Every couple of years, I strip down to my underthings and let my dermatologist and her two assistants check my entire body for skin cancer. I admit I feel weird and a little chilly, being the only nearly naked person in the room, but I have become basically comfortable in my body and benign toward it. I even have the illusion, before the doctor arrives to examine me, that I am still, well, kind of hot. That, though I am clearly a middle-aged woman who has borne three children and nursed for ten years, the possibility exists that someone could find me attractive. (And I mean someone besides Mr. Bell, who has a contractual obligation to fulfill.)
As she works her way up from my feet, however, Dr. P. pauses repeatedly to say, “Oh. I could fix this.” She points out the small, broken veins that spread like spiders just beneath the skin of both legs, and a couple of blue, raised varicosities. She notes significant wrinkling in several locations, the bit of skin that hangs a little over each eye, and the fact that my brow tends to furrow like a bloodhound’s. It seems my face has uneven skin tones, and my neck is beginning to turn crepey. All of which can be fixed. If not by the dermatologist herself, then by her colleague, the plastic surgeon. These check-ups never detect any actual cancer, but they do keep me apprised of my growing list of flaws, of the way time gouges its way across me, despoiling my face and body as it passes.
After each visit, I feel small and a little ugly. And I curse myself that, though I always say, “No thanks,” to dermatological and surgical interventions, I never tell my doctor the whole truth. I never tell her that I don’t find any of the signs of aging she has pointed out important. That they do not bother me except when I am on her examination table. That I do not think it will make a difference in the actual quality of my life if I look as old as I am. That it feels degrading to have a person point out the things she thinks need fixing about my body. That I think less of her because she is interested in repairing a body that is not actually broken.
Dr. P. is an incredible, accomplished woman. Not only is she a physician, she also raised five children without, apparently, killing anyone. While her children were growing up, she arranged her medical practice so that she went to work very early and left the office around the time that school ended so she could be home when they were. For decades, she has run a bustling, private dermatology practice, and she developed and sells the only skin care products gentle enough for me to use on my face. She is kind and brilliant and vibrant, still youthful in her 60’s. She is a wonderful doctor. But even she dyes her hair a light brown, and the obviously treated texture of her face is far smoother than the texture of her neck, and she tries to hide her neck, in a way I find demeaning on her behalf, by wearing high-necked blouses that she keeps tugging upward.
Sometimes, I think that if Dr. P. cannot rest comfortably on her wrinkling haunches, on her kick-ass laurels, and just grow visibly, publicly older, then the rest of us are surely doomed. But mostly, what I think is this: it is totally possible to pull up my big-girl, 100% cotton panties, and let myself age. Lovingly. Fully. With a sense of humor. With gratitude and grace and an absolute and unbending compassion. To let myself go gray or white or silver. To let my face fall and my breasts sag so hopelessly that I will have to capture each one and coax it into the cup whenever I put on a bra. To keep my veins spidery and my brow knit, and to let the pads of fat that have slipped down to rest on either side of my smile, rest there forever. And to smile through all of it, even though it may bare my yellowing teeth.
I’m thinking there might be something in this process for me, that the loss of my looks might hold a gift in its gnarling, brown-spotted hands. Maybe living in a body past its visual prime will return me to the quiet comfortableness of living in the body of a child. Maybe I will take time to notice, not whether my body looks good enough, but only whether my body functions. Whether it carries me sturdily through my days, whether my legs still walk me to the places I want to go, whether my ears hear music, and my belly takes pleasure in the food I eat. Maybe the voice that chimed in, with that first merciless surge of hormones, to let me know I was not pretty enough, not thin enough, not toned enough, will finally lose interest and shut up.
I keep remembering a line from a Vincent Guerra poem: Maybe time will unfuck us. It’s been thirty years, Dr. P., since puberty; and the ballet teacher who said I was too fat; and the deep, frightening stirrings of my sexuality; and the boys who whistled and jeered when my breasts grew big; and my first, devastating glimpse of a perfect, naked woman in Playboy magazine. Thirty years since the girl I was learned to distrust and to pass judgment on the body she lived in. I am going to wait quietly now, Dr. P.,—without intervention, without treatments—just wait quietly and see if time will unfuck me.