Real Beauty

At the age of 75, American artist Alice Neel (1900-1984) began working on a portrait of herself, perched on the edge of a chair, nude, with a paint brush in her hand.  Neel rendered it all – her sagging breasts, her rounded belly, her swollen ankles.

In the spirit of the new year, which I am calling the Year of Self-Acceptance, I am adopting Alice Neel as my role model.  I encourage you to join me, whatever your age and gender.

We All Need Help

Most of us, but especially women, have a love-hate relationship with our bodies.

A recent article in Frontiers in Psychiatry reports the results of a survey involving 1,338 German men and women ages 16-88.  Researchers found that people of all ages dislike their bodies, although body dissatisfaction is higher in women.  Compared to men, women are more concerned with overall appearance, and they are willing to spend more time each day trying to improve it (“Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan,” 2019).

Despite the body positivity movement of the last twenty years, millennials and Gen Z, like earlier generations, struggle with body image.

According to a 2021 report in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s internal researchers know that Instagram makes body image worse for one in three teenage girls, and eating disorders are on the rise because of the explosion of negative images and bullying on social media.

We all need help navigating the torrent of information about our bodies and the bodies of other people. We can begin by limiting our media consumption, avoiding comparisons to an ideal body type, and surrounding ourselves with supportive people and positive role models.

Age can also be a mitigating factor.  Our relationship to our bodies and our perception of body image change over time.  Studies show that older adults are more likely to prioritize health and functionality over appearance and are more accepting of body difference.

Finding Balance

Accepting our bodies does not mean that we don’t still try to improve them.  The key is to maintain a positive, respectful relationship with our bodies, through all of its changes over time.

Body appreciation – acknowledging and respecting how the body functions and what it can do for us – is a goal worth striving for, as is moving away from an appearance orientation.

In my case, for example, at 67 I can appreciate my mobility, my energy and stamina for work, and my cognitive abilities.

This doesn’t change the fact that I need to lose 15 pounds and get my cholesterol under control.  I must stretch more often to maintain flexibility and lift weights to increase my strength and bone density in the face of osteoporosis.

My motivation for doing so, however, is self-love rather than self-loathing — and the desire for a healthier old age.  Rather than comparing myself to some ideal body type, I am working toward a future that is as free of pain and discomfort as possible.

As for appearance, I have another role model to help me with that.

Songs of Self-Acceptance

Singer-songwriter Janis Ian is one of the clarion voices of my generation.  Her song “At Seventeen,” released in 1975, spoke to all the young women (and men, too) who considered themselves “ugly ducklings” in a culture driven by rigid standards for appearance and popularity:

 I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired

Over the years, “At Seventeen” has been adopted as a theme song by many people who feel socially marginalized.  In recognition of this, National Public Radio included the song in its 2018 series on national anthems.

Now, forty years later, Ian has written “I Am Still Standing,” a song which celebrates aging bodies and the endurance they represent.

See these lines on my face?
They’re a map of where I’ve been
And the deeper they are traced
The deeper life has settled in
How do we survive living out our lives?

And I would not trade a line
Make it smooth and fine
Or pretend that time stands still
I want to rest my soul
Here where it can grow without fear
Another line, another year
I’m still standing here

 See these marks on my skin?
They’re the lyric of my life
Every story I begin
Just means another end’s in sight
Only lovers understand – skin just covers who I am

Ian says she wrote the song for fans of her generation, but when she plays it for people in their 20s, they, too, are visibly moved.  It speaks to them because it addresses universal themes that transcend all ages — the need to accept ourselves and to stand up for who we are.

Wisdom of the Ages

Ian reminds us that the best way to “survive living out our lives” is to use our time to become authentically ourselves.  This is how we weather the storms of living on planet earth, year after year, amidst all the negative influences.

A children’s book called The Velveteen Rabbit speaks to the same theme.  Published in 1922, it offered similar advice to young people 100 years ago.

The book is about a stuffed rabbit that wants to become “real” to the little boy who owns it.  An older, well-worn toy in the cupboard, the Skin Horse, explains what “real” means:  “Real isn’t how you are made.  It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The process of becoming Real takes time and tenacity, says the Skin Horse.

“That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have been carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in your joints and very shabby.”

Fortunately, however, “these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The Velveteen Rabbit has inspired modern-day gerontologists who write about positive aging, including psychotherapist and professor of social work Toni Raiten D’Antonia, author of The Velveteen Principles:  A Guide to Becoming Real (2014).

D’Antonia advises that, when we learn to live an authentic life, we become more real to those around us, and they love us for our strengths and our weaknesses.  Our challenges and our struggles, our human flaws, only make us more loveable.

Give Yourself Time

A 2021 retrospective of Alice Neel’s artwork at The New York Metropolitan Museum characterized her as “one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art.”

Neel once said, “For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

Still, it wasn’t easy for Neel to claim the value of her own body and paint it nude.  She said her face in the painting became pinker and pinker because of her embarrassment.  It took her five years to finish the project.

This is understandable.  It takes most of us a lifetime to learn to love and respect our bodies and ourselves.

We are fortunate to have good role models to show us the way.

Note: You can see Alice Neel’s self-portrait at: CLICK HERE.

Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen

Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.