How I Made Peace With My Aging Body

When Julianna Baggott’s daughter decided to make a sculpture inspired by her mother’s breasts, the writer was forced to take a new look at her (older) body.

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Photo by WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

My daughter, who’s 20 and studying sculpture in art school, was worrying about what to do for her final project. We were talking on the phone when an idea struck her; she decided to create a piece on the deterioration of the body. I was encouraging, but I probably should have seen what was coming.

The next day she called again. “Hey, can you send me pictures of your boobs?” She needed a model, and turns out, college-age women aren’t really helpful when it comes to portraying deterioration.

Lovely.

“Thanks for thinking of me,” I said.

Sensing the sarcastic lack of enthusiasm in my tone, she said, “It’s for the sake of art. You can’t deny art!”

Still, I resisted: “Is there a way out of this? I really don’t want to do it.”

And yet the next morning I was in my bedroom, topless, and my husband, Dave, was taking pictures of me as I slowly turned a full 360 degrees while trying to maintain a dry professionalism.

I had practical concerns. “I want my face cropped out,” I told him.

“Absolutely,” he said.

I also didn’t want the pictures, taken on my husband’s iPhone, to be autofed into the queue of family pics that our TV reverts to, like a shifting screen saver, when in passive mode. I imagined a moment when one of my sons (?18 and 15?) might have friends over and would find a shocking surprise. “Let’s not scar anybody,” I tried to joke.

I’m 45 and have breastfed four kids. I was pretty sure I’d made peace with my breasts. They were always small—nothing to brag about—but relatively happy. Sure, they now require a spatula to be inserted into the mammography equipment, and I refer to them as my sad Walter Matthau eyes; they’re that soulful-looking these days. Yet, when my husband asked if I wanted to see the shots and pick which ones to send, I couldn’t look at them.

“Ship ‘em!” I said, having done my duty for the sake of art and parenting.

But I had doubts about more than my breasts. The night after the photo shoot, I complained. My stomach, after four full-term pregnancies, is doughy, with scars designed to be pleats. My butt isn’t where it used to be. My husband has been doing CrossFit for a few years. I’d consider joining him, but I refuse to voluntarily lift heavy things. As a result, he’s fit and I’m just cross. “I am deteriorating,” I said.

“Don’t insult the woman I love,” he told me. “You’re beautiful.”

I am stunned on a regular basis by my own aging. I look in the mirror and there’s an immediate disconnect. I see my grandmother’s mouth, my mother’s chin—my budding wattle, as I refer to it. I’m reminded of a certain aunt who took to wearing butterfly Band-Aids to keep her eyelid skin up high enough to actually, well, see. The gray hairs now outnumber the brown. I can’t watch certain actresses my age without obsessively guessing what work they’ve had done, which makes me insufferable, I know. I’ve abandoned high heels and sadly test insoles for arch support. I had a young dermatologist refer to my age spots as wisdom spots, and I nearly slapped him.

My sister, who’s nine years older than I am, recently texted me an exercise that is supposed to save our upper arms from melting. I texted back, “Wait. Does this mean we’ve accepted the fates of our necks? Is that battle over now? I need to know.”

She texted back that we had, officially, accepted our necks as beyond help and that I could feel free to scarf-it-up.

My eight-year-old recently looked at a picture of me and said, “You don’t look so old!” Before I could thank her, she added, “It’s probably an optical illusion from the red background.” I quietly loathed her precocious vocabulary.

I was recently carded at a bar and lit up for a moment before the bartender said, “Yeah, we card everyone. It’s a policy.”

In some of my crunchier circles, I’ve recently found myself in conversations with women my own age during which a kind of upbeat rhetoric takes over and suddenly everyone is talking about the importance of being happy about aging—celebrating it with rituals and tattoos. It’s clear what we should blame for anxiety about aging: our beauty-and-youth-obsessed culture. I feel some pressure to jump on board, but my eyes glaze over and I feign interest while riding it out.

To be honest, blaming our culture just makes me feel like a victim. In fact, I rebel against the notion. Being startled by aging actually feels natural and fine. Wanting to have the person you think you look like appear in the mirror as you have known her for a long time and not quite finding her there can be jarring, but that discomfort is normal. It’s so normal, in fact, it’s part of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development—getting used to your aging body is something we’re supposed to achieve, eventually. But everyone has to do this his or her own way. It’s a process—and not one that, for me, will entail a ritualistic menopause party or a uterus tattoo.

But I didn’t realize that my daughter’s art was going to be such a huge part of it.

Not long after shipping the photographs off, I went on a two-week business trip to Los Angeles, the epicenter of our beauty-and-youth-obsessed culture. While I was Uber-ing to a meeting in Beverly Hills, wearing expensive jeans and Fly London boots—trying to look vaguely hip, if not youthful—my daughter sent me a picture of her final project. A rough wooden roof, lit from within, protected a sculpture of my torso—collarbones, breasts, and, where the womb would be, a kind of nest and delicately broken eggshell. She explained that the whole thing stood almost four feet in height.

It was breathtaking. This wasn’t about deterioration. This was about shelter, the body as safe haven. It was about motherhood and childhood, both. It was about creating home and leaving home. I started to cry.

I called my daughter and told her what this meant to me. It struck me as an intimate portrait—not just a reflection of me in this moment in time, but a narrative of my life through the lens of my body and its work. It also felt like more than the body. It spoke to some element of the soul. It was a kind of being seen that was like a true seeing, and a liberation.

By the time I returned from the trip, my daughter had come home from college, and she and my husband had wall-mounted the piece in a nook of my living room. And I was fine with it. I don’t see the work as a portrait of my forlorn breasts at all, but as art, as a conversation, as something that speaks in different ways to everyone who sees it.

In the end, my daughter was right. I can’t deny art, the way it startles us and allows us to see things anew—even when that newness is one’s ever-changing sense of self.

About the Author

Julianna Baggott’s latest novels are Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders (a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice) and, under the pen name Bridget Asher, All of Us and Everything.