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How does it feel to look good naked at 61?

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”OFFS why does women ‘empowerment’ always have to involve them getting their kit off?” This was one of the responses on the Wearing Wellbeing Facebook page to a call for volunteers for – “A TASTEFUL (yes they did use capital letters) nude shoot for a piece about women and body confidence”.

Why did I jump at the chance? Well, primarily it was to see if I really had embraced acceptance of my older self. Also, I reasoned it would be useful research for my project, The Invisibility Myth. What I didn’t immediately get was the wider picture. I believe there’s a need for people to see normal body-confident golden agers and younger women who are embracing their natural body changes not fighting them; the softening, the battle scars of survival and of a life lived.

Our bodies are the manifestation of any issues that we normally conceal under clothes and makeup. Strip those away, and we have to face who we really are, no hiding. For me at 61 years old, this was an important part of my personal development. Holding a mirror up to see if my acceptance of my physical is actually real now. I’m no longer that young, confident self-made woman who lost her way in her 40s under the weight of fluctuating hormones and major life changes. I’ve been on a postmenopausal rebirth since the age of 50 and am, at 61 in a place where I’ve grown into my own skin and made peace with who I was then and who I am now, even though it requires constant vigilance!

I arrive at a photographic studio in Hoxton, East London feeling a tad apprehensive. It’s not about getting naked per-se, more an in-built unease and cynicism about the media and how I will be portrayed. Although the accompanying interview for the article has been read over the phone to me and I am happy with it, I know it’s not been edited yet, so it could all go tits up – literally! I walk into the groovy reception area, where there is a beautiful young woman with vitiligo, (I later find out she is one of the models) quietly feeding her week old baby girl. Not what I was expecting to see.

Friendly young hair and makeup ladies bustle around behind flimsy curtains preening a small group of women, before they shyly shrug off their robes to pose in the white, brightly lit studio space. I go hot and panicky. In those first few minutes, I think about bolting, but pause instead to chat with a simply AMAZING looking 87 year old woman. YES 87 with spiky red and white hair carefully arranged to hide her hearing aids. She is wondering out loud whether or not to keep her flesh-coloured thong on (it would be retouched out post shoot) for the benefit of her grandchildren. I laugh, gulp, take stock, calm down and get a grip.

Before I can think too hard I take my clothes off, put a thong, fluffy robe and slippers on… and suddenly there is a pause for lunch and chat. I recognize one of the models is a lady I met on the AoA OUTageous Bus Tour. It all begins to feel so normal, in a surreal kind of way. The (male) photographer and his young assistant join us and are so affable and confidence inspiring, I feel myself starting to warm to the occasion. The only covering our bodies have under our white robes is a thin coat of shimmering skin buffing cream applied with a body mitt (yeah there was much joking about nooks, crannies and creases!).

By the time it comes for post-lunch action, we three 87, 61 and 30-year-old women have bonded and the group shots of our bodies (think Dove commercial-esque) become a hilarious, really quite touching celebratory experience rather than a daunting on. We are stripped literally and metaphorically of anything to hide behind and I feel an endorphin flood of love and respect for these strangers with whom I am engaging in such an intimate unforgettable moment.

The photographer is happy to show us some of the results as the shoot progressed – he really knew his stuff. There was one shot of me sitting on the floor, my modesty carefully arranged intact, that I had to admit was wonderful.  It remains to be seen what the finished article and photos will look like, but whatever, I stand firm that my decision to do it was right. I leave the studio with a big smile on my face, feeling euphoric and proud of myself. I believe the other women feel the same. My reward is to trot down to the 24 hour Brick Lane Bagel Bakery (oh how many times I went there after all night benders in my youth!) to scoff a lox bagel AND a wedge of cheesecake, before meeting friends for a well-earned drinkiepoos. What started as something well outside my comfort zone, ended as an adventure. I am so pleased to have felt the fear of and done anyway.

