“old may be the new fat,” but I don’t care (and other reflections of an over-50 yoga teacher)

patti-smith

Patti Smith, 1975

I’ve watched and appreciated the burgeoning conversation over yoga and body image, and am a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, truth be told, issues of body image aren’t that compelling to me on a personal level. I know they’re important, and care about them for that reason. But my interest is more sociological than personal. Ever the ex-political science professor, I want to figure out: Why do so many women today seem so overly wrapped around the axle on body image issues? Why do most of the middle school girls in my son’s school insist on dressing up in super-short, super-tight, super-revealing dresses and high heels they can hardly walk in on special occasions? Why the explosion in eating disorders? Why don’t more women fight back more fiercely against the media barrage of Photoshopped imagery? Why do they seem to stay overly obsessed with it, even as they criticize and reject it?

All these are interesting questions (at least to me). But, I’m not going to try and answer them here. Instead, I’d like to contribute to the one relatively small side-current of the yoga and body image discussion that does feel more personally relevant to me: that is, the one concerning (as the inspiring Charlotte Bell put it recently) “the aging yoga body.”

I’m 52. And I do find myself regularly marveling at “how old” I am. I’m well aware of the fact that my age makes me relatively ancient in the yoga world, not to mention the blogosphere. (Most women my age only deal with social media if they want to track their kids’ activities, not as some independent project of their own.) When I reflect on aging and yoga, however, my thoughts aren’t about not being able to do the kick-ass poses of my youth (easy enough as I never had a particularly kick-ass practice anyway), that I’ve become more “creaky” (I’m actually substantially more flexible now than when I was younger), that I can’t keep up with the hot babes on Instagram (which I can’t imagine wanting to do even if I could), or whatever. None of those issues seem interesting or relevant to me.

Even if it’s true that (as one recent blog put it) “old is the new fat” in our youth-obsessed yoga culture, my gut reaction to such statements feel positively connected to my age, not negatively impacted by it. Which is to say that: I’m old enough that the first rock concert I attended was seeing Patti Smith on her “Horses” at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I remember the 1970s counter-culture and absorbed enough of that post-hippie, second wave feminist, punk rock vibe to be able to say: I don’t care.

And I wonder if today’s young women are suffering because they don’t have the benefit of being able to tap into the same sort of rebellious, defiant, yet also in many ways hopeful alternative culture that I did. I can’t really say . . . I have two sons, and no daughters, and feel out of touch with the deeper currents of that part of our culture. But what I see from afar is a lot of young women making themselves crazy trying to fit into socially prescribed categories that they’d be better off simply rejecting in favor of something more authentic, empowering, and meaningful.

I sense a constriction of the cultural imagination today that didn’t exist when I was younger. And yes, I know that the competitive pressures in education and the job market are much more intense. Still, I don’t see why more women just don’t say “f*ck that noise” when it comes to a lot of these body image-related issues. I see a lot of discussion that appears to go around and around, with endless reassurances that we’re all beautiful in our own way, perfect in our imperfection, etc., etc.

But wouldn’t it be simpler to reject the beauty-and-perfection paradigm altogether? In my mind, the answer is obviously “yes.” But I don’t see a groundswell of young women doing that. Maybe I don’t know where to look. But I do feel that being older helps me to just not care so much about such paradigmatic feminine pressures. Age – in this and many other respects – is really not so bad. In fact, it can actually be a source of relief from the bullshit pressures and preoccupations that otherwise drain your energy, and dirty your line of connection to deeper sources of meaning in your life.

Yoga has played and continues to play a key role in enabling me to remain absorbed in a wholly different set of issues. My practice enables me to refocus my attention, over and over again, on very different dimensions of life, such as: Seeing, really seeing, the magical beauty of the autumn leaves, the frost-tinged grass, the prairie sky, the century-old trees when I take my dog out for a walk on an otherwise ordinary Chicago morning. Being amazed that after so many years of doing Down Dog, I’m still discovering something new in the pose. Developing a greater and greater ability to experience joy, pain, frustration, anxiety, love, sadness, and the full spectrum of human emotion while still staying in touch with a peaceful inner core of awareness. And so much more.

