We can’t stop our bodies from aging, but in this exclusive excerpt from their new book, ‘What Fresh Hell Is This?,’ Heather Corinna asks whether we can shake the cultural standard that youthfulness equates beauty and worth.
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Hungarian countess Erzebet Bathory was 49 years old when she was arrested in 1609. She may or may not have been a cannibal, sadistic torturer, and serial murderer who bathed in the blood of girls and young women in order to stay looking young. Given her power and wealth, how this all went down, and the tremendous lack of evidence, she was more likely the victim of a smear campaign that intentionally resulted in this reputation, as well as a slow death over three years of windowless isolation. That the men making this accusation did so as a power grab and a debt dodge seems far more realistic than the alternative. Yet everyone knows her as “the Blood Countess,” not Erzebet, whom those sexist Protestant and Habsburg assholes robbed, smeared, and locked away until she died.
Are you surprised? I’m not, because patriarchy and misogyny. Also people clearly having no idea how hard it is to get bloodstains out of wood. The fact is, many of us have some strange ideas about bodies, looks, physical beauty, desirability, menopause and aging, and women.
It is appallingly easy to believe people, especially femmes, will do anything to avoid looking what’s considered menopausal, middle-aged, or old, as well as fat or ugly. We easily believe that because both our overarching culture and many of our smaller cultures and communities have taught us that being any of those things, let alone looking those ways, is something to avoid at all costs. Cisgender women know how real pretty privilege and thin privilege are, so many who have had those earnestly fear life without them. If you think cisgender women live in terror of these standards, consider transgender women—and even more, transgender women of color—for whom standards of femininity are even more inflexible. Transmasculine folks are held, and more rigidly no less, to masculine ideals cisgender men made. The required presentation for those of us who are agender, nonbinary, or otherwise gender nonconforming, if we want to stand any chance of being recognized for who we are, is effectively looking like the secret love child of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. That doesn’t work with round middles, rivers of sweat, jowls, or babestaches.
It is easy to believe things like bloodbaths as spa treatments because some people do things like this to try and meet these standards. A “vampire facial” is an actual thing in 2020 that a Kardashian (who else?) made famous. It’s your own blood, instead called “platelet-rich plasma,” the “veal” of blood terminology, I guess. It’s injected into your face or vagina, which I know is supposed to sound less gruesome than bathing in someone else’s blood, and yet—it doesn’t. The express reason to do it is all about how much younger it can apparently make you look.
The systems most of us grew up with, and live with the endless echoes of, make the actual or purported consequences of looking old, fat, unfeminine, not white enough, not sexy enough, or otherwise socially unacceptable in our world very clear, all the time, almost everywhere we look. If we can lose power, value, benefits, privileges, protection, and even our ability to straight-up survive, well, who wouldn’t go to great lengths to avoid that fate?
If we paid any attention to magazine ads and articles, to Real Housewives, to drugstore and department store shelves, to pharmaceutical ads, to the smooth faces of 60-something actresses, it wouldn’t be surprising if the thing we were most worried about with menopause, middle age, or both was how it might change our privilege and our appeal, mostly based on how our bodies and faces look. We’re supposed to believe that. Fortunes literally depend on our believing that.
I can’t tell you for certain what Erzebet Bathory did or didn’t do. I doubt she bathed in other people’s blood as an anti-wrinkle treatment. It seems far more likely that Erzebet Bathory got screwed by the same systems and beliefs that are still royally screwing a whole lot of us right now.
The world does not, despite understandable fears to the contrary, end when our bodies and the way they look change with menopause, aging, or both. If we had much to lose in the first place, we don’t usually lose all of what we thought we might. Our appreciation of our bodies—and others’ appreciation of them—doesn’t have to end or diminish: That’s our choice, not a predetermined destiny. We can even gain some things we may not have realized were in the cards for us, sometimes expressly because of losing some other things.
Just like every other part of all this, not everyone has the same changes or in the same ways or on the same timeline. Not everyone feels the same way about all this, and you get to have and feel your feelings about it, whatever they are. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but if you insist, I might tell you to stop being such an asshole to yourself.
As Hanne Blank said, “If you are lucky enough to live long enough your body will change. Not ‘might,’ not ‘could,’ it will change. And it may change more than once. Thankfully, this is exactly what is supposed to happen. It’s literally written in your DNA. There is no wrong way to have a body. Your body is what makes you possible, and as long as it’s succeeding in that job, it is an excellent body.”
The biggest “what can you do about it” for everything that follows in this chapter is this: Put energy into caring for yourself in ways that make you feel good, and nurture an adaptive acceptance of your body, like the rest of yourself, as a constant, always-changing work in progress.
Changes with our body shape and size and other parts of our appearance are going to happen whether we like them or want them or not, and we’re only going to be able to do so much about this arena of change. What happens here is mostly about our genetics and our past life history, which we can’t change. It’s less so about our present and future life circumstances, which we do have some control over, but how much and over what parts is variable as hell.
We’re not going to be able to stop our bodies from aging or from responding to menopause. I propose that the Robert Wilson–esque idea we can stay as we are pre-menopause forever with pills or cremes or even diet or exercise regimens is not just impossible but also sad, creepy bollocks. Most of us won’t have much we can do to make giant changes to the shape or size of our bodies, to the way our skin looks, to how much hair we have. But I like to hope that most of us who have made it this far are—if we’re not already there—ready to be more accepting of ourselves and our bodies, including how they look when they meet fewer and fewer beauty standards, as they will tend to in cultures like ours where beauty is set up as something you can age out of.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the real possibility of living another 40 or 50 years (and how on Earth I’ll afford it), and if I do, I don’t want to spend the whole next half of my lifetime in a duel to the death with my body or appearance. I’m still traumatized and bruised from the first half’s rounds, and mine weren’t even that bad much of the time.
One more thing: Things that get filed under looks—changes to our body shape and size, skin, hair, or nails—obviously aren’t just about looks. They’re part of our health, and some impact other systems of our bodies. They feel different ways physically, emotionally, and socially. Our bodies and their appearance are often part of our gender and sexual identities and other ways we experience and express some core parts of who we are. Weight or body-composition changes or changes to our skin can also feel unpleasant physically, even if we have no issue with them otherwise. For example, more weight in a given place can add a burden to an old injury, and hyper-reactive skin can be a real PITA. I don’t want you to get the idea I’m dismissing any of that. I have myself long possessed a frequently hurty, emotionally challenging, highly demanding body.
I’m not going to tell you to love your body, but I do encourage you to work toward accepting it. Sometimes our bodies are going to hurt us, limit us, cost us, or really piss us off. We are just not always going to love them. That’s okay.
Excerpted from What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You, by Heather Corinna. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Buy it here.
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