I had no idea just how lucky I was to have been born with an ordinary face and body until a gorgeous friend pointed this out to me some years ago.
"You're so lucky that you've never depended on your looks for anything," she told me, tapping her beautifully manicured fingernails nervously on the table top as we sipped iced tea in a cafe near her movie studio workplace. "You don't have to worry about losing your looks. What do you have to lose? I'm not meaning this in a negative way. I think it's a real positive that no one notices you one way or the other even now. So getting older and looking your age won't be such a shock."
I was in my early forties then, she in her late thirties. I noticed she was drinking a bit, adding whiskey from a bottle in her purse to her iced tea. "I really fear getting old and losing my looks," she said.
I nodded, sensing her anguish over those first faint crows feet, and felt suddenly grateful that, indeed, I wasn't and had never been a beauty.
My very ordinary looks had been an issue when I was growing up. My mother, for whom looks loomed large, was enormously disappointed in me. She kept hoping that my appearance would improve as I grew up.
"Maybe you're just going through a homely phase now," she'd say, looking me over appraisingly. "When you're 16 or maybe 20, maybe you'll be beautiful." But that magical transformation never really happened.
My father was more focused on my getting good grades, a good education and gainful employment. But he kept a practiced eye on my weight, insisting that I step on the scale as he watched every Sunday when I was in my teens. He scolded me when my weight soared to 112, even though that was perfectly fine for my height and build. "Your mother weighed 108 when we met," he would say, ignoring the fact that even then I was two inches taller than my mother.
So I grew up fretting about my weight, feeling ashamed that I wasn't pretty and, at the same time, was alarmed and unsettled when I got occasional unsolicited male attention. While I treasured occasional attention and compliments from men I knew and liked, I cringed going by construction sites and didn't have an inkling of what to do if a male stranger hit on me. Part of me always thought he must be joking.
But for all the early shame and sadness of not being a beauty in a family and society steeped in lookism, size-ism and chauvinism, I've been happy, overall, with my unremarkable face and body. I've found joy in developing my mind, my talents and social skills. I've found great pleasure in friendships with men that might not have been possible had I been a beauty like my friend. And I've come to accept and even celebrate my body as it is: decidedly imperfect, but blessedly healthy so far. The comfortable invisibility of mid-to-late life has been just the thing for me. I feel so much at ease out in a world where I go largely unnoticed.
There are many advantages to growing older, comfortable with the invisibility of age.
When we are noticed, it's for our kindness or wisdom or strength of character.
Instead of anguishing over slight (or imagined) physical imperfections, as we did in our teens or twenties, we can laugh at our larger, very real ones. Not long ago, I had a delightful time over dinner with Tim Schellhardt -- one of my dearest friends since we were teenage college students -- when we laughed heartily over the great varieties of wrinkles and sags our faces and bodies have achieved in the past few years. And there are times when my husband Bob Stover will look at himself in the mirror and ask "Who is that old man?" And then he'll start laughing. Reaching a point in life where we can laugh at ourselves with abandon is a great blessing.
Times are changing, too. The women of my parents' generation were very conscious of maintaining a certain look. My Aunt Molly and her friends wouldn't have dreamed of leaving the house without full make-up ("I have to put my face on.") And many colored their hair into advanced old age. That all seems less common now. Many of us feel free to forget about makeup most days and let our hair transform into varying shades of silver or white. My natural hair color when young was a very dark brown. I'm delighted with my head of white hair now. And, of course, the women of my generation and those younger are more likely these days to be valued for a variety of traits that have little to do with physical beauty.
As the years go by, I have come to love the freedom of public invisibility, eluding the evaluation on the attractiveness scale by others and giving myself more latitude as well. Who I am inside is emerging more visibly on my face and in my spirit. Many of us feel more at ease with our bodies and ourselves as we age. These days I focus on health, with wiser food choices and daily exercise. I watch my weight in an effort to stave off diabetes, cancer and dementia. I dress for comfort. I'm happy with the person I've become. And I live every day with gratitude for my health and good fortune in surviving to see old age.
And in such peace and acceptance, there is a kind of beauty.
I see it in my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, a cherished role model since I was eight years old and she a 23-year-old teaching nun just arrived from Ireland. Though Rita has not been blessed with good health the past two decades, her luminous spirit, filled with kindness and generosity and love in living, nonetheless makes her appear decades younger than her 89 years. The beauty of her face and spirit transcend the physical, delighting and inspiring everyone who knows and loves her.
I'm growing to discover my own kind of beauty, something noted recently by a newer member of our family.
"You are beautiful," my Thai-born sister-in-law Jinjuta, 36 years my junior, insisted, as she touched my face and smiled. "I hope someday I can be as beautiful as you."
Who knew that beauty would come with age and quiet acceptance of the passage of time? The beauty we all discover with age is much more profound than physical attractiveness. It is the growth of our essence that can shine brightly, ever more luminous with time.