Photo by Aimee Vogelsang
For a moment, let’s rewind back to teenage Andrea who as a young woman of her generation would have liked to be described as, “Accomplished, liberated, and emancipated.” Forget everything you might know about me as we take a walk in her shoes and see her world through her eyes…
My body was mine, to use as I pleased and wield as I willed. It was strong, obedient, built in a way that was malleable and often envied. It bent to my will, accomplishing as I set out, pushing itself to the limits I demanded. When I called, it came. Sleeping when I told it, waking when I deemed it time. It was my pride, and I used and abused its strength. I was proud of how it defined me, hair standing out in the crowd, skin mine to display or hide as I pleased. It gave me power when I needed, what I wanted when I wanted it. My body wore my achievements plainly: athletic and creatively accomplished.
Yet there were times that it turned on me. When I felt ugly inside, the ugliness showed clearly. When I hated, the mirror reflected it right back to me, plain and brutal with nowhere to hide. My body failed me, missing notes in competitions, injuring itself as I ran. When it got sick, it was always longer and more dramatic than those I caught it from, fevers running high. Migraines blurred my vision, and my knees would wobble and fall. My golden hair set me apart from the family and religion I so desperately wanted to blend into. There was always farther to go, smaller clothing to fit, higher heights to jump, later nights to study. I was never enough.
My body, being my everything, when it failed to perform, meant I was nothing. Nobody.
Those “Love Your Body” media campaigns began and I tried to listen, but couldn’t fake it. How could I love something that even in its perfection, I loathed? How could I love something that was always conditional, consistently never enough? How could I love something so fleeting which would eventually crumble?
It hurts me to write about this. I ache for the girl I used to be, the self loathing she felt. I remember laying in bed at night, my body a suffocating cage, wishing so hard that my flesh would just melt already, leaving nothing to hold me back, and realizing with fury that even with those tissues gone my skeleton would still trap me. I wanted to be free. I had no understanding of my soul. I remember the goals I used to set for myself, the gloating feeling when I met them, and the pure hate that would consume me when I fell short. As I write this, I find it impossible to believe I am the same person, yet the echoes are heard in the back of my mind and I know that this is how I used to feel.
I can blame those feelings on so many things: the dog eat dog world I grew up in, the jealous and conniving atmosphere of the girls I went to school with, the objectification from others that taught me to turn myself into a prize to be won or denied. The media, always the media, profiting endlessly from my never being enough, and giving me so many directions to push and always fall short. Yet none of this has changed, and I have. Now I can look at it all from a distance, without it infecting me as it once did.
The hopeful truth is that if I can grow beyond this, then there is hope for everyone. What was the first thing that inspired me to stop? I was standing in the streetcar on a late Tuesday morning and noticed a group elderly people near me. They were laughing with each other, their movements slow and deliberate, but graceful. I remember one woman catching my eye, smiling at me with all the love and joy in the world. And suddenly I saw beyond her white hair and wrinkled face. She was whole. Beautiful. And I realized how broken I was. With all my youth and physical strength, I was but a whisper. And there she was, screaming beauty and joy right through those lines on her face. I was nothing like her. I looked away and realized that if I continued treating myself like this I would never live long enough to get where she was. And I wanted that. I was in pieces, but I wanted to be whole.
That was the big turning point, a mere moment in time, and only the beginning of a long journey. I still don’t like those “Love Your Body” campaigns because I believe they fuel the flip side of the same problem. Loving one’s body, just a body, is also a dark path, because we are not just bodies. At our core, we are souls that happen to inhabit bodies, not the other way around. The challenge here isn’t to love our bodies and the problem isn’t that we hate them. Love them or hate them, it is defining ourselves by our bodies that is the problem. Our greatest challenge is to understand our true infinite selves and love our souls. Only then can we use our bodies in order carry out our soul’s missions in this world. Our bodies will eventually fail, but our souls, with the infinite within, are eternal and will always shine bright. If we let them. When we learn to love our true essence our bodies, no matter what they look like, become beautiful extensions of what resides within.
It’s so different now. And while I could sit here and endlessly analyze the transformation, I’d rather not focus on what went wrong, and instead share with you what now feels right.
It began on that day when I felt my lack on the streetcar, but my true first steps happened later. There was a moment I will always remember when I felt, not understood but felt, the infinite spark that resides within. I actually felt it. Small but eternal, vibrating and burning with a fire more powerful than anything in the physical world. So beautiful. So unique. Mere words pale pathetically compared to what they are describing. What came with this was the aching realization that every single human being carries within them a completely different but exactly the same infinite spark. All connected to same source, and spread out over the entire world. With this realization, I realized that there is no competition, only the yearning within each and every one of us to wield our strengths and help others wield theirs. And together make the world whole once again.
