Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 41: HALF-WAY TO THE FINISH LINE; STILL IN THE RACE

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Six months ago I set myself a challenge and invited anyone interested to follow along as I spent a single year of my life making changes. Not dramatic changes, but simple ones that would, I believe, result in a healthier, happier and more fit person. I would, I promised myself, be able to walk 18 holes of golf on a hilly course in the heat of summer and not feel wrung out. Not really an ambitious goal, but a determined one.

It would be the first act of the first year of a new era — the year I became an “official” senior citizen. Or, in the words of the girls — now women — with whom I graduated from St. Mary’s (Girls) High School in Edmonton in 1961, the year I became “wise.” Each May, there’s a reunion and last year, finally, the youngest in the class — Elaine Sereda, Jennifer Ehly and I — all turned “wise,” turned 65. (And for those who are counting, next year is our 50th anniversary.) None of us look the same, but it is amazing how many of us still see the high-school girl inside one another. We’ve been through love, marriage, children, heartache, divorce, death and disease — in various combinations — as has every person who reaches 65 and gets the seniors’ discount.

Last September, I wrote: “My goals are simple: To spend the next year, until October, 2010, trying to reconcile the 65-year-old body with the 18-year-old who still looks out through my eyes, amazed at what she sees. When did my skin forget where it belonged? Who owns that turkey neck? Where did that cellulite come from? And, most importantly, why on earth does any of this matter?”

All of us women know the answer to that last question. It matters because as we age, our lives show on our faces. There’s not much you can disguise at our age. Coco Chanel hit it on the head when she said: “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.”

I deserve a face that reflects a healthy body and a healthier attitude. I can’t do much about my aunt’s unfortunate chin, my grandfather’s droopy eyelids and the thin lips I inherited from my mother, but all of that matters little next to the joy of living well. That should be reflected in everyone’s face without the aid of plastic surgery. Actually, living well should be reflected in everyone’s face, regardless of plastic surgery.

So, half-way through the year, I’m pleased with myself. I haven’t made any drastic changes, but I have been walking regularly and being aware of what I’m eating. I think it shows. I certain feel better. I’ve lost 10 pounds and just over an inch off bust and hips and three inches off my waist. Not really much of a difference since December, but a world of difference in how I feel and, from friends’ comments, how I look. Maybe it’s just that I’m happy in my own skin.

All sorts of women writers have addressed the aging and beauty question, some more successfully than others.

It’s especially hard on women who either traded or relied on their looks when they were young. It’s also harder for women of my generation, who were raised in a pre-feminist era and endured a sea change in their expectations, opportunities and outlooks. An obviously angry Erica Jong (surely the first American woman author to write about raw sex in a humorous way) says in her 1994 best-selling memoir, Fear of Fifty: “The women of my generation are reaching fifty in a state of perplexity and rage. None of the things we counted on has come to pass. The ground keeps shifting under our feet. Any psychologist or psychoanalyst will tell you that the hardest thing to deal with is inconsistency. And we have known a degree of inconsistency in our personal lives that would make anyone schizophrenic.”

Jong wrote those words on the occasion of her 50th birthday, in 1992. She turns 67 on March 26. Maybe now she’s not so ticked off at life. (I doubt it.)

Still, it is in footsteps such as hers that we walk. We may not like her writing, her anger, or her openness about life and sex, but she has asked of herself all the questions women today have to ask. And maybe what she and other writers of her age have accomplished as they forged careers was another genuine success outside of their art: They showed all of the young women following how much they can take for granted, how much they may take as their right: contraception, abortion and the right to choose, professional careers, money and power, and the right to choose family and motherhood without fear of criticism or condemnation.

But, more importantly, as the poet Maya Angelou put it: “A woman who is convinced that she deserves to accept only the best challenges herself to give the best. Then she is living phenomenally.”

My personal campaign is not a recipe for quick fixes. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve tried all of the quick fixes, the fad diets, the deprivation; all of the pills and potions and so-called “diet” drinks. All of them work. But it is impossible to stay on such regimes for a lifetime, regardless of how long or short that lifetime may be. Our bodies are finely calibrated machines: fuel in, energy out. Take on too much fuel, it gets stored. And if you’re female, likely on your hips. I know, I know, it isn’t fair.

So I set modest goals. “My goals are not outrageous. I do not expect to be 30 or 40 again . . . merely to be as healthy and fit as possible as I enter a new phase of my life. I won’t be alone: men and women my age now expect to remain vigorous and useful long past the traditional retirement age. Indeed, we are expected to stay vital.