In a time when we are all going to live longer and longer, I’m now in my Golden Age and quite frankly I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks when the article comes out. I have earned the right to live out my years in as self-determining and visible way as I choose, for as long as this beautiful body of mine holds up, until I shuffle off this mortal coil. If it’s not your thing – step away and please refrain from judgment – the latter just perpetuates the myth that the only way forward is for us to be tucked away out of sight and invisible.  Ain’t happening on my watch. How about yours?

That Bikini

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It was no surprise to me to see a picture of Alexandra Shulman wearing a bikini. I’ve been on holiday with her, (we’re friends, neighbours and I worked for her at Vogue magazine for four years) so I know she’s a two-piecer on the beach. Her philosophy is that bikinis look fabulous on a tiny fraction of the female populace – namely teens and models — but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from wearing one if they want to. Alex thinks they feel lovely, the very essence of summer, and as she told the Sunday Times, she planned to wear them until she died.

Why did that make page 3 of a huge-selling newspaper and the opinion columns of all the rest? Alex had Instagram-ed a selfie of her bikini clad body, in advance of a boat trip on her Greek island holiday. The world of social media, then the more traditional type, went crazy. It wasn’t just that she was the former editor of Vogue, letting her hair down in public —- but she was 59 and as “imperfect” as any woman is by that stage.

As it happened, while all this was going on, I was on holiday with my husband in Croatia. For the first time in 20 years we were vacationing together, no children, no friends, just us. It was great! Island hopping down the Dalmatian coast took us to a variety of beaches, short and rocky, long and sandy, all fringed with crystal clear blue water.

But this is not a travel post. What was I wearing? Mostly my cerulean blue Heidi Klein one-piece, an expensive, elegant piece of swimwear engineering I invested in a couple of years ago and that I still believe is a great swimsuit. It holds my belly in (a bit), pushes my boobs up (a lot) and makes me feel beach-ready or whatever that pernicious advertising campaign promised.

I had also packed a rather ancient bikini – or rather a top of one and bottom of another – in a what the hell sort of way. I wore that too, but mostly on the more remote stretches, where “it didn’t matter”. On the final day we were biding our time on the city beach strip at Split, before an evening flight back to London. Beside a cafe, stretched out on pricey hired loungers were the gamut of sunning sisters. Young, old, fat, thin, sexy, not so much —- and not one of them in a one-piece.

It was a couple of 70-somethings showering off the salt water next to me that really swung my opinion. Brown and wrinkly, with soft bellies and sagging breasts, they were clearly having a wonderful, cooling time at the seaside. A constricting one-piece wasn’t going to fool anyone about the effects of time on their bodies; why would they even want that? They stood straight, laughed and chattered, moved with ease and grace, not as if they had something to hide. They were simply themselves.

I run, a website that matches people with the therapists most suited to them. Women are the major users, and the majority are young. We often post pieces about body confidence —- or rather the lack of body confidence. Therapists and psychologists are noticing the increasingly impossible standards by which so many women are judging themselves.

We recently ran a post by Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University on exactly that subject: “The body shame so many women wrestle with isn’t about vanity. It’s important that we not brush it off or dismiss it. Body shame is linked with all sorts of nasty psychological outcomes, including eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. And while many seem to think that shaming women’s bodies is a way to encourage weight loss, the truth is that body shame makes it more difficult to take good care of your body.

“Body shame can trigger binge eating. It also makes you less likely to exercise and more reluctant to seek medical care when you need it. When you’re ashamed of your body, you’re less motivated to listen carefully to what your body needs and respond accordingly. Body shame can also weaken valuable social connections if it prompts you to avoid engaging with others.

How did we get to a place where so many women are feeling so much body shame?”

That is a longer, much more complex question. But the great thing about being 61 —- an advantage of my own age — is that I may finally be breaking free of it. Being older your body adjusts to the reduction of oestrogen. We all know it means our skin is drier, our sleep may be interrupted, and so on, but it also changes your emotional response. You care less about what other people think of you. Friends and family will usually still make the cut, but a crowd of people on a beach in a strange place? Why would that matter. You feel good in what you’re wearing, and that’s all that really matters to you. Now is your time to revel it!

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