Monday, August 18, 2008

Conversation with Molly Aley Part 1- Bodies and Aging

There is a woman I've met online that you must know about. Her name is Molly. Here is her life in a nutshell:
1. girl meets God

2. girl falls into big fat popular pit of legalism, religion, condemnation and performance-based living and sets up camp there for almost a decade

3. girl meets God

4. girl climbs out of said pit, slowly, painfully, the grace of God breathing life into dead bones.

Molly Aley is a mother of five (FIVE!) who lives in Alaska, loves her husband and blogging (she's been at it since 2006). Her posts are refreshingly honest. See her "When God Says to Rebel" post here. I've found her a kindred spirit about many things that matter: God, gender, femininity, politics, parenting. To all parents and parent-hopefuls I highly recommend her series on "Parenting with Gentleness."

Today I want to share a recent conversation we

had about bodies and aging. I hope to do several more of these conversations with Molly. Hope you enjoy her as much as I did.

I began this conversation thread and Molly responded. Molly will begin the next one and I will respond to her. My ideas are italicized and red, hers are bold and blue.

I’ve been waking up with sleeping lines on my checks and forehead. It’s not the sheets cause they’re always in the same place. It looks like I’ve been frowning all night. I think it’s a sign of aging, which seems premature as I’m not 30 yet. Makes me start to notice other miniscule unpleasantries about growing older. What will I be like when I get older, will I covet my younger elastic skin? Will I mourn it? Will I feel envious of young women?

Yes. And, just as equally, no.

Because growing older is, in it’s way, a part of the dying process, a thing that human beings were never originally designed to do, I don’t think it’s odd to want to resist death—and an aging body is an ever-present sign that, “all flesh is as the grass of the field.”

But I also think that each woman’s personality differs in how she responds to the aging process. For example, I have two very close friends who handle aging in separate ways. One has a husband who loves a beautiful female body (and loves hers), and as she’s nursed six successive babies, has always reassured her not to worry about the wear and tear of her breasts, because, “we’ll get you all fixed up when you’re done.” Approaching her middle-thirties, she wears make-up regularly and tries to maintain a stylish appearance. My other friend, a mother of seven leaving her thirties behind, wouldn’t pluck her eyebrows if her life depended on it—and though she likes to dress up and put on make-up on occasion, she finds jeans and a t-shirt much more conducive to being in the kitchen all afternoon fixing the gourmet meals that her husband and kids delight in.

They are both beautiful women, but both have different focuses on outward appearance. I notice that my stylish friend struggles more with aging than my other friend, because her youthful beauty matters more to her. I find myself in the middle, a mix of someone who likes to have a nice appearance and someone who is sitting here typing a response to your thoughts instead of taking a shower. Ha.

My pilates friend, who’s barely in her mid-twenties has one strong body. She’s a regular marathon runner, a few months back she nearly made it to American Gladiator, and she spends most her days thinking, eating, talking nutrition. But the women she trains come into her studio and have tighter buns and flatter abs than she does. They’ve got some work done on them. And my friend gets frustrated by it all. Why do the 50 year older women have this demand to look younger and stronger than a 25 year old? Will I end up wanting that?

I remember disdaining women who were so vain as to color their grey, wear make-up or get “work” done on their bodies. Of course, I was twenty. I’d never known what it was like not to have a great body, so it was easy to pass judgment. I’ve felt so bad for my bold brash statements many times since then… Okay, well, I still don’t color my grey because so far, at thirty-three, I don’t have any, but I do wear a little make-up now, did notice some fine lines start creeping into my eyes around the time I turned thirty, and the morning they were there, I stood in front of the mirror for a long time with a cold feeling in my stomach. They weren’t there before. Now they were. And I spent some time that morning realizing that aging was going to happen, even to me.

