I went to Victoria’s Secret with my daughter Katie last week. She just turned thirty. I am fifty-eight. If you are the mother of a daughter, there comes a day of reckoning, a watershed moment that is not always welcomed. The day men’s eyes slide right past you and land squarely on your daughter. I remember it well. Katie had just turned fourteen and we were happily wandering around Target. A man in his late thirties couldn’t (or didn’t) hide his admiration of Katie. My first instinct was indignation. She’s a child. My second feeling was mourning. Was this the end of my sex appeal?
All women learn that they are objectified and admired by most men, either because they are, or because they aren’t. It is a part of most women’s lives whether they like it or not. It’s a complicated road to navigate. Most women don’t like to be objectified, yet it is such a part of many cultures that to not be objectified or ogled sometimes feels worse. Every woman has her own stories and has drawn her own conclusions about being ogled. How we react can be a strong indicator of how we feel about ourselves, although it shouldn’t be. Personally, I liked it. A lot. Oh, sure, there are always men who openly catcalled, or took it past the point of simple appreciation. I learned to deal with that in a variety of ways. Katie would have to learn to deal with it, too, whether she liked it or not.
The years that followed gradually inured me to the reality of invisibility to men when I was with Katie. She was oblivious, self-conscious, delighted, and finally callous, the way all attractive girls must become in order to survive the near-constant ogling in everyday life (hey, guys, just because you think you’re being subtle doesn’t mean we don’t notice. We do.). This isn’t about whether we ogle men back. I’m not here to pass judgment on whether or not men should or should not ogle. I’m more interested in my own reactions to ogling. When I was young, I passed through the same phases as Katie—oblivion, self-consciousness, delight, and callousness. For those of us past a certain age, there is a last stop, and depending on who you are, it is either relief or mourning.
I have never lead with my looks, but I would definitely say looking attractive is important to me. As I’ve grown older, I like to look healthy and like I care about my appearance. Katie doesn’t have to care about her appearance. She is young and firm and fresh and lovely, as I once was. It is bittersweet. I wouldn’t trade my hard-earned wisdom and peace for a young body, yet the feeling of invisibility rankles.
I was essentially housebound for a year during my three-year long battle with Lyme disease. Something has happened now that I feel closer to normal. Is it my perception or my appearance that has changed? Or is it neither? I have changed. The sheer joy I feel to be out and about, alive and mostly healthy, has made me visible. That’s when I realized a person’s sex appeal is much more than looks. I’ve always known that, but I didn’t know that as it pertained to me. I’ve gained joie de vivre. Where had that gone all those years before Lyme? I thought I was happy. I worked much harder on looking good. Did being married create a shield to my sex appeal, or did I? I’m now certain it was my own unhappiness at the choices I made, an unconscious barrier of protection from an unhappy marriage, and the unfinished issues I wasn’t ready to face.
Through my experience with Lyme, I have come to believe that you cannot fully heal from a serious illness unless you’ve worked through your issues. I’ll never finish working on my own shit, but I now move through the world joyfully and with an inner peace. The paradox is the less I care about my sex appeal, the sexier I must appear. By that, I mean I am neither seeking out attention, nor shunning it. I dress and wear makeup for me. I often smile at nothing, simply because I am happy, and finally comfortable in my own skin.
At the end of our shopping trip, Katie and I stopped for dinner. We were celebrating her thirtieth birthday, her engagement, my return to health, and just being together. She stared at a young girl who entered the restaurant and sighed. “She has no idea, I wish I still had that body,” she said. Katie is just old enough to understand the bloom of youth is a gift. We both have complicated feelings about being ogled. Men still stare at her first. The ogles I get are more appreciative of my happiness, health and joy, and less frankly sexual. I am fine with that.