by Susan Nappi
My mom tells the story to me nearly every year. She was with a friend and felt what she thought were labor pains but kept dismissing them because it was two months before her due date (it was 1971 and that was a pretty big deal). At her friend’s insistence she went to the hospital and I emerged soon after. It was, according to her doctor, ‘touch and go’ as to whether I would live. But live I did and 47 years later, here we are.
47 is a curious time. People tell me I “don’t look 47” or that I “look good for my age” and I know this is meant to a compliment, youth being a prize I should cherish. A younger me would use this as a ‘teachable’ moment to explain why this is not, in fact, a compliment because aging is not a bad thing (ah, the self-righteousness of youth!). A wiser me smiles graciously as it is not my style to shame someone’s good intention. We are all at our own levels of understanding and far be it from me to impose mine.
I know they mean well. They want me to feel good about aging because they would want to feel good about it, too. I get that. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who is about a decade older than me. She is extremely fit and her clothes give an air of carefree stylishness. Over lunch, we got onto the subject of how it feels to be one of the oldest people in the room, prompted by my recent realization that in an organization of millennials I am the second oldest person there. She looked directly at me, leaned in, and in way that conveyed she was telling me a deep, dark secret, told me how hard she has to work at looking as she does. Her hushed tone confirmed what I always felt — that the price paid for youthfulness is kept hidden and secret.
If you’re reading this as a finger wag to the fashion and skincare industry, beauty pageant contestants, or Kim Kardashian, you’re reading this incorrectly. It is not a social commentary or a judgment. It is an acknowledgement that there is always a price to pay for how we choose to live. Personally, I find the literal and figurative price tag for preserving my youth too high. My body is going to age regardless of how hard I fight it. My relative acceptance (some days are harder than others) hasn’t always been the case. For a long time I didn’t question the nagging voice inside my head that looked at the ticking clock and judged myself up against it. So ingrained was this voice that I mistook it for my own. I would furrow my brow at the image in the mirror that stopped looking like an 18 year old. There was certainly enough external evidence to validate that I should be unhappy with this image and a plethora of products to alleviate what ailed me. This image of myself also aligned with the intergenerational trauma the women in our family endured. Basically, I had some deep crap to overcome.
But the thing is, this voice takes up space and energy, and over time I found myself facing a dilemma: Was I going to spend the second half of my life listening to this garbage? Could I be sure it was true? My authentic self is a sly fox. She wants to be seen and heard and the more time I spent with her, the more space she took up. She started helping me evaluate friendships and negotiate my work, but I never let her get too close to the question: was I worthy of love regardless of what I looked like or what others thought of me? The longer I sat with this question the more I couldn’t hide from it. My actions weren’t matching up to what I fundamentally believed and I started to question the default commentary that droned on in my head.
Waking up to the voice that wasn’t really mine uncovered a priceless jewel — radical self-love. I’m sure that term conjures up all sorts of things for you as you read it. For me, radical self-love was freeing myself of the concept that I needed to be worthy of love. That’s it. I wish I could say this realization happened under a Bodhi tree or I was visited by a magical unicorn but that’s not what happened. The burden of worthlessness was simply too much to bear and it came at a price I was no longer willing to pay. Over time, I just stopped listening.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy shopping for a fancy dress, am happy when I find a good lipstick, still workout to feel good, and gasp when the phone camera is accidentally pointed at my face in ‘selfie-mode’ when I least expect it (you know that has happened to you). The difference is that I don’t believe that I am unworthy of the most important love there is, the love I give to myself. There are many industries that bank on the fact that I will and should hate myself so this is nothing short of a revolutionary act. By choosing to question the notion that being whatever the world values at the moment will bring me happiness and worth, I get to actually take up space and shine. And here’s the thing: it’s much more fun and fulfilling living this way (and I get to eat a lot more cake, too).
We are led to believe that all women are unhappy with themselves and that “improving” ourselves will alleviate this but it’s simply not true. The women who choose radical self-love are there if you have eyes to see them. They are the women with the twinkle in their eye, the ones who glow, the ones who don’t mind being seen. They are often kind and they are always radiant. They are the self-love midwives (ok, maybe that was too much?).
I wish I can give this gift to everyone I know, but that’s the thing — I can’t. No one gave it to me and no one will be able to give it to my daughters. I can only tell you that at any given time it’s there, waiting for you to open it. And when you do, you will free others to do the same.