I’m so, so bored by articles that chirpily reassure women that it’s possible to be “50 and Fabulous!” Because what they’re really communicating is that it’s possible to be 50, but look younger, and therefore not feel fully washed up. This is just such misleading bullshit. And while I get why there’s a market for it (and don’t deny that I’d prefer to look younger than I really am, too), it makes me feel sad for older women and even more worried about younger ones who buy into that mentality.

It must be really depressing to grow up feeling that the best you can hope for as you age is to find ways to make it seem like you’re really not growing older at all. What does such a standard give younger women to look forward to? Getting successful face-lifts? Discovering the best new anti-aging diet? What sort of way is this to spend your life? It is a waste; an utter squandering of your energy and life force.

The friends that I’ve have stayed closest to through the decades agree that however we feel about aging, the bottom line is that we’re much happier now than when we were younger. And that happiness doesn’t rest on the fact that we’ve “succeeded” or “failed” in getting married, having kids, getting degrees, landing jobs, buying houses, or any other such standardized markers of adult achievement. Not to say that such things aren’t important – of course, they are. But as you get older, you inevitably find that even if you hit the goals you wanted, they don’t turn out to be what you thought they were.

What matters is developing yourself as a human being. That means growing into a state of being where you’re as ready to die with grace and gratitude for a life well lived as you can possibly be. Aging can be your ally in this process. Whatever your age, gender, or appearance, you have the power to reject the hype that says that your worth depends on what you look like.

That’s easier said than done, I know. But one thing that aging really brings home to you is that life really does go by quite fast. I believe that it’s worth fighting for what you feel is deeply meaningful in your life. And I think that you should rebel against whatever forces pressure your psyche to shut that process down.

Without question, such shut-down pressures will come, and come back again. But true beauty is found in the determination and struggle to live full out. You can’t find it in the mirror. If you look closely, though, you’ll see whether that spark of spirit is still alive in the eyes. And even if it’s not, human beings are blessed with amazing resilience. With love, courage, and faith, even the dimmest embers can be reanimated with the breath of life.

That’s why the ancients called it Prana.

 

Note: It was just announced today that Patti Smith received a personal invitation from Pope Francis to perform live at the Vatican Christmas Concert this year, and accepted.

 

Pope Francis & Patti Smith, 2014

Pope Francis & Patti Smith, 2014

 


19 Comments

  1. I have two thoughts about this. The first comes from being the mother of a 16 year old daughter and 18 year old son – so I am getting a taste of both worlds. My daughter and her friends feel very strongly that they can and should dress (and be) however they want, which sometimes includes make-up, sparkly things and high heels. It also includes flannel shirts and magenta mohawks and black work boots. They don’t follow the mainstream and have found a culture among their friends but also online via tumblr and instagram of other young women who feel the same way. So, maybe you could look there if you have any 16 yo female friends to show you the way. I think there is a powerful group out there, but yes, you have to look. I am not much younger than you but this doesn’t feel so different from my own experience as an artsy kid growing up in rural/suburban Massachusetts in the 80s.

    My other thought is that people change. Just because someone is sucked into a mindset of “younger is better” now doesn’t mean that they always will be. Mercifully, a lot of what I thought was true as a teenager seems a bit, well, extreme, if I want to be generous about it. Most people mature in outlook as well as in body. I agree that it would be a wonderful thing if we, as a culture, appreciated our older population instead of feeling ashamed of how we look as we age. I feel such sadness when I see an aging celebrity who is all botoxed up – like, I want to tell them “it isn’t so bad! We will love you anyway!” But the vast majority of us are not celebrities with careers tied to our physical appearance and gravity will have its way. Once the grey hairs start showing up and the wrinkles come and stay, most people soften a little in this regard as well. Maybe we just have to speak up a little louder and more often.

    At least, that is the view from here.

    • I just wanted to second what Robyn said above. I also have a 17 year old daughter who has also eschewed the mainstream. While the author’s experience in the 70’s may be what many think of when they think of counter culture, I believe counter culture is and has always been a part of every generation. Alternatives still exist and provide at least some young women with freedom to explore and assert who they are.

