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How I’ve Finally Made Peace With the Challenges of Aging

Yes, we have aches and pains. But here's what to focus on.

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illustration of woman looking at an older version of herself
Anna Parini
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For the past 50 years, I’ve been angry at Lesley Hornby. Yes, I mean you, Twiggy, with your big gamine eyes, painted lashes, hipless hips and flat chest. There you were, on all those 1967 magazine covers for Vogue and Seventeen; the embodiment of perfection. Meanwhile, much to my utter distress, I was growing hips and breasts.

“No boy will ever like me!” I wailed to my mother.

I was also stuck with zits; frizzy curls; an overbite; and hefty calves, which might have come in handy for my ancestors trudging around Russia, but weren’t so great for wearing a mini-skirt. High school was when I went to war with myself.

In author Jill Burke’s book, How To Be a Renaissance Woman, she writes: “Women’s bodies are presented as forever unfinished projects, to be constantly improved and worked upon.” She’s writing about the 16th century, but even 400 years later, I was anxious to fix and improve.

At night I did jumping jacks in my bedroom to firm my hips. I drenched my face in facewash and slept on a headful of clanging orange juice cans, my huge and clunky makeshift rollers, that along with gobs of gel would — fingers crossed — straighten those stubborn curls. Between the cans, my metal mouth retainer, and night guard, I could have picked up radio signals.

It turns out boys didn’t reject me because I had hips and breasts. My curly hair also wasn’t a deal-killer. But, oh, all that wasted time trying to fix me. I apologize to you, Linda’s Body, so scorned and unappreciated.

Here’s the good news: Sometime in my mid-30s, something happened. Maybe it was something I read. Maybe it was something I heard on Phil Donahue. I wish I could remember the magic formula that changed things around, but I finally became more aware of how my body felt, and what it could do.

I took up jogging. Lifted weights. Not to improve myself, but to enjoy myself. My physical awareness was no longer all about looks, but more about movement and capability.

How lovely it would be to now write: And she lived happily ever after. For quite a while, that was true. In my 40s and 50s, I felt comfortable with my body, but then — whoops. I hit my 60s and things started going kaput.

On my first day as a college freshman, my new dormmate taped a poster over her bed that said: TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Wow — that was a mind-blowing concept. Now it’s a humbling one.

I’ve entered a whole new era of things that need fixing. But this time it’s different. I have friends with new hips, new knees, maybe a new heart valve or two, but now I know that: Some things can’t be fixed. Nobody’s invented a way to replace the cartilage missing in my fingers. Lost hair can’t be restored by hair gel. As thin as my skin is today, it’s only getting thinner. The way my body looks right this minute is as good as it’s ever going to get.

But what would that jump-jacking girl in juice can rollers tell me now? How can we avoid wasting time bemoaning inner aches and outer fading beauty?

Reframe the pain.

There’s a Taoist saying: “It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is." Rather than deem a problem as bad, treat it as an experience. Instead of saying, “This hurts,” tell yourself, "Oh, this is what a sore neck feels like."

That’s how I got through cancer treatment. Oh, this is what chemo is like. Oh, this is what radiation is like. Step back and observe the pain rather than be in the pain. There might be plenty of days when it’s too much to love your body, but some neutral acceptance could help.

Give credit where credit is due.

Remind yourself what you can do. “I can no longer do this, but I can still do this. In The Best Of Oprah’s What I Know For Sure, she writes, “I finally realized that being grateful to my body, whatever shape it was in, was key to giving more love to myself.” (Yes — many of my biggest insights in life came from Phil Donahue and Oprah.) My fingers may ache but they can still open a jar of pickles.

See the upside.

Several years ago, my husband Randy and I were touring senior living places with his mom. Ruth was ambivalent about making the move. “All these old people on walkers!” she said. “Can’t anybody walk around here?”

Five months later, happily ensconced in her new home, she asked, “Can you get me a walker?”

She’d learned from her new friends that the pouches on walkers are great for storing yogurts and bananas swiped from the breakfast buffet and for stashing your pocketbook while playing bridge.

Do what you can.

I made a New Year’s resolution to walk up the stairs to my seventh-floor apartment at least once a day. I’d be lying if I said I enjoy this particular activity but I’m doing it to improve my cardio fitness. Yesterday, still huffing, I made it through my front door and immediately asked Randy, “Hey, honey — how would you feel about moving to the fifth floor?” But today I took a deep breath and climbed those buggers again.

Say something nice.

It’s humanly impossible to maintain two thoughts in your head at once. If you start criticizing your droopy chin or bony hands, Stop. Just stop. Pick a feature you like about yourself — practice right now — and pay it a compliment. “Nice teeth, Linda! And your implant looks so natural.”

Distract yourself.

Something hurts in your body. Something hurts to look at. Do what we do when our two-year-old grandson gets upset. Whip out a toy. Turn on some music. Divert your attention. I asked my 83-year-old friend, Bente Hirsch, how she deals with the wrinkles of later life. “Who has time to worry about that?” she said. Then she headed off to her painting class.

The other day I looked up Twiggy online. She’s still slim. Still annoyingly beautiful. But at age 75 I bet she has aches and pains, too.

What do you all see as the biggest challenge when it comes to aging? How do you deal with it? Let us know in the comments below.

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