On a related front, I have begun to be thankful for one of the few benefits of having a smaller, ahem, top section, because I’ve learned from many friends that sagging breasts are a non-optional aspect of growing older. I feel deeply for the woman whose once-perky chest now hangs limply toward her belly button. For the women who care about their personal appearances, getting “work” done, in a situation like that, doesn’t seem vain or frivolous, but a blessed perk of living in a technologically-advanced society. On the other side of the spectrum, of course, are those who constantly go in for plastic surgery regularly because, for them, having a body that doesn’t look youthful is the worst fate they can imagine. There is something unhealthy about that type of inability to face the reality of aging. So, with all things, I think there is a fine balance.

It reminds me of the way women go from fixating on our bods in high school, scrutinizing all our defects, to letting go somewhere in our late twenties, thirties. Isn’t there something unhealthy in all of it?

Often the “letting go” happens when a young woman starts having babies. Up to that point, she’s had an almost effortless beauty, but being pregnant again (and perhaps again) changes that. Her body stretches out…and then back in (or often not)…and then, if she’s able to take off the earlier weight but has another child, it stretches back out… She’s up all night with a newborn—and the toddler’s exuberance during the day makes it almost impossible to catch up on sleep, much less give attention to personal grooming. She considers her day a success if she could manage to grocery shop with the kids and make it back home with her sanity still intact. Her personal appearance is now framed by the question, “What is absolutely necessary?” vs. her former standard of, “What will make me look really pretty?”

Some women never leave that place, and some women bounce back. And some of this depends on where a person lives and the standards of their particular subculture. My years in the “big-hair” world of Dallas, TX area were eye-opening, in that respect, as there was quite a different standard for What Women Should Look Like than the one I was used to in the practical/functional Alaska I grew up in. And, again, some of this also depends on the woman’s personality. Just as I don’t want the big-hair women telling me that I can’t have my straight sleek bob, I don’t want to be guilty of doing the same to others. As long as we can all agree to brush our teeth and keep a low-profile on underarm odor, I’m happy. :)

Okay, our body is a temple and it belongs to God, but how do I appreciate my body as God’s temple? How do I refuse to slam it because it belongs to God?

The temple was a sacred place. It was showy in a good sense, full of rich colors and opulent d├ęcor, pure gold overlay, rich and expensive lumber, dishes and lampstands of pure gold, flowers, fruits, branches woven into the patterns, linen curtains of blue, purple and scarlet (Exodus 25-26). But the temple was also messy, full of blood and odor, sacrifices, screaming animals, smoke and incense. This is what Paul would have had in mind when he cited the temple as a metaphor for our bodies (I Cor 6:19). I think the imagery is particularly appropriate for female bodies, we hold these glorious and messy moments, glorious and messy moments.

Cool imagery.

I would say that being feminine can’t be about being physically beautiful, or we will think we’ve, “lost ourselves,” as we age, and though I recognize that does happen to some, I refuse to believe that is necessary. Stealing from your wonderful analogy, I can say, as with temple life, that it’s good to embrace the season of worship. The author of Ecclesiastes rightly encourages one to enjoy the years of one’s youth. The younger phase of life has one kind of beauty, but the other older phases can usher us into a deeper kind of beauty, not always so easily seen from a quick outward glance, but no less real. The outward beauty of youth is a delightful gift, but so is the wisdom and tenderness that age brings. Our culture values youthfulness, so perhaps we are more at a disadvantage than many other peoples in other times, but it seems to me that for the Christ-followers, our standard of beauty is more to be found in the fruits of the Spirit than the latest fashion advice. As Paul might say to us today, “If I grace the cover of Cosmopolitan, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

How do I translate ideas of temple-likeness into ideas about my own body?

What do kids do to change the way we own our bodies? Why is it so common for women with kids to find their scars of the warfare to hold and birth a child unappealing, worthy of covering up, getting rid of? My girlfriends with kids are most skeptical of any compliments I give them about their body’s beauty.

