“…but, don’t you think you are sexier now than you were then?” A handsome guy friend asked recently after seeing a photo of my younger self.
My surprised response was, “Whaat? Goodness no–I mean, well, I don’t know.”
I glanced quickly at the photo again then laughed and blathered something inane and moved on to another topic, even though the generous compliment came from a trusted, longtime author friend. David was passing through town and we’d met briefly that day to catch up. Ours is a unique friendship of gendered grace between career therapists, spiritual directors and authors. Between us, we’ve witnessed every condition known to humanity, and as such are hard to surprise. Few topics are off-limits, except maybe the truth about ourselves.
The moment hadn’t been deep, rather it was a casual aside after David had complimented the screensaver on my i-phone. We were meeting in a coffee shop. Friends for over fifteen years, we marveled at how time had passed. The photo is one of my favorites, a sepia-toned image of me, then a young mother with my baby boy, a chubby sweet thirteen-month old captured just after his bath. I’m holding him up over my head which allows the viewer to see our two profiles nose to nose. This boy is his mother’s absolute delight and having this photo close was my way of celebrating our Spenc during his birthday month. He’s now grown and married and living far away; I miss him desperately.
Yes, I am in the photo, but a mother’s focus is on her baby. Yes, there I am at twenty-seven, lovely and unaware, caught in a moment of enchantment with my little guy. Not only is it a favorite photo, but also one of my favorite chapters in life, for many reasons, only one being that I felt more beautiful then, than ever before and maybe any time since.
My friend had said how stunning the photo was, and asked if I had others of myself at that age on my phone that he could see. Even as close as we are, I was hesitant to share. My responsibility as a Christian woman is to protect men. Tipping my head, I stuttered, “So, um, my musician-husband dabbles in photography and likes taking sultry poses of me…” I wasn’t sure what on my camera roll was shareable. While scrolling through I came to a few old scanned photos that I knew were iron-clad safe, if not a little flirty. I pulled up a Jane Seymour look-alike when my hair reached down past my waist and turned the screen so he could see. David whistled through his front teeth. “Wow. Who can blame your husband?”
I showed him another of me squinting into the bright sun at Red Rocks. I was thirty then, about the time David and I first met. “Nice,” he said before looking up to meet my gaze where our heads were bent together. His follow up question in context was wholly appropriate: “Don’t you think you’re sexier now,” meant, Don’t you find yourself more attractive in your whole essence of being, your natural-not posed-self, now at age forty-nine … a self-assured beauty not yet attainable in one’s twenties? I adored him in that moment for his wise and wonderful ability to see me, like few middle-aged men can or do.
So why my skittish response? Affirming remarks aren’t hard to come by, so why did this my friend’s question catch me so off guard, knock me so off-kilter? I work in a world of men, both Christian and non, and I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that men of all ages, in all walks of life, talk openly about and equate beauty with sex. Some are pervy, but most are just saying it like they see it. “Damn, she’s hot,” means the same as, “She is an attractive woman,” meaning she’s beautiful and most likely, yep–sexy. The two are not that far apart in his mind. The word sexy didn’t catch me off guard, or even really register at all.
My unintended dismissal of a wonderful compliment wasn’t just because I’m especially aware of the desire to age gracefully while writing every day of 49. It was because I felt vulnerable. Seen. Enjoyed.
Beauty simultaneously, in body, soul, and spirit. It is a truth I desire to make a reality, and yet as it rolled out, I was ridiculously self-conscious about it. I too have allowed bits of myself to splinter off; thinking if I wear this scarf, he won’t notice that I have boobs, and will appreciate me only for my mind. If I wear this straight-lined navy blue skirt, he won’t look at my butt.
But mostly my response was: He didn’t know me then…when…
I was my sexiest, prettiest barefoot self, with hair–long strands whipping about my face in the wet, salty spray, full moon shining on the water, pelicans flying in formation over the crashing of the sea. Laguna Beach walkways up on the cliffs above, lovers in the sand below, white sails against the vivid blue, painters, boutiques, bikinis on bicycles, volleyball, surfers, Spanish tiled roofs, wrought iron. Roses. Secrets. Shrubs in shapes of dolphins, flip-flops, bare chests, ageless, timeless. Money. Endless potential, the Pacific coast taking up residence in me.
I’m told that I tinker with my soul too often. My mind wanted to down-shift and micro-analyze. Better that I save such ruminations for later and enjoy the remaining light conversation for now. So I waved off David’s question and the images of my SoCal twenty-seven self and we chatted about our families and new business ventures. A gorgeous barista brought our foamy drinks and I could hardly tear my eyes away from her satin smooth décolletage, a perfect segue to her perky breasts. David and I finished our lattes and parted ways.