I am not a body. I am a soul, and I have been given a body to do my soul’s work.
Our job in this world is to see beyond. To see true value and experience deep connection. We are here to unearth and reveal. It is not possible to connect unless one brings together two things that were once separate. The separateness hurts but the fusion is ecstatic. We can’t have one without the other.
It takes work to start seeing the world in this way, but once I started, I found it powerful and addictive. I would work on it for hours during my commutes, staring at people, attempting to catch a glimpse of that spark within. I got better and better at doing so. I knew I was really getting it when a friend of mine said, “Gosh Andrea, do you really honestly like everyone as much as you say you do?” and I could finally answer, “Yes I really do.” To this day, being able to say that is one of my proudest accomplishments, especially considering the judgmental world my mind used to inhabit. Even though that person responded, “Well it’s kind of annoying.”
I can’t wait to get more wrinkles.
I have lived for thirty years now, soon to reach thirty-one, so I have a few already. I am grateful that they are mostly from laughter and joy, but few that have arrived through hardship and pain are also badges I treasure. I look into the faces of my friends and mentors who are older than me, with that glow of time in their eyes and think, “Will I get to be like that? Will I merit the time to make more right in the world? Will I get to see my children grow, experience the flesh of my palm becoming engraved into the grooves of my husband’s hand? Will my words begin to hold the weight of experience? Of empathy and understanding?” There are some gifts in this world that only time can create, and I want to be able to experience them so badly.
I remember before our wedding day saying to my soon-to-be-husband, “I can’t wait to be a cute old couple together!” His response? “Can we please be a cute young couple first?”
The media glorifies youth and we are told that once we get older, we are no longer relevant. This isn’t true. We are told that lust and newness are the apex of a romantic relationship. They aren’t. We are taught that the body I described at the beginning of this essay is what we should strive for. It isn’t. I remember realizing that the media had never shown me what it means to age gracefully, or the beauty of a couple growing older together. We are taught that youth is valuable and as we get older we lose our currency, but this isn’t true. It isn’t true.
As we get older, our bodies creak, the lines crease. It is devastating to lose what we once had, to desire to do more and no longer be able.
But no matter what our physical capabilities are, no matter how strong or weak, we are always limited by them. Our abilities are limited at all ages, and others will always have more or less than what we have. Our souls come into this world in order to be limited by physicality. And while we are here we are destined to be trapped in this physical world.
From all directions, we are told that no matter how hard we try, we are simply not there yet. Spiritually, we have so much farther to go. Physically, we should take better care of ourselves. Emotionally, we need to grow. But not getting there is the point! This is the pain of being infinite souls in this world and residing within our physical bodies. We know that we are more than this, yet this is what we are given to be more with.
This desire to grow and be more is a beautiful thing when wielded in a healthy manner. The girl we met at the beginning didn’t know how. I described to you how I used to feel about my body because I want you to know that I get it. I’ve been there, maybe even more dark, hateful, and entrenched than most. I got out, but am still living in my body. Still living in the pain of being an infinite soul trapped in a finite body. But now the pain is different; it is the pain of being alive.
What is the pain of living in this physical world? It is a pain that is real, palpable, and constant. We are more than this, yet we reside in this physicality. We yearn for the infinite, to be fully connected, yet we can’t. We can only taste that feeling, and we know that it is there, always craving more.
My uncle Zel, my husband’s great uncle, passed away this year Erev Pesach. I want to tell you about him.
It was 2012. My husband and I, not yet married a year, were attending a family wedding in Manhattan, stealthily keeping Shabbat while trying not to cause any rifts within our secular family. I was sitting on a cushy loveseat when this man plonked himself beside me. He was 99 years old but still managed to have just energetically danced with the bride. I didn’t know him at the time, but he knew who I was; I was the super religious girl that his once-seemingly-sane nephew had just married. He gave me a quick once-over and, gesturing at my headscarf said, “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a thing like that on your head?”
You all know how much I enjoy answering a good loaded inquiry, so I told him. He listened, but quickly lobbed question after question at me, rapid fire, barely giving me a chance to think. Between his hearing loss and the noise of the crowd, we had to yell. My husband must have thought we were arguing because he kept gesturing at me from across the room to see if I was okay. The smile on my face kept him from getting too worried. People around us saw what was happening and knew that uncle Zel was working his magic. I came away from that evening, my head spinning asking my husband, “Who WAS that?” I found out that of course, he had worked as a reporter. I loved him already.