Giving birth is not something that all women experience (nor is it required for maturity or growth), but it is one of the primary experiences of womanhood for many, and it forever changes the landscape of the body. I had a principle role in a community theater production this past Spring and it involved changing costumes multiple times in a dressing room with a ton of other women—all ages, all sizes—all doing the same. We started out undressing shyly, but by the end of the show there was little restraint left at all. It was a bit of a throw-back to high-school locker room days, but with a lot more diversity, and I, who, at 5’8, am only 125lbs, got a real kick showing off my body to the teenage girls I’d come to love. Their envious comments about my slenderness during rehearsals were nice, but now that we had our clothes off, I wanted them to see the other side of my skinny self—the parts we can’t help, the parts that we have to accept and, well, even have a little fun with. At my grinning invitation, they took turns pulling out the sagging skin that adorns what I affectionately refer to as my “bread-dough” belly, shrieking, “Oh my gosh, it really does feel like bread dough!” We laughed so hard…

When I look at myself in the mirror, I smile at my belly. In that place grew five people who have forever changed my life. They were worth the skin.

Perhaps, ideally, the change in the way we own our bodies comes through birthing something that is worth losing the identity of having a youthful body. So, even later, if parts of that youthful body return (if at all), the reminders of sagging skin aren’t as traumatic as they would have been to have before one had children. You now know that your body isn’t your greatest treasure—that it’s not the full measure of who you are, in a way that you never knew before.


Emily said...

Awesome interview, I've loved Molly's blog for awhile, especially her writing on parenting. I like what she said at the end about your body concept changing after childbirth and realizing that it's not the greatest thing we have anymore.... My body has definitely changed since having my daughter, and now pregnant again, I'm sure things will go even more downhill. =) But at the same time, I've never been so comfortable with it. I LOVE being pregnant, I loved having a huge belly, I loved knowing that my body was doing an awesome job at helping to create another human. I started to appreciate its function, not just what it looked like. Childbirth is HARD, and I had so much more of an appreciation for what God created my body to do after that, and especially after nursing my daughter. I don't really care if my boobs get saggy, they sure gave some darn good milk! =) So I love that I can love my body now, even when it probably looks its worst ever.

Sarah said...

I have to agree with Mollie and Emily. At almost 36, and after 2 kids, my body definitely does not look like it did at 21. But I am so much more comfortable with it now than I was 15 years ago. That confidence comes from within, because of all that I have experineced and the ways my character has grown, but it certainly affects how I view the ouside. Sure, I wish I could get those extra (ummmm, let's say 30) pounds off. But my son loves to bury his face in my tummy and believes with all his heart that "fat tummy" (his words, not mine) is a compliment. My husband loves the fact that my skin is soft and appreciates (as do I) what those extra pounds have done to my top half. True, my 21 year old self would have been horrified at my thighs... and I can't exactly claim to smile when I see those. But that's probably because I didn't earn them through difficult childbirth, just through not enough self control in the food department. But then again, the honest truth is that I really enjoy food and don't want to be one of those girls who can't go out with friends without counting every calorie.

All of that being said, I do very much enjoy putting makeup on and dressing this less than perfect body as flatteringly as possible. When I do that, I like what I see on the ouside. I feel like an attractive 35 year old woman. One who has lived through more trauma than my naive 21 year old self could have ever imagined. But I still care enough about life and myself to put the effort in to look good. But not so much effort that it becomes my entire focus. I want to look like the best me that I possibly can. So... I will probably cover my grey when I get some. But I won't have plastic surgery. I will try to take care of myself without obsessing.

I also believe this issue affects our families. I believe that when I look my best (working with what I have, as stated above) it not only makes my husband happy, but it is a good reflection of him when we are out in public. While I do mostly do it for myself (he loves long hair, but I have short because I love it) I do really care about how others perceive him, and want him to be seen with an attractive wife.

