"There's no entitlement to a media-approved body at any age or parity," my friend Elise said tartly, when I broached the subject of dating again after time and childbearing have done their stretching and saggy best.
She's tart enough often enough that I may as well make it part of her nom de column: Tarte d'Elise, a delectable but bracingly citric French pastry. She was objecting to the idea that women who've had kids (she hasn't) have access to some special sort of imperfection-excusing status unavailable to those who were merely dealt a currently unfashionable body by luck of the genetic draw.
"The idea that every middle-aged divorced mom contemplating dating again has a giant ‘Oh crap my body sucks' identity crisis rests on the presumption that no one has stretch-marks unless they've gone through pregnancy, that no one had body image issues with regards to dating the first time round. Like those of us who haven't had kids aren't allowed to have mom hips because we don't have a cute excuse."
Oh, lord, no. I don't reserve for the mothers any sort of special pleading, nor do I expect women who haven't had kids or put a few years under their belts to be smooth and streamlined like Gisele Bundchen poised on a diving board in a black leather maillot. I'm also aware that even Gisele there, although she may have outwardly achieved the steel-plated perfection of the Spirit Of Ecstasy figurehead on the hood of a Rolls Royce, probably feels on occasion like a squeezable vinyl figurine of Poppin' Fresh. Moreover, she probably looks back on her 17-year-old self and sees as perfect what she then judged and picked at and starved herself to "fix."
I've been lugubriously aware, lately, of a sort of "infinite-regress of body acceptance" phenomenon: I'm now, after a fat and lazy year at home with baby twins, looking back at pictures of myself taken two weeks postpartum, not any woman's peak perfection moment, and mourning how slim my arms were. I also know that well before those pictures were taken I was feeling squat and lumpish and thinking longingly of my body at 35 and wondering how I could have thought such mean things about that poor blameless creature with its cute little belly that I loathed and refused to expose to anyone I wouldn't consider marrying (or allowing to perform a Pap smear), and I know that back then I was comparing that body unfavorably with the fresh and sprightly one I took to college, which in its time I judged harshly merely for possessing unfashionable female secondary sexual characteristics (hips, in other words).
Of course I admired the womanly curves of others, and would have fought to the death for the right of other women to bulge wherever and bare whatever, but for myself I was already picking and judging and probably comparing myself unfavorably with the knobby-kneed urchin I'd been eight. And so it goes.
Does the infinite regress ever end? "Nope!" says my friend Mary The Drunken Lady Lawyer, brightly. (She really doesn't drink that much but produces many of the snappy aphorisms I tend to quote over a glass a wine or two.) "You''ll be eighty and wondering how you could have hated the way you looked at 75 when you had a few fewer wattles." Great. When does it stop? How about now?
Mary's declared herself done with self-criticism and self-hatred, and I'm working on same, but in a way it's easy for us because at least we're both done with the "meat" marriage market, which while obviously not a cure at least makes it easier to live with one's body day by day: We may hate them (I don't really, forgive the rhetorical flourish) but at least somebody loves them!
It may be harder to gain or regain self-love while still having to expose our fragile self-images to the scrutiny of potentially judgmental "dates" instead of that of loving mates who probably don't even notice the sags and bags and dumpy lumps we judge so harshly our ownselves, and may in fact still be seeing the dewy young things they married, despite the evidence that time has marched on, straight across our bellies in hobnailed boots, often as not.
Next: How does it feel to expose what time and childbirth have wrought upon us to new partners?
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