There was more life in this man as he celebrated his 100th birthday than most people I know. And thank Gd he was able to stay with us long enough to celebrate his 104th. He was deeply curious about every single person that he met. He loved people. All people. Really loved them. And he never failed to let you know how much. He challenged us, challenged himself. He didn’t let us get away with anything, no excuses. You couldn’t hide from yourself around him. He did yoga three times a week, a spring in his step no matter how slow he needed to walk to get where he was going. My husband told me how uncle Zel would just show up in his family’s backyard in Israel, having impulsively hopped on a flight from America, at an age that many hesitate to leave even their own backyards. He wasn’t afraid of death and therefore he lived, truly lived. When my husband and I learned of Zel’s passing while cooking for Passover we held each other in tears, not quite sure why we also were laughing.
Do not for one second tell me that this man wasn’t one of the most beautiful beings to walk this earth. Do not tell me that his wrinkles made him unattractive and that his age made him irrelevant. This man was the definition of beautiful, and it is a backwards, unfortunate society that would have us believe otherwise. The total time I got to spend with him since marrying into my husband’s family adds up to only a few days, yet those moments have changed me forever.
I recently published a letter that I wrote to my future self, in hopes that one day it will help me remember what it’s like to be a young mother. When publishing, I searched for a photo of an older woman to pair with it, and when I laid eyes on resulting photograph, I knew in an instant that I could stop searching. She was beautiful, joyous, wise, warm, all the things that I hope to be one day when I grow up. I loved how the photographer upped the contrast to show her gorgeous wrinkles: lines that only a life of purpose could etch on one’s skin. She wore these wrinkles, these badges of honor with pride, and the smile on her face brought tears to my eyes. I then titled the essay “When I’m 64”, not because I know the song well, but because the combination of the photo and title conveyed the opposite of nostalgia: a forward, wistful yearning. This is who I hope to be one day.
I was shocked and now ashamed that I neglected to think about what the title paired with that photo might make others feel. To my dismay, the most common response I received to this essay was, “That woman isn’t 64.” And, “You might want to change that picture.” After hearing it a few times, my immediate response was defensive. “So what? So what if she isn’t 64? And so what if she is? She is beautiful!” Women in their 60s were sending me photos of themselves showing what 64 really looks like, and I couldn’t fathom why they were upset. I hastily changed the title and flipped the six upside down to add to the number.
There were people who thought I picked that photo because the woman in it was really old, and according to our society, old means ugly, unattractive, of little relevance or value. The feeling was, that when I attached the number 64 to the essay, that I was saying that someone who is 64 is also really old, and therefore unattractive. How horrible. How utterly hurtful and misguided I must be to ‘say’ something like this. My heart breaks thinking that this is how we are made to feel about meriting more years on this earth. The irony is that I, who used to hate her body when I was young but now can’t wait to get more wrinkles, who can’t wait for my skin to start drooping, simply didn’t understand. Looking back now I am glad for my naiveté and seeing the beauty in this woman so innocently. Am I so much in the minority for feeling this way?
And maybe I will end up eating my words. Maybe the lessons of the society that surrounds us are too firmly entrenched. Maybe I too will feel unattractive and irrelevant once the wrinkles become more pronounced. Maybe I will neglect to see myself as beautiful, and forget that this was what I once yearned for so deeply. I hope not. I truly hope that I can rise above the lies I’ve been told. That we’ve been told.
The bottom line is that it sucks to be a physical being, whether you are soaring high or crashing in the rocks. Being human is a constant struggle of telling ourselves that we are more than this. Of knowing that we are more than this. Revealing that infinite spark, even within ourselves, is a continuous battle. The relentless voice that tells us we’re less than, not enough, not worth it, is ongoing and the fight against it is exhausting. But fight it we must. Our job in this world is to see beyond.
What is ugly? Ugliness is thoughts, speech, and actions. When these turn ugly, it leeches onto our skin, pours out of our faces. No amount of youth, exercise, makeup, or plastic surgery can cover up when a person is ugly on the inside. And yet there is hope for even the ugliest amongst us. Because beneath the ashes resides an infinite spark that is just waiting to be revealed. It is up to us to see it within others. Within ourselves.
Deep, eternal, boundless joy is available to us at any age. And so is death. The Torah begs us to choose life and it is our choice, and ours only, every moment. We know what it is like to experience a person who is living death; all surface, image, emptiness. There is nothing more tragic at any age. We have seen the eyes of children who carry the heaviest troubles on their shoulders, numb to the world. And we have seen the sparkle of my 100 year old uncle who was more vibrant and beautiful in his deep naiveté than anyone I have ever seen.