At 57 years old, I am now clearly an ‘older’ woman. Although I feel strong and comfortable in my body now, it has been a long and complex journey to get here and one that has been shaped by mixed messages from society as well as the comments of others.
One of my first memories of my body is being five years old and a male relative pointing to a dark mole I have just above my pubic bone and saying “Men will like that when you’re older”. I was confused and did not know what he meant, although this kick-started the development of an awareness of my body as being something that men would value in some way. Throughout my childhood, I saw women’s naked bodies on calendars, on the front page of newspapers and on soft porn magazines which were kept on the bottom shelf in newsagents in the early 1970’s. It was not possible to avoid the hungry gaze of men. I grew up with a sense that my value in the world was measured by men’s interest. This was complicated by the fact that while men valued you for your curves, you were also meant to be skinny to be attractive and desirable in the mainstream culture of the 1970’s.
I was younger than some of my friends when my body started to develop. I remember wearing my first proper bra aged about 13 and meeting a friend in town. She appeared disgusted at the prominence of my breasts and advised me in an angry hushed voice to take the bra off. I was only a 34B, and although I was surprised at her response, I felt some pride and believe I recognised even then that she was probably just envious. However, I did not feel the same when the following year my two skinny friends would not let me try their skin-tight Inega jeans on because they said I had ‘child-bearing hips’ and might break the zip. They were both a size eight, and I was only a size 10, yet the incident still made me feel that I was fat. By the age of 17, despite only being nine and a half stone, I felt I had to do something about my weight.
When I left home at 18, I started to control my eating in order to lose weight and developed anorexia. Now again, women were interested in how I looked. I lost two and a half stone in 6 months, and my periods had stopped for some time before I realised what I was doing to myself. And yet a friend’s mother congratulated me on my weight-loss, asking me; “How did you do it?” It took several years to recover from having an eating disorder, even though I’d worked out that it was a way of keeping myself disempowered. In 1984 I got involved with Greenham Common women’s peace camp and experienced the empowerment of feminist values and relationships with women. It was this that really shifted my sense of myself as a woman and completely changed my life. Living in an alternative community for many years as well as working on my personal development helped change my relationship to my body, my gender and food. I felt stronger, more confident and no longer attached to approval from men. For a long time, I rejected my femininity, had short hair, wore boyish clothes, often without a bra. Although I felt stronger in myself at this point, I found that I could still attract negative attention from strangers: it was around this time that I walked down the street back in my home town, not wearing a bra, when a passing woman hissed under her breath “Put a bra on!”
When I was 33, I chose to have a child. I enjoyed being pregnant and breast-feeding, and in fact, I enjoyed my breasts the most at this time. After this, I was more able to appreciate the feminine aspects of my body. I also no longer feel that I have to keep proving that I’m a strong woman any more. Sexual relationships continue to be important to me, although some relationships have been more physical than others. Now that I am 57 I have arrived at a place where I am comfortable in my awareness of myself as a sexual being, I love my food, I love being physical and I love my body! I see now how important it is to be comfortable in our own skin as someone will always have something to say about however you look. These days though the only comments I get from strangers are complimentary from younger women when I go dancing – maybe they can tell how I’m feeling in my body!