My Elephant Knees, or Beauty is in the Eye of Beholder

When something comes up repeatedly in my life, especially if it comes from a variety of sources, I know it’s something I need to pay attention to. Usually it is not a pleasant something. If it were something I wanted to think about, I would have done so already. I would have seen it, embraced the lesson, and possibly even written about it. It’s very unpleasantness is why the universe has to force me to look upon it. I hope you’re with me on this one. It seems to me that we don’t look at what we don’t want to see, even if it’s as obvious as the nose on our face.

Recently, I can’t seem to get away from the fact that I am aging and that with each passing year, I look less and less like the woman I am in my mind and more and more like the middle-aged woman I am becoming.

Now before every one who was born prior to 1960 starts screaming at my use of the term “middle-aged” to describe my 40 –year-old self, statistically, the word bears out. The average life expectancy for a woman in the US is currently 80.8 years. I am no math genius, but it seems to me that ‘middle-aged’ is generously from 30-50 years old. Correct me in the comments section if you so desire.

No matter where I turn, I am confronted with the fact that my skin is not what it once was. Years of smiling have etched grooves from the corners of my nose to my jaw line. My eyes have begun to settle more deeply into their sockets. My hands look like my mother’s (whose age shall remain unnamed) and my knees look like an elephant’s, all saggy and baggy and heavily lined.

It’s one thing to see myself in a mirror on a daily basis. I know how to deal with that: I look at the parts I like and glaze over the rest. However, I’ve had some experiences recently that have made it harder for me to ignore what the rest of the world must be seeing.

A few months back, I asked a colleague to take a few photographs of me for my website. Bobby takes some of the most stunning nature photographs I have ever seen. Here is some of his work so you will know I am not exaggerating.

Zion, Angel’s Landing, Bobby Lee

Zion Subway, Bobby Lee

Montanadeoro, Bobby Lee

Isn’t he amazing? I thought (mistakenly it turns out), “If he can make dirt and sky and water and air look so beautiful, surely he make me look good too.” We set a day and went on a little photo safari and he took a lot of pictures, and he sent them to me and I thought, “Wow. These would be really gorgeous pictures, if I weren’t in them.”

I learned my lesson about “natural” photography.

I love Bobby’s photographs for their precision, for the way they capture every nook and cranny in the distant mountains and every grain of sand in the sweeping desert and he makes them look beautiful, otherwordly. It’s for that very reason I have a hard time loving Bobby’s photographs of me. They capture every  line on my face and crevice in my hands, but what looks so gorgeous on Mount Zion looks so unattractive on me.  It took me a few weeks, but I reluctantly put the images on my website, convincing myself that an honest portrait was better than none at all. Here are a couple examples.

Enjoying a book by the fire in Laguna Beach

Writing at a sidewalk cafe

A few months later, my sister-in-law recommended a photographer who was trying to build up her portfolio by doing inexpensive sittings. It had been years since we had taken a family photo, so I thought, “Why not? Maybe she can snap a couple of me as well that I’ll like a little better.” And boy did I!

After Stephanie got done editing her images, I realized that Photoshop is my best friend! I loved these photographs. They came infinitely closer to how I see myself. They may not accurately reflect how others see me, but it’s how I want them to see me. I put a couple of those images up on my website right away.

Our family, courtesy of Stephanie Anderson

“Whew,” I thought, “This is who I am. Maybe not young, but youngish, definitely.”

I was so pleased with the results that I thought I’d get a jump-start on our Christmas cards by ordering a couple hundred copies immediately. We don’t actually send out Christmas cards, but since we had such a great picture (of me), I thought I’d make an exception.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my Shutterfly account.

At that very moment, the mail arrived and I had a letter from my sweet sister-in-law. She sent me an article called, “Aged to Perfection,” with a sticky note that said, “I read this and thought of the pledge you and your friends made to never have any ‘work’ done. :)”

Gulp. Her note reminded me of a time when I was confident that I would grow old gracefully, that I would cherish every line as a badge of honor, of a life well-lived, or as the author of the essay wrote about her aging body as, “a repository of soul and experience… mellowed by love and time to a rosy luster.”

Oh, I thought with a pang of regret. That’s how I used to feel about aging? Really?

When I read that article, I felt a prompting to find that truth deep down inside myself again. It wasn’t gone entirely, just laid by the wayside some time in the last 10 years. But then I looked at Stephanie’s pictures again and liked them so much that I buried the truth somewhere deeper inside me, where hopefully it wouldn’t emerge for another twenty years. In the meantime, I could Photoshop and facialize and maybe even use Botox to help my outside perception match my inside imagination.

