A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped or what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes.
At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.
It is endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: the dancer’s body is almost perfect. He knows it is and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.
Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of 17, a girl gymnast of 12.
What kind of body is that for a man of 50 or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one. A soft brown woman in a flowery dress. There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.
Beauty always has rules. It’s a game.
I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time, I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new sweater, feeling happy about a haircut.
One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.
And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.
A child’s body is easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?
And then it happens again, when you’re 60 or 70.
Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me. I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist and all.
But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what he looks like, and to find him and know him I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.
There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.
My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs and clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time.
Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook — I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years and it is beautiful.
That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.