In the summer of 2009, I wrote a piece for WVFC about a sobering, yet relieving, experience I had had several years earlier on a beach in Sicily. Sitting on a lounge, well-hidden in a skirted bathing suit, full-length cover-up, and brimmy hat, I bumped up against the realization that I was no longer young. At 51, it seemed as if it was not a bad thought to have. My body was beginning to do all sorts of surprising things: my ribcage was expanding; my teeth were moving further apart; spidery red and blue veins turned up on my thighs and behind my knees. It was beyond memory when I could hold a pencil under my breast without its staying put. Whiskers arose on my chin. I worried them with my fingers like a tongue on a hurting tooth.
From behind dark glasses, I stared and compared myself with other women on the beach. I was ruthless in my self-deprecation. At the time, I believed that acceptance of the notion that I was “finished” would help me find a grudging, but potentially liberating, sense of peace. I did not do too well with this.
In the early years between then and now, I moved toward a place, esthetically, of “do no harm”—in other words, offend no one or myself with my appearance; take no chances to suggest I am trying too hard or too little. Yes, a little touch, here and there, to let myself and others know I am alive, but always the right hem, the right sleeve length, the right cut of trouser leg. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but, in a way, I was disappearing.
Last summer, after three weeks in a western town of high altitude and thin air, I found myself, in the last week, able to make hikes above the tree line, into the tundra, at 12,000 feet, to glorious unseen places, with astonishing views of the Rockies all around. It was stunning—and I had gotten there. I reasoned that if I could do this hike, as out of shape as I was, in size Large shorts (whose tag I had cut out in shame), I might be able to do more when I got home. I dared to dream that I would no longer have to live in a state of frumpiness.
Once home, I signed up at a gym, where I began to take strenuous, I mean soaking-wet-by-the-end-of-the-hour, heart-pumping, minimally choreographed cardio and toning classes. I had the passion of a desperate disbeliever. I took classes three or four times a week and sometimes did the bike or treadmill later in the day.
Reader, I married these classes. A quiet wedding we had: the classes and I, the teacher and other students, were alone present.
Ten months later, I still go to the gym as often as I can. I have lost more than 20 pounds and an entire wardrobe. My clavicle and the upper rib cage bones I had given up for good have reappeared. I deal with food, which I love, on a cost/benefit basis, which simplifies the issue for me. Red wine is excluded from the scrutiny.
My husband and I were going to France this June, planning to spend a little time in Paris, but mostly in the country, in northern Provence, at hotels with pools. I had hardly worn a bathing suit in 10 years, but I went to Bloomingdale’s and found a sleek, black Calvin Klein maillot that made me feel good. I told my friend Betty about it and she said I was crazy.
“No one in Europe wears a one-piece. Not even fat old ladies, not pregnant women, not women with mastectomies or abdominal scars. Get yourself a bikini or you’ll feel like an idiot at the pool,” she practically demanded.
If ever I was going to wear one again, this was the time. Back at Bloomingdale’s I found quite an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny black affair with ties on either side of the bottoms and triangle bra cups that really perked things up.
We were at a small relais outside Avignon, in a village with a ruined medieval castle turned into a spectacular setting for the pool, overlooking waving golden fields and, in the distance, green vineyards. It stays light so late in France in summer that I could arrive at 5 p.m. — I mean, 17:00 — after a day in the towns and countryside, and still have several hours of sun.
I dressed in our room, struggling to tie the knot in back, not so tight that I couldn’t maneuver it around toward the front – and not so loose that it would fall down. I wrestled my breasts into the minuscule triangles that strained to contain even my small equipment. Somehow, I got it on.
I walked to the pool in my gauzy cover-up, and saw that all the women—from teenagers (why not?) to pregnant (such lovely bellies) to 40s and 50s (the better to show off tattoos) to 60s (stomach rolls and droopy skin) to 70-plus (one was bronzed from a lifetime of Mediterranean sun, her arms and thighs crepey, but she was rocking it with a chignon and mules).
I sat down on a chaise longue in the shade, the only person on that side of the pool, positioning myself so that I could pull off my cover-up, and there I was. My midsection had not seen the light of day since 1985. I felt good enough to stand up and walk over to get a glass of ice water from a tray across the way.
So, here I am, 61, in a bikini and no one has died, least of all me. I attach this photo —you didn’t really expect a full body shot, did you?—of me, pretty damned pleased with myself.