A wise friend told me, many years ago, that it's a good idea to find one's most comfortable self-image and move into it. It puzzled me at the time — I was young and didn't really think about self-image, whatever that was. But that little nugget of wisdom has stayed with me through the years.
I discovered years ago that my most comfortable self-image involves low maintenance. My hair has its own ideas about how it wants to relate to my head. Best get a cut that permits it freedom and doesn't require electrical or mechanical devices to maintain my "natural" look. Why fight it? Wash and wear is my motto for hair.
My toes enjoy freedom as well, and my feet, even before they were numb, always objected to high heels. So I wear Birkenstocks — wore them even before they became a symbol of age and decrepitude.
I have a friend who was once a leg and foot model. I have never seen her in anything but fashionable shoes and short skirts. Amazingly, she has gotten away with that look well into her 70s, but we both know it can't last.
This friend has a high-maintenance self-image, which takes longer to satisfy as the years go by, with increasing devotion to products and procedures that scream "young" out of her inevitably tired face.
I saw a man recently at an outdoor event as a storm threatened the venue and the winds came. I noticed him because of his hair:
One minute it was just an odd-looking abundance of brown hair atop an obviously aging, gray-bearded man. The next minute the wind had lifted the sides of his hair-hat, creating a Flying Nun effect.
Poor man. His self-image was clearly not weather-friendly.
I also feel sorry for a friend, an aging Don Juan, who lost his wife to cancer many years ago. He has spent many of the intervening years looking for a "new Alice."
She was the love of his life, and she will never age in his mind's eye. So he dates women who are the age Alice was before she got sick. He is tall, fit, handsome and a moderately famous artist, so he does not lack for dates. But he doesn't understand why women in their 30s and 40s are a little reluctant to make a commitment to a man who is 84.
"I work out every day,'' he told me. "I don't even wear glasses."
But for him, attractive single women within 20 years of his age are too old. Pity.
On the other hand, I know women who believe their children when they say, "Why don't you act your age?''
This usually comes from a twenty-something, one who thinks her divorced or widowed mother shouldn't go out dancing and looking pretty. A woman who buys that load of baloney decides then and there that someone else's idea of dignity and appropriateness trump having a life.
So she convinces herself to play the time-honored role: "I'm a grandmother now, and I should act like one.'' Bingo! The kids have a built-in babysitter!
With some folks, there comes a day when they realize that they really ARE old. They no longer have a choice about whether to crochet or go dancing. Too bad. Those years don't come back.
But the "comfortable self-image" allows you to be who you are; you don't have to accommodate to what others think you should be. It also keeps you from fooling yourself into thinking you will always be who you once were.
Honesty with oneself trumps self-deception every time.
Write to Sheila Stoll in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.