But the universe wasn’t going to let me off that easy. A couple of weeks ago at a breakfast conference, I met a woman who works for the San Diego Museum of Art and I mentioned the last exhibit I had attended there, Annie Lebovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life” in 2007. Ugh, it was embarrassing enough that it had been so long since I had been there, but then the nice woman gave me a knowing nod, saying Yes, that had been a very popular show, with the celebrity photographs and all. I was obviously an artistic light weight in her mind (and I am in actuality, so I don’t fault her for her comment) and although the celebrity photographs were what I had gone to see, I also remembered (and was able to tell her) that what I had most enjoyed were the personal photographs Lebovitz shared, especially the ones of her mother, most especially the ones of her mother at the beach.

Of the many photographs taken at the shore, this is the one I imagine most people remember.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in all his glorious perfection.

This was the photograph I fell in love with.

And another one like it. Though I can’t find a copy of it for the life of me, Lebovitz also captures her mother, playing in the waves with her young granddaughter, pirouetting on the shore, with one leg splayed out in a high kick of joy.

This is what I wrote in my journal at the time….

That is who I want to be. At 70, I want to be the woman who still wears her swimsuit to the beach and plays in the waves with the children she loves. I want to live life and not give a damn about my cellulite jiggling in the sunshine. That is real beauty.

I came home from my morning meeting and took a good long look in the mirror. Then I went back and looked at Bobby’s photographs again. I saw something different this time. This time I saw that I look a little bit like Annie Lebovitz’s mom. I look happy. I look like I am enjoying my life and when I am truly enjoying life, I never once stop to think about what I look while I am doing it.

So after this final reminder, the universe finally succeeded in making me stop and reconsider the truth I knew when the knowing came too easy. (And isn’t that always the case?)

I think the love of my life says it best. He reminds me that I can’t get what I have if I still look like a twenty-year old woman, because then I would still be a twenty-year-old woman. I can’t have a marriage of almost twenty years and the confidence and security that brings to my life. I can’t have my kids hug and kiss me and feel my heart melt.  I can’t get the wisdom and perspective and friendships and faith that all the ups and downs of the last twenty years have brought me, if Ihave never lived those twenty years. I know it’s true, and really, I wouldn’t trade those things for anything, not even an unlined face and bright eyelids and perky knees.

At least I don’t think so, but it’s off the table anyways. We can’t turn back time, despite the billion dollar beauty industry’s insistence that we can with their help. For now, I think I’ll pass. I will put the image of Annie Lebovitz’s mom on my mirror to remind me who I want to be today and every day: confident, laughing, joyfully dancing, cellulite, wrinkles, saggy knees and all.

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9 thoughts on “My Elephant Knees, or Beauty is in the Eye of Beholder

  1. Ali, I so enjoy reading your blog entries and I love how you can so eleoquently put many of my own feelings into words. I have been feeling my age lately and I’m getting tired of being called “Ma’m” when I’d like to feel like a “Miss”. I want to embrace the years as well, while still living like I’m young(er).

  2. I so enjoyed this post! It really hits right at the heart of every woman’s heart and ego. Your last line sums up my fondest desire to be “confident, laughing, joyfully dancing, cellulite, wrinkles, saggy knees and all” and loving my family. Sorry that I passed down the gene on those knees!

  3. Ali
    Great post! I can tell you I didn’t start feeling a lot of what you are talking about until I hit 45 . 45 to 50 I really started feeling older. Maybe giving birth at 39, was a contributing factor. At any rate I do play in the water with my grandchildren at 61 and pray I will still be doing 10 years from now. Cox’s Auntie B

  4. here is the blog i’ve been waiting for you to write. I knew it was in there waiting to come out! 🙂 The perfect Blog to post on your birthday week! I LOVE it. And for the record, when I see you… I see the kindness your soul in your eyes. I see your smile reflecting what lives in your heart. I see a beautiful being who loves those around her unconditionally. It’cs comforting to know that the people who are looking at us from the outside are far less critical that we are when we are looking in the mirror.
    Cheers to running around chasing children on the beach in our swim suits at 70!

    • PS I just love how i can’t edit my spelling or grammar post post.
      That should read “kindness of your soul” and
      “It’s”
      LOL! is this my eyes getting old or my fingers getting fat?

    • Thanks T. I finally let this one loose!. It’s been working on me for a while, but it feels like a funny mixture of vain and humbling at the same time. I don’t think it’s your eyes or your fingers. I think an Iphone is the problem! Thanks for the sweet and kind words…

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