Wow, if “body image” isn’t a phrase inherent with shame, embarrassment and inadequacies! Especially to most aging body holders.
I don’t know a single person in their sixties, seventies, or beyond, who doesn’t lament the inevitable effects of aging on the body. Even the most physically fit, wrinkle-free and active seniors feel old at some time or another. Perhaps these fit folks feel the consequences of an aging body less frequently than others, but still they have aches, pain, lessened stamina, and stiff muscles that were blissfully absent in youth.
Beyond the inevitable “normal” aging symptoms—like dryer skin, thinning hair and wrinkles—many of us encounter more serious issues which occur due to aging. Diseases, injuries and malfunctions in the adult years require surgeries, often resulting in removal of organs and/or disfiguration, medications and treatments which often have side effects which may seem worse than the disease itself.
I’ll pause here to apologize for such a dour and sour introduction, which is not usually my style.
However, the reality is some of us—meaning Keith and me—took our perfectly working bodies of our youth for granted, and never considered how it might not last, especially in the area of sex and intimacy. Keith was a perfect example; he was penis proud. Arousal and climaxing happened easily. He was always ready. For me, owning my sexuality took a slightly longer maturation. I was in my late twenties before I acknowledged I had sufficiently sized, well-formed breasts, right-sized hips, and a well-functioning female sexual anatomy capable of arousal and orgasm. Sex was easy and fun. No need for long discussion or hesitations.
Enter our forties….
Keith is diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 49. Has surgery which leaves him incapable of ever achieving an erection again. He is devastated and feels emasculated. Says he is incapable of satisfying me.
Three years later I experience an excruciating painful ovarian cyst and, prior to surgery, agree to the surgeon’s offer: “…while we’re in there we might as well take the other ovary as well…” “Why?” I ask. “Because it could rupture at any time in the future, and then you’d need another operation.” Desperate to stop the sharp, stabbing, pulsating pain, I agree. “Take it!” Two days later when the nurse brings me hormone pills, I realize I need drugs from now on to maintain my femininity. I cry and feel like I’m not a real woman any longer.
After these experiences, both of us are left with mutilated, scarred, imperfect bodies. Bodies that could only give us sexual pleasure with the aid of medical intervention. We are ashamed, embarrassed, afraid…and for a time, we stop being intimate. We hide our nakedness. We feel unattractive. We withdraw.
But not for long.
Our innate need to make love and be loved drove us to overcome our imperfections. A quote from Mark Nepo’s book,The Book of Awakening, speaks eloquently about that need.
“We are born with the need to cry our naked cry inside each of us. We are so shy about our sexuality that we often miss the quiet teachings that overcome us in moments of true intimacy. The deep intensity of sensitivity during orgasm, for instance, is a sweet paradox in how we all cherish that moment and want to return there, over and over…It is not by chance that we feel compelled to be naked and vulnerable in the presence of another, that despite all our fears and defensive styles, we want to be held and touched completely just at the moment we are unbearably sensitive.”
Is love-making different than when we were whole? Of course. But it is in many ways more intimate because of our flawed, scarred, wrinkled and weathered bodies. Bodies which are accepted, caressed and admired as beautiful by the other. And treasured as the vessels that have carried us so far on this journey into aging together.