      • chorton

        No disrespect meant to young women today. I do know a whole group through my sons who don’t follow what I see as the dominant cultural norms as well. That said, I also see much more obsessiveness and anxiety around body image issues in the culture in general than I remember being common when I was young. In the yoga community, there is an ongoing discussion about body image precisely because so many women struggle with it so intensively.

        I am not one to reduce this broad problem to their individual issues and leave it at that – we are all influenced by our society, and I see it as a social problem. Speculating about the seeming lack of the sort of easily accessible, powerful cultural alternatives that I had when I was young (e.g., Patti Smith) is just one way of starting to explain why we might see this general pattern today. But the more relevant point for this post was personal; that having had those sorts of alternatives was important to me when I was younger, and continues to be so today.

  2. Gam kau

    Patti Smith at the Vatican! How cool.

  3. I’ve got you by nearly 10 years ( I’m 61). Plenty of younger women/girls to observe including a daughter, 2 daughters- in-law, 4 young granddaughters. I hope that all will hear their own voice and be at home in their own skin.

    I was 58 when I did my first ( and most likely last) marathon and 60 when I took my first yoga class. Both offer the space to just “be”. I find this appreciation of being in the present to be something most of us have to grow in to. Even as a child of the 60’s it took me decades to actually live the independence and Revolution of my teen years.

    Yes, I would like to weigh less, but mostly because I think I would be physically more comfortable and able to enjoy physical pursuits like running, biking, yoga, etc.

    Give the kids time to grow up. And pray that they do.

    • chorton

      Again, I didn’t intend for this post to be taking pot shots at young women today – I’m sorry if it came across as such, as that was certainly not my intention.

  4. Evelyn

    There are counter-cultures that help young girls and women say “fuck that noise.” Being counter-cultures, though, they’re small, and over time, they don’t seem really sufficient counters to the hate thrown at female bodies by the over-culture. One thing that yoga and “spiritual” movements can do is give up their tendencies to pathologize and down-grade emotions or mind-states that help people resist, like skepticism, anger, rebellion, and overall not-giving-a-fuck. Yoga culture has definitely been complicit in pressuring women to act like conformist competitive, brainless Stepford wives. That’s something that we still need to challenge, all the time.

    • chorton

      I totally agree. That’s certainly a big part of the feeling I was challenging as I wrote this.

  5. evilnel

    I’m 28 and I did not see this article as taking pot shots at me or my generation. There is wisdom here that is easy to forget in our culture, and that is that regardless of all the forces telling us otherwise, there is beauty in experience, knowledge, joy, grief, gray hairs and wrinkles that doesn’t exist in us younger women yet. I look at my mother and think, ‘man, I just wish I could give as few shits about what others think as she does!’ That’s because she is comfortable with herself and her mistakes and butt dimples and whatever else we are told we should avoid to embrace youth and perfection. She is beautiful and strong because of those dimples and wrinkles and failures and the weight of loss in her face, not despite it. I took this as the gentle reminder that I believe it was intended to be: there are more important things than still looking 28 in ten years, such as living out the 38 years of wisdom I will have accrued by then. I will try to remember that even as (more) grays sprout on my head and my skin becomes softer and my ass larger!

  6. Jane

    Skinny, sexualized, young Patti Smith has a large photo. Full-bodied, frumpy, older Patti Smith with the Pope has a very small picture. Hmmmm…. A picture is worth a thousand words.

    • Evelyn

      It’s always been so easy to love her and hold her up as an icon, but let’s face it…..that’s partly because she was so waifish. A Twiggy for the punk set. Gorgeous but different. But gorgeous skinny, right? Larger women in rock and roll get treated viciously….like what the press did to Ann Wilson when she got fat. So…..we can never really get away from this stuff…..