How we view our bodies, particularly how we talk about them, also has a most profound affect on our children, especially our daughters. My daughter died at age 9, but in those few short years I was careful to never speak about my body in a bad way in front of her. I tried to show her that she was beautiful just the way that she was, and that I felt beautiful in my own skin. But she also witnessed me taking care of the way that I looked. I even left Ellie with her grandma in the hospital once during her chemo to get my hair cut. I tried to show her that I was still taking care of my own needs. (And while this is different for everyone, getting my hair cut has always been a big deal to me.) Ellie had many moments of insecurity over losing her hair, but I will always remember one time. She was walking down the streets of New York City with her bald head held high, swinging her skinny little arms, dodging between the people. She didn't care who was looking (and they were looking) She felt beautiful. And she was.

molly said...

Thanks, Jonalyn, for your too-kind words. Conversing with you is so fun! Great comments above, too. Good stuff...

Diane L. Harris said...

Jonalyn and Molly,

My body has not borne children, so what do I have to show for the difference between how I look at 51 and how beautiful I was 30 years ago?

What I have are memories etched in my soul the way the scars of scrapes and burns and acne are etched on my body and face. I have the marks of a mastectomy and breast reconstruction from 1991, and the grooves in my face from the worry and pain of trying in vain to drag my first husband back from the clutches of death. Last but not by any means least are the laugh lines all around my sagging eyes and mouth--a by-product, at least in part, of two enormously happy marriages, the second of which I'm taking pleasure in right now at the most joyful time of my life.

Do I miss a smooth belly and dewy skin? Once in a while. And I wish I had fully appreciated them back when...but, Lord, I don't think I could bear to go back or to erase the evidence of where I've been and how far I've come.

When I was in my 30's I often thought I'd die young, but I didn't. So, I'll try to age as gracefully as I can, taking care of myself and not allowing laziness to get the upper hand, but aging is a part of life. A part I wouldn't miss even for another shot at youthful dewiness.

Diane L. Harris

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Thank you for pointing out the many purposes of our bodies.

Always good to hear how your precious time with your daughter enriched your life, particularly your experience of beauty!

You make this so fun!

Thank you for modeling to us the way your story is mapped in your body and how you value those chapters. I admire your ability to own and value "the evidence" of how far you've come. Thank you for posting!

Marti said...

Hi Jonalyn - found you through Molly, whom I've been reading for a while. For the record I'm 37, have always been a bit plain, and still single, so it's sometimes hard to think about my body (particularly the more feminine aspects) as an assett. I've borne a lot of fruit in my life but not, apparently, due to my body or being a woman.

One day I was out for a walk and feeling some pain in my hip. "You should thank God for your hip," the thought came clearly. I found myself systematically thanking God for each part of my body and the way it has served me and allowed me to serve others. It was kind of a weird experience, but has changed my attitude about what I've been given. I blogged about the experience here:

Your book sounds like just what I need - I look forward to reading it!

Amy said...

I just read a blog just posted by Molly over at "Adventures in Mercy."

Oh my goodness! We have VERY similar ways of thinking AND background history!!

Please feel free to "see" what I mean by reading "My Life Story" (posted 8/11/08) over at my blogpage. Please feel free to ocmment!

I DEFINITELY plan on adding your page to my Feeds!

~Amy :)

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Thank you for sharing how you've come to be grateful for your female embodiment. I look forward to the ways Ruby Slippers affirms you in your femininity. Do keep me posted as you read!

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a beautiful family you have, Molly! Congratulations!
May I say that from a guy's perspective, a woman does not have to look 20 forever. Simply pick up on your dh's preferences, nad take them into consideration. My wife is 52, and her weight is not near what it was before our 4 daughters arrived. In my case, though, I love long hair on a woman, no matter how old she is. Needless to say, seeing my wife's waist-length flowing locks keeps my fires burning. It's hard to wipe the smile off my face sometimes. In every relationship, there is something that each partner can do to show love. Blessings t o your family, Rob