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The Beauty of Older Women’s Bodies

December 22, 2013

The “ideal” woman’s body is lithe, slim, strong without being bulky. It is covered in skin that is smooth, moist, unwrinkled, taut without being tight. That is the woman we are shown when we look for “beautiful women.” And those women are beautiful.

Older women’s beauty is generally invisible in the dominant US media culture. And where we see older women presented in a way that conveys “This is a beautiful woman,” they are generally modestly clothed. I’m thinking of certain Eileen Fisher ads, for example. Or movies with Helen Mirren, Sigourney Weaver, or Diane Keaton.

What we don’t see is the naked older body presented in a way that conveys “This is beautiful.” Aleah Chapin shows us that beauty. A serendipitous link on Facebook introduced me to this young painter’s work. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, she now lives and works mostly in Brooklyn, and her Aunties Project shows us the joy and beauty that is embodied in the older women who raised her. These are enormous images of her mother and her mother’s friends (“Laugh,” which I’ve shared here, is 4 feet across!) and they are among the most beautiful things I have seen.

I saw my mother naked a lot in the last months of her life. I saw her naked a lot when we were growing up, too. We were a family that was not especially modest, and my mother never encouraged body-related shame, so I saw her body as it changed, and as she changed. In her last few years, before we knew those were her last few years, I watched her go from unashamed of her body to actually proud of it. It was a source of strength and power, and she decorated it in beautiful corsets and took pictures of herself, some of which she posted in online profiles. I know she saw herself as beautiful sometimes.

When she got sick, and I saw her body even more. In her hospital bed, her body was stuck with needles, prodded with palpating hands, debrided and bandaged to treat her wounds, and rolled this way and that so that her body could be cleaned and her sheets could be changed. Now I think back on my memories of her, and of her body, and of how I, and others, treated her body, and I am saddened. When a body get sick, it becomes objectified in a way that is decidedly not sexualized, but still dehumanizing. The nurses and aides, the doctors, the family members who helped care for her, we all tried hard to treat her with respect and dignity, and we often succeeded, but there were many times when the perceived need for efficiency or the emotional difficulty of a moment got in the way of that goal. It is hard, hard for the mother and hard for the daughter, to get through an episode of C. Diff-instigated diarrhea. It is hard for both to see the mother’s body change in a way that is perceived as deterioration.

This morning, as I think about that, and as I reflect on Aleah Chapin’s stunning paintings of older women’s beautiful bodies, I think that if we, as a rule, saw older bodies as beautiful, we might see their transformations differently when they are sick, and when they are dying. I wish I had encountered Chapin’s work before my mother got sick. I wish I could have shared it with her, and looked at it with her nurses and aides when they had free moments to chat. I think it would have helped us all to see that the changes that come with age and illness are not to be hidden or glossed over or politely ignored. When our bodies are failing, they need touch and compassion and love as much as they do when they are healthy and young. Dignity and respect are not in conflict to compassion and love. I bet when you see Chapin’s paintings your response to the images will be, at least in part, a desire to step in and be part of the embrace.


To view the other posts in this series, click here: 

Elderly Women


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