      • chorton

        The Patti Smith reference is very personal to me . . . when I wrote this and posted her photo, I wasn’t really thinking into all of possible associations, just my own personal history. The story with that is that I very clearly remember being around 15, getting a copy of “Horses,” finding it completely electrifying, and making a very deliberate choice to embrace that energy – which I definitely knew meant rejecting the basic “femininity” box that the dominant culture (and my family) embraced. The fact that seeing her was also my first rock concert experience was something that I’ve always felt really good about.

        Then, more recently, I saw her perform in Chicago – wasn’t expecting much (she’s old, after all), but she was just as great as I had remembered (although definitely different and obviously older, too. But not in a way that felt like it detracted from her art; quite the contrary). So that was really surprising and inspiring.

        Then, I went to hear her interviewed at Chicago’s Symphony Hall about a week ago – the Tribune (one of our local papers) gave her a literary award for her book, “Just Kids” (which is excellent, BTW, I highly recommend it). Again, I wasn’t expecting much – how interesting can an interview be? But, once again, I was super-impressed and inspired. And I left thinking feeling incredibly vindicated that I choice I made to reject the dominant paradigm as a teen really hadn’t just been pointless youthful rebellion. It had been tapping into something that has remained important to me up to the present day.

        I could go on but the point is really just that there is a whole back story to the Patti Smith stuff that I didn’t go into in this post. I wrote it in a flash and threw it up on a whim; wasn’t really expecting that many people to read it. (In fact, I was much more interested in having people read my previous post, which I worked way harder on, but there’s been comparatively little interest in that one. Ah, well . . . still working on getting over that. But, so it goes.)

  7. Gydle

    Loved this post on every level. I am just turning 50 and everything you say makes so much sense. Fear of being fat is pervasive in our culture, and disordered attitudes towards eating and self-care are everywhere. I see so many women at war with their bodies, instead of celebrating the miracle they are. And being old? Grey hairs? How many times have I heard that dyeing your hair is a matter of “self-respect” and “taking care of yourself” – as if getting older is a disease that you have to hide or push away at all costs, lest you be relegated to the icy cold margins of society where the useless hang out. Whatever happened to the wise old woman, the crone archetype of the ages? Okay, enough. But I thought the comments here were kind of missing the whole point, so I chimed in.

  8. Saw Smith a couple of years ago at an invent at Columbia University. She was beyond doubt the coolest person in the room — at any age.

    Great post, but not sure I agree about “most women” our age and social media. There’s Arianna Huffington for one, and nowadays almost anyone who is freelance, self-employed, etc. We are all in a constant process of reinvention and you need the net for that. Although just as no one knows you are dog on the internet, there may be some social networkers shaving off a decade or two.

  9. Thank you for writing this, this is just what I needed to hear today. Thank you, thank you.

  10. Triamvada Jain

    “Even if it’s true that (as one recent blog put it) “old is the new fat” in our youth-obsessed yoga culture”

    Misnomer. Its an asana culture, not a yoga culture. There is no yoga culture here yet, who knows if there ever will be? The mistake was made over 100 years ago when the first person to introduce asana to Americans mistakenly called it “yoga”.

  11. I think that being old is not really the new fat. They have nothing in common. Being old is just that. Being old in a youth oriented culture. Being old in a yoga culture that stresses the ability to accomplish poses that aren’t meant for old people. Being old where many, if not most, yoga instructors are half your age. This is coming from a man (they exist in yoga) that finished teacher training at the age of 65. Don’t worry about the “new fat.” Do yoga.

  12. What a thoughtful offering, thank you. As I read this, I wondered if many of the younger women saying “fuck that noise” are simply too busy working to vocalize their perspectives given the rather large economic shift that’s occurred Stateside (and beyond) in the last few decades, or perhaps those who do vocalize have more competing noise to get their voices heard. I’m thinking about the sheer volume of noise available to public consumption now through multiple media channels, as well as more limitations on what is publicized in the mainstream media. Just wondering aloud here… thanks for prompting a bit of reflection.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Newsflash: “Skinny White Women” Haven’t “Ruined Yoga” | Carol Horton, Ph.D. - […] yoga so strongly associated with images of bendy-pretty white women (finally) taking off. As an “older yogi” who’s also…

Leave a Reply


Share This