“Cultural conditioning plays a huge role in the way society looks at women. It’s not surprising, writes Dianne Hales in Just Like A Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female, that after long years of cultural bias — women being dubbed the “weaker” sex — that so many women are sedentary.

“Yet, she says, ‘no medication, no therapy, no diet, no quick fix can do more for the body of a woman than exercise. Regular workouts, whether they involve walking, jogging, swimming, cycling or weight training, lower a woman’s risk of heart disease, reduce the likelihood of cancer, strengthen her bones, improve circulation, help control weight and enhance mood.’ ”

Six months ago, I wrote: “Those of us women who get to age 65 can expect to live for at least another 20 years. Thanks for the extended lifespan, but I’d like to do it in a size 10 dress, as opposed to sweat pants or skirts with elasticized waists.”

One of the particular joys of our recent Caribbean cruise was the black and white, empire-line dress I wore to dinner one night. Size 10. As the late comedienne Totie Fields once said, referencing her considerable girth and using her ebullient self-deprecating humour: “Look, size 10, Italian knit.” I don’t remember if she was doing her shtick on the Sunday night Ed Sullivan show, but considering we only got two channels on television at that time, it’s a good guess that was the program.

Mother and I would fall all over ourselves laughing whenever she appeared, appreciating her wit, her wisdom and her wise-cracking style. Fields was a refreshing change from the factory-produced marionette-like blondes who were little more than stage furniture on most of the male-dominated shows. She died way too young, in 1978, at age 51. She never got the chance to be a wise woman.

Why was Field so funny and disarming when she talked about her “size 10 Italian knit” suit? Because at less than five feet tall and almost 200 pounds, it was inconceivable that she’d ever fit into that small a dress. But rather than bemoan her size, Totie Fields made it the butt of her own jokes, and by loving herself completely (that came through in her act) she allowed her audience to suspend disbelief and laugh with her, too.

For years afterwards, if Mother was feeling good about some dress, she’d twirl around and say to me: “Size 10 Italian knit.”

So it should come as no surprise that the size 10 silk blend dress I was wearing at dinner will always be an important symbol, an Italian knit in my mind.

What does all this signify? That there has been some sort of psychological barrier that has been broken through for me in the past few months. When I bought a size 8 knit at the St. John’s store in Wailea, I had to look twice at the label and almost refused to try it on until my sister insisted. Size 8 (a size 10 in Canada) seems so small in my mind that it would be too embarrassing to try it on and not be able to zip it up. It would be the disastrous yellow chiffon dress I wrote about earlier, the one that never fit but hung in my closet for what seemed like . . . forever.

And with the urging that I try on the dress came a graphic depiction of something I had never realized before: I’m not the giant, the ogre, the fat lady. Susan took me by the shoulders, stood me in front of a full-length mirror, gave me one of those firm shakes designed to rattle some sense into one’s head (most reminiscent of our mother) and then stood behind me. “Look,” she said, peering at the two of us reflected back. “Look at yourself. You’re not a big person.”

And the woman I love the most, my sister, my friend, shook some sense into my head.

NEXT: The growing pile of paper; the expanding file of advice.

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Written by Catherine Ford

March 24, 2010 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Google Alerts picked up your mention of my book. I’m so glad to have found your wonderful blog. Brava! I so love and admire women’s ability to grow in wisdom, acceptance and courage.

    A funny thing has happened to me on my way to wisdom: I’ve gone from a health writer to an Italianophile–with a book and a blog on that luscious language. Come visit at http://www.becomingitalian.com. A presto, bella.

    Dianne Hales

    March 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

  2. Hi Dr. C

    Greetings from a foggy and drizzly day on the coast. Where did that glorious Spring sunshine of yesterday go? I am taking a time out from my own writing, to play catch up on yours.

    I sometimes wonder why you have so much worry about who you are physically at this wonderful stage of life, which I call the prime of “middle adulthood.” Soon you and others like you will become “Eminence Grise” types (if you have had the kind of background you have had.)

    I appreciate you for who you are. While aesthetics always factor in somewhere, sometime with a few, I happen to think of you as a wonderful human being for what is inside you, not whether you fit in a size 8 (US) or 10 (Can) outfit. What shines through is your inherent goodness, rare intellect, and generosity of spirit.

    This said, your personal commitment to wellness is welcome for you, as it is for me, and should be for others. I think this is the real “back story” here.
    Remember well the Chinese sage Lao Tzu: “”If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

    I think you are in a good space now, so stay the course!

    Namaste

    Hugh

    Hugh Landerkin

    March 25, 2010 at 10:59 am


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