A new collection, The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, includes essays by Barnard President Debora Spar and Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence. Spar muses on beauty and aging while Boylan reflects on her transition.
by Debora Spar
When I was 21, I underwent breast reduction surgery, reducing my embarrassingly large chest to something that could at least fit inside a cardigan. Although there was some medical rationale for the procedure, the overwhelming reason was that I was sick and tired of every man on the planet being unable to look above my neck. Their fault, I know, not mine, and symptomatic of the baggage, both physical and psychological, women are forced to carry around with them. But once my own baggage was surgically removed, I felt amazing—lighter, prettier, healthier. Was this an indulgent move on my part? Maybe. Have I regretted it over the past 30 years? Not for a single moment. I had a problem, or at least what felt an awful lot like a problem, and I made it go away.
When it comes to aging, though, I’m torn. Because technically, aging isn’t a problem at all. Like menopause and receding hairlines, it just is. Mother Nature has it in for us all, reducing us to shriveled frames and crepey arms en route, eventually, to dust. Does a little face-lift along the way constitute treason or just a reasonable accommodation? I truly don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that for women in certain professional or social circles, the bar of normal keeps going up. There are virtually no wrinkles on Hollywood stars, of course, or on Broadway actors; ditto for female entrepreneurs or women in the media. There are few wrinkles on the women in Congress and even fewer on Wall Street. CEOs, bankers, hospital executives, heads of public relations firms and publishing houses, lawyers, marketers, caterers … certain standards of appearance have long been de rigueur for women in these positions, from being reasonably fit and appropriately dressed to sporting attractively coiffed hair and manicured nails, but more and more these standards now also include being nearly wrinkle-free.
A renowned professor and author of several acclaimed books tells the story of her own literary agent saying to her loudly, in the middle of a meeting, “J——, you need Botox!” Just saying no—to chemical peels and lasers, fillers and Botox, even going under the knife—becomes harder and harder under these circumstances, even if no one wants to admit that it’s so.
by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In 2000, I finally spilled the beans.
After bearing the burden in secret for the first 12 years of our supposedly heterosexual marriage, I came out to Grace as transgender. Everyone always says the truth will set you free, but the people who say that have probably never seen the effect that revealing yourself as trans has upon someone you love. For years and years, I’d felt that the trans thing was my secret to keep, and that by keeping it I was shielding my wife and sons from harm. But just after New Year’s, in the first year of the new millennium, I’d reached a point where I knew I had to be out with the truth. It felt, literally, like a life-or-death decision to me.
In the days and months that followed, sometimes it seemed like all we did was weep. For Grace, there were times when she felt she had no good choices at all. Either she could abandon the person she loved at the moment of her—my—greatest need, or she could stay with me as I went through a process that, almost by definition, would take the person Grace loved away from her. I’d stand there in my beat-up wig and abundant makeup and declaim, “But I’m the same person!”
Grace just shook her head. “In what sense?” she asked.
I’d given many hours of thought to the question of what I would do if the people I loved, and Grace above all, rejected me. At times I imagined starting over completely—moving to a new town, taking up a new profession. There was a little while when I thought about giving up teaching and becoming a nurse or a social worker or a minister. I wanted a profession in which I could help people whose hearts had been torn out, I guess. Being, as I was, something of an expert in the field.
After transition, though, I returned, for the most part, to the life I had known. I realized there was nothing I liked as much as teaching college students; it was what I was wired for. Grace, for her part, realized that there was generally no one whose jokes she liked as much as mine, vagina notwithstanding. And so we settled into our new life as two middle-aged women: not, to be certain, the lovers we had been, but, for better or worse, as the loving partners we had become. There were plenty of people who failed to believe that either Grace or I could be happy with the compromise at the center of our lives. But more than a decade later, here we were: still together.