A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am. Which means she was about seventy-one when she called. It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed. But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading Lydia Davis or War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.
The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked. However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind. Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery. Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.) “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.
She seemed almost embarrassed. “It’s, um, about your arms,” she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more. The upper part. How do you deal with that?”
Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before. Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin. And the last time I had seen her upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world, especially as they had curious cellulite-like indentations in their probably softening flesh that I have never seen on the arms of a young woman, no matter how plump.
Wow! Didn’t think I could be so judgmental? Then you sure thought wrong. I make judgments all the time (including about myself). However, I mostly keep mum about them. As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill. Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman, if somewhat round, who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.
But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh? Awnings of loose skin hanging below when the arms are raised? A generally wrinkled surface? “What do you do?” she repeated.
Well, that was an easy question. ” I cover them up,” I said.
“Really? Even in summer?”
“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.
“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.
“There you go. You have no idea what they look like.”
“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully. “So what do you wear?”
“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Or if it’s a sleeveless dress — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly. “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to. You can still look good. A different sort of good. And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”
She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.” But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could. I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?
We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie. Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly. My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up. Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby. But then I never did my post-partum exercises. Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.
There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes. You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out. I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness. Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young. Even Diane Keeton, who at 67 still looks great, has just come out with a new book that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)
The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.” Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments. If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.
So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen, go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.
Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons. It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.
Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.” It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much. All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.
Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his. But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.
Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead. If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!