image problems all our lives. Most of us have body image problems now that our bodies are changing. Some of it is due to growing up in a culture where our only role models were thin and doll-like fashion models and celebrities. There is some consolation in the certitude that those same models and celebrities are sagging now too. And it should be instructive to purveyors of that air-brushed image (in women's magazines, no less!), that when the subject of aging celebrities comes up, countless women still express gratitude to Jamie Lee Curtis for baring the truth about her midlife midriff in More magazine - almost ten years ago!

The old saw about changing what you can and accepting what you can't certainly applies here. Personal reinvention is an important theme of what I call Second Adulthood. As we reconsider our expectations in every aspect of our lives - from relationships to life goals - we need to revisit the standards we set for our bodies. My trainer tells me that she has noticed that when her clients turn fifty or when they go through menopause, or become grandparents, they get serious about being healthy. "I'm into 'fit' now as opposed to fat,'" one woman told me. "I may not look as glamorous, but I can put my suitcase up on the rack on the airplane." Her body image is beginning to conform to her own internal ideal rather than someone else's. I often laugh at myself because even when I was thin on the outside, I was nothing but flab on the inside; now it's the reverse.

I recently came upon a photograph of myself back then in my first "two-piece" bathing suit. Hey, I thought, she looks pretty good. That thought lasted about two seconds, until I remembered that when that picture was taken, I saw myself as fat and bulky. Then I realized that I feel the same way today. Fat and bulky. Plus wrinkled and saggy. What a waste, I thought, not feeling good about my body back then. And just as much of a waste feeling ashamed of it now. As one woman said to me after having the same then-and-now photo revelation, "We'd better start appreciating ourselves now or we will look back in a few years and wish we looked as good then as we do now."

There is a delicious and unanticipated consequence of this new self-confidence. In the course of researching my forthcoming book How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood, I heard story after story of Great Sex! Women I interviewed were astonished at the freedom that came from listening to their bodies as opposed to scrutinizing them in the mirror. Throwing caution to the wind, they find new realms of pleasure and new sources of self discovery in those gravity-challenged bodies. It's amazing, they report, how uninhibited they can be, even when a new relationship progresses to the sex part. "All the things you worry about when you haven't dated as long as I hadn't dated--about sexual intimacy, about being attractive--none of that happened," one woman told me. "Your body just kind of takes over."

Which is not to say that women like me will become confident enough to flaunt our corporeal selves. Most of us still prefer to undress in the dark. There is a scene in the movie It's Complicated
that takes place the morning after the Meryl Streep character has just slept with her ex, played by Alec Baldwin. He waddles off into the bathroom looking...his age, while she gets up smiling and starts wrapping herself in the sheet. He is confused. "But we were naked last night, what are you doing this for?" And she replies, "We were lying down then" That line embodies (get it?) the kind of good-natured acceptance of how her body looks with gratitude for how it works that I, for one, aspire to.