I was transfixed by her neck and by her thinning hair. She’s only been my boss for a week, and this was the first time I saw her neck exposed. It was the neck of an old lady, hollow and wrinkled. A funny flat color, somewhere between yellow and gray. Her dark hair was blown out perfectly, as always, but up close I could see her white scalp. The hair was just swept up and over it.
I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to get old. She looks so vulnerable. Sort of pathetic.
I couldn’t control my thoughts. I’m not proud of them, they were lousy thoughts, but I thought them, so I guess I have to own them.
Then she asked me a question. I couldn’t answer because I was worrying about whether my blow drying addiction would make my hair more prone to thinning in a few years.
Also I was wondering how I turned from a young person to a middle-aged person without noticing. How I started the separation young and pretty, and ended the divorce suddenly feeling, well, OLD. I mean, it’s only been three years.
Then again, I also started the separation by losing 20 pounds. I was emaciated. I ate nothing, except to survive. I drank lots of wine, however, at the beginning. Again, I have to own what I own, pretty or not.
And everywhere I went, people told me that I looked fabulous. Friends encouraged me to “stick with my diet.” Distant acquaintances asked me for diet tips. More than one husband of a friend mentioned it. My therapist told me I wouldn’t be single for long with my “figure.” People told me I looked like an entirely new person.
But I wasn’t overweight before I started losing weight. Oh, I know I had a mummy tummy after several pregnancies. I probably could have lost a few pounds. I do believe my face looks better when it’s emaciated. But I am 5 feet and 8 inches, and pretty soon, size four pants were falling off me. Those lovely hip bones of my youth mine were jutting out again. I liked it. I started to feel powerful.
It all reminded me of when Harper’s Bazaar magazine’s editor-in-chief Liz Tilberus was dying of ovarian cancer, that brutal killer, and everyone told her she looked more gorgeous than ever, giving new meaning to the expression, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Because even when being thin means you’re nearly dead, people will still admire it.
But in my case, I gained back the weight through time, once the shock wore off and the reality set in.
The compliments stopped.
I still mourn their loss. I must be honest and confess his wretched thing: part of me wishes I was still in shock and too traumatized to eat. I would love nothing more than to walk outside tomorrow and have people tell me that I look fabulously thin.
But at the same time, getting older and gaining a few pounds makes me realize something: our outsides do not tell our stories. Thinness can mean extreme mental pain and trauma. It can mean illness and death. Thinning hair may not be valued in our society, but it also means that you are still alive and kicking and living – and you’ve reached the age when you are the boss, finally, of yourself and others. Youth is wasted on the young, all hip bones and plump elastic skin and long golden hair. But a saggy neck and spreading waist show that you have survived. You have given birth to children. You are still here. It’s a club: we are all still here, together.
As for my boss, I mentioned to her that my daughter forgot her lunchbox. “Oh, honey,” she said, “Don’t worry about a half hour here or there. I don’t know how you’re doing it, working full-time with two young children. I don’t want you to worry about keeping track of all this time. I remember when my kids were young.”
And I could suddenly imagine her then, my tough new boss, as a mom to a little boy and girl. I could see clearly what she looked like 15 years ago.
Last week she threw away an office plant. “I’m better with babies than plants,” she said. I laughed, because I’m better with babies than plants too. Someday I will be like my boss – my children will be grown, and my hair will thin. And instead of hating these things, I hope I can embrace them and still be kind to the next group of women coming up behind me. Because we’re all in this together. If we hate each other, we really just hate ourselves.