"[Let's] draw a larger circle that embraces all forms of beauty...To support only one to be unobservant of nature... To be thought ugly or unacceptable because one's beauty is outside the current fashion is deeply wounding to the natural joy that belongs to [a] woman." Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I don't know about you, but I've been at war with my body in one way or another most of my life. Since I was fussing over having to wear a bra at age ten, and my "do" soon after, that's at least forty-seven years of stressing over how I look, feel and even move or sound. Nothing to sneeze at, -unless you're allergic to the nail polish remover.

In the course of trying to control my appearance and win acceptability, jumping hoops over current fashions, the aging process and my own ideals of Perfection, my health has suffered. At the peak of my former show business career, I went to the gym seven days a week, working out often twice a day and jogging three miles. I was also bulimic: not the best thing for your health, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. I remember fretting over "what to wear" on stage - or to school -or on a date - for years. And truth be told, I still obsess sometimes. And while it's one thing to choose clothes to match or catch a good mood, or boost esteem, it's quite another to agonize over it. As if what you wear will make or break you, as if you are auditioning for the right to have a life.

For example, take my hair. As I've gotten more and more silver gray topsides, (inherited from my mother's side of the family), it's harder to hide. For several years, I tried coloring the part over my widow's peaks (inherited from my Dad's side) where the grey is thickest with reasonable success, but it was such a hassle. Worse, I often felt like a hypocrite, especially in my monthly WOW (Women of Wisdom) circle for women age 45 and older. I wanted to role model loving ourselves as we naturally are. Most of us had what I privately call "shoe polish" hair: mostly shades of red or dark brown to black. Trying to look younger than our years. And while it's a great thing to want to FEEL as young and vital as we can, or be genuinely attractive," it's another thing to be scared that the world will reject you just because you're going grey and showing wrinkles. Or sagging. Or hosting a party of brown liver spots on your arms and back.

Annette Funicello of the MouseKeteers used to sing, "Beauty is as Beauty does." I don't want to do hard time over appearances anymore. I'm not into wrinkle cream or " BoTox" parties, or suffering in uncomfortable, high fashion shoes. (Well, not more than an hour or so). I just want to be with my friends and be cared about just as I am, because I Am. And I want to be able to give that regard to others.

Which brings me back to my hair. On Halloween I wore a long, reddish blond wig with my fun costume at a Retirement Home sing-along party. Afterwards, heading home, I stopped off at a female friend's down the street as a surprise. Two other of our older women friends were there, all three of them with stylish -and colored coiffures. Seeing me, they exclaimed, "Your hair looks great! You look TEN YEARS YOUNGER!" The vote was in: I should wear my hair like this. Look younger, as they were doing.

I wrestled inside for an official response, feeling splintered. Would I offend them with my "let's be natural" stance? What about the part of me that knows I look younger without my grey and wants to BE that younger, seemingly more attractive self? Or the part that just sat there awkwardly wishing I could disappear: the woman longing to be accepted by her friends as a 57 year old mid lifer, slim and athletic still, in pretty good health, but, yes, greying now, sporting wrinkled thighs, and feet hurting from costume party high heels.

Can hair coloring and make up fit into our Healthy Women's Scheme O' Things? Yes: as a part of true self celebration. I just suspect that usually it's cultural ball and chain instead. Like not being too loud, or physical, or sexual, or emotional in public. Or overweight. Or underweight. Or dressed 'wrong.' Or not having long and dark enough eyelashes. Or shapely legs, or the right size breasts, or thighs or tummy or derriere. About coercing our poor, uncooperative bodies to be something they are not, and thinking "beauty" is not inherent but in a bottle or an unnecessary surgery.

Where's the book, "Women Who Agonize Too Much" over how our Goddess- Maker made us? Over the dreaded "aging" process? Who forget to question the introjects we took in as little girls for whom looking "pretty" was often more important than being smart - or kind, or creative? Who've forgotten that cycles are part of Life, and the developmental tasks that change as we and our bodies do? What sort of lingering deep distrust of self , of the REAL BEAUTY inherent in EACH of us women underlies all the angst?

I recall the old adage, "Beauty is only skin deep," meaning real beauty comes from the "insight out." When a woman feels good about her natural self, she feels "beautiful." Her beauty then radiates, bestowing charisma, chemistry, power, vitality, grace. We women today are still challenged to lean towards self empowerment, rather than give in to cultural injunctions that diminish our confidence. And while yes, looking cosmetically ten years younger may hook you a certain guy or job, if your youthful appearance depends on regular cover ups, ask yourself if there is a price to be paid in lowered self esteem or poorer health underneath the do, tucks or make over.

Letting my hair go au naturel and foregoing constant make-up is a challenge, but I feel proud -and relieved - to be taking it. I'm learning a new joy and respect for wisdom - the turf especially reserved for authentic older folks. My health is improved as well: less stressing over my body means fewer hormones running amuck, memory futzes, less fatigue, sexual lows or touch hunger resulting from poor body image and fear of intimacy.

My Guidance, that wondrous Voice within, once Told me, "Beauty is your perception of the radiant Essence of someone or something." Let's look for our own special Beauty in the mirror, and in each other's eyes. May that positive regard nurture healthy living, and inspire us to fulfill our best dreams. May our breath be a mantra that repeats, (in breath) I Am uniquely Beautiful in all creation, (out breath): I am Free to Be Myself !

Suggested Reading:

"Joyous Body: The Wild Flesh," Chapter 7 from Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ballantine, 1992

Imagine A Woman In Love With Herself, Chapter 3, Patricia Lynn Reilly, Conari Press, 1999

Something More:Excavating Your Authentic Self, Sarah ban Breathnach, Warner, 1998

(Published in Awareness Magazine, Jan-Feb 2003)