On my drive home, my mind wandered over our whole conversation, but then it stopped and meddled, noodled, dallied again over David’s words of affirmation. Why? What is it about this that has a sticking place? I wanted to be curious rather than jump to quick conclusions.
Though I find youth delicious with bright-eyed idealism and skin so smooth and flawless I want to weep, I don’t wish to go back and repeat my twenties…or thirties. I don’t feel less attractive than younger women, yet I do confess the constant gnawing conundrum of aging gracefully. And well, yes, I do often feel the need to keep pace with unrealistic images projected on us every damn day. Not because fresh beauty doesn’t deserve attention regardless of one’s age, but that for many of us, we get stuck and forget to mature in our appreciation of such beauty. (And men have to be overly careful with where they glance, how they hug, what they say, how fair is that? In the fight for equality, we women have all but annihilated their ability to speak or move freely around us.)
My answer pivots, not on the word sexy, but on the word now.
Don’t you think you are sexier now? Yes. Definitely more sexy than the wisp of myself as a teenager or early twenty-something. On the rare occasion that I come across an old grainy photo from high school or early college, I wonder at that girl. She was happy and simple, but without passion or vision. She was not smart and resourceful like the college-age baristas serving us today. I knew nothing about the world, inside or outside. My world was only as colorful as other people in it.
I have a terrible time knowing who that girl was in 1982, 83, 84 or what James saw in her as a young bride in 1985. I imagine he saw a sweet girl, hard working, who loved Jesus and obviously was enamored with him. In contrast, I can easily say who it was that I fell in love with; I’m still enamored with that man. Unlike me, he was so fully formed. He was a rock star then, and still is. And, there I was—an adoring fan, a would-be roadie.
I’ve since discovered that along with every other red-blooded boy in the USofA, my husband dreamed about Farrah and Daisy Duke. Instead of those hot babes, I imagine he got some dorky girl from Hee-Haw. I was a wall flower, thick in the hips, flat in the chest, with a short page boy hair cut –so not the style when all the girls were wearing 501 button fly jeans and Nikes, tossing around manes of gorgeous feathered hair. My hair didn’t toss or feather. Fortunately, my features did become more refined and I got prettier by my junior/senior year when I started posing for Jamé. Still, there is never a single day that I look back with longing prior to 1990, the year I reached my mid-twenties; the year I became a mother.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, prior to the photo in question, I was merely a foreshadow of who I am now—recently conceived, barely with a pulse. It wasn’t until I breathed in the Holy Spirit that I gasped to life and became animated, slow and hesitant at first, maybe just a stick figure unfolding and standing up to my full height of 60 inches, soon to be a character with some shape, then taking on color and starting to move across the page. In many ways I feel that I was at my most beautiful in those early hours. Naïve and fresh faced, not yet beset with disillusionment or worry.
Sexier now than I was then…? Hmm, it’s a toss up.
By my mid-to-late twenties, I was bursting with life. I was finishing my graduate degree, finding my stride, awakening to the Voice of my vocation. I was a slender nursing mother for the second time, most likely at the peak of physical beauty, and just then beginning to see myself come into view and liking what I saw. We lived and worked in a vibrant, healthy community and my reflection was mirrored in the faces and expressions and affirmations of others. As long as I was in close proximity to beautiful, hope-filled people around me, I was able to keep from immediately starting to fade and lose my way, as mere reflections have a tendency to do. I carried a lot of uncertainty, not knowing how to love well or to be trustworthy with myself or others.
My thirties grew difficult and dark. Encompassed in silence. All that I knew was being tested and tried. I was left to discover my image without the voices, the laughter, the raised glasses of those I loved most. Alone, I was a flower waiting to be picked. Unfolding, fading and limping, each day barely surviving the pace of busy young children. I wrote behind other voices, and all but lost my own.
My early forties became more broken and fragmented still. Winter just about killed my spirit until desperation finally won out and I decided to live…at whatever the cost. The frost receded and spring came again.
Now in this final year of a fourth and definitive decade, I once again raise my face and smile at the sky. I am fit and beautiful. I know the sound of my voice. I carry light; I may even glow in the dark. I am a voice and icon for others. I speak and reflect and blow on loved ones. I have presence. I finally feel solid.
So, Yes. Like any woman graced with healthy friends and a faithful lover who shine beauty and blessing back through thick and thin, I am bohemian beauty, definitely sexier now than I was then. My confidence is still shaky at times. My self perception dips toward shitty at other times. But, I will not shrink down or put myself away. I am dancing free, skipping down the runway. I am that woman at 20, 30, 40…, yes all of her, I am she.