I have a good friend who doesn’t think about her age. Every year, when I call to greet her happy birthday, she asks me, half-joking, “How old am I, again?” I know her age because she is ten years older than me. She prefers to mark her years not by time but according to how old or young she feels.
In some of the reviews I’ve read of the movie Nightcrawler, actress Renee Russo is described as an aging actress. The “aging” reference really bothers me. Sure, Russo is aging. She’s sixty right now, next month she’ll turn sixty-one. Then again, aren’t we all, every one of us, aging? From the moment we are conceived we age by the second. Yet it is usually women upon whom aging gets pinned and not in a positive way.
Age is a funny number. As a young girl, I couldn’t wait to be older—old enough to drive, to date, to drink, to be considered “credible” as a news anchor, which is what I thought I wanted to be. When I moved to Hollywood after my thirtieth birthday, one director told me that he couldn’t cast me in a role I really wanted because I didn’t look old enough to play a woman my age. “If only you looked as old as you really are, you’d be perfect for the job,” he said, ushering me out the door.
This is my “magical 33” year! Thirty-three is when everything that I want will happen for me! At least, that’s what I told anyone who would listen after I celebrated that birthday. My rationale? “3” is considered by many to be a magic number, so why not hope for eleven times that at 33? Instead, that was the year my life started imploding.
After I turned forty, the amount of interest I got on Match.com waned. I considered lying about my age. I so wanted to be younger again—young enough to feel like a contender in the dating game, young enough to get pregnant without worrying about high risks and low odds, young enough that the Whole Foods checkout guy would stop calling me “Ma’am.” It wasn’t until I started embracing my real age that life began to fill up with new possibilities and opportunities.
“Line up according to age, please!” That’s the instruction given at certain all-women gatherings that I’ve attended. The eldest is always the first to go in, the youngest the last. In these circles, a woman owns her years like a number of honor. There is no shame in admitting your age. The older a woman grows, the more wisdom, experience, and power she can hold in her body. In time, each one will get her turn at the head of the procession.
A few months ago, writer Timi Yeseibo invited me and a few other women to talk about age on her blog, Lively Twist. Turns out that for each of us, whether younger or older, age is more than just a number. You can read our stories here.
What about you, what meaning have you endowed upon certain years of your life?
There was a time when I wanted to be famous. I felt that if I could just see myself under bright lights, on the big screen, or the front page, I would finally feel like I mattered. In the last several years, I’ve stopped craving stardom. Maybe it’s in part because fame seems to be an easier feat to accomplish these days. Do or say something super provocative or heartwarming, post it online, watch it go viral, and—Voila! —for at least fifteen minutes everyone knows your name. But does fame even mean anything anymore now that it is so much more achievable? Then again, did it ever?
I’d like to think that the reason for the change in me goes deeper—that it is because I no longer need other people to look at me first before I am able to see myself or know that I have value. I’ve begun owning that I matter, cultivating this understanding from the inside out, rather than looking for that validation from the outside in.
For the longest time, none of this was the case at all. I let culture and the male gaze, especially, tell me who I was and how much I was worth. Often, that worthiness was tied to whether or not men found me desirable.
Every time I would look in the mirror, I would see what other people told me they saw. My perception of self—especially my female body—was always a secondhand experience, filtered first through the eyes of others.
In the U.S. during the early eighties, at age 13, I was ugly and too brown—at least, that’s what I overheard Will K. tell Misha R. in class one day when he thought I wasn’t listening. For a while after that, whenever I’d look in the mirror, ugly and too brown is what I saw, too.
Three years later, when my family moved to the Philippines, all of a sudden people were telling me that with my big eyes and sharp nose I was sooo pretty. My dark skin went from “the color of mud” to “this beautiful Moorish-looking complexion, like that of our nation’s Spanish ancestors.”
But—ugly or soooo pretty— was I ever really one or the other? I now understand that what these people saw when they looked at me was dependent upon who was doing the gazing and whatever cultural perception of beauty that they were seeing me through.
It wasn’t until I turned 40, when society’s negative ideas about female aging began to eat at me that I realized: I’d spent most of my life only seeing myself as whatever people were reflecting back to me, for how long was I going to let that go on? Not a second longer, I hoped. I decided to take back my body, my beauty, and my womanhood, to free myself from the measuring and judging that comes from anyone else’s gaze but my own.
What does living that way even look like? How does it feel? I am in the process of figuring all of this out in big and small ways. Gazing at my breasts, my face, my belly, and every other part of me without the filter of someone else’s perception is one example. So was learning to shed my shame around sexual pleasure. And then there have been those moments of re-connecting to my womb, owning my voice, claiming my desires, and coming to understand that just like the masculine, the feminine is sacred, too. And the discoveries continue…
This blog has been an important part of these explorations. It is a way to process and share what I’ve discovered. And what a joyful surprise it has been to find out that so many of you want what I want: to free ourselves from the different cultural and societal lenses that keep us smaller and more one-dimensional than who we really are.
To all of you that have shown up here at Stories from the Belly to read, share your own experiences, discuss (sometimes even disagree), express support, or make your presence known in other ways, thank you. I look forward to seeing you all in 2015.
Happy New Year!
An ad for the upcoming Bravo series Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce was recently banned from subways and city buses in Los Angeles and New York because the content was deemed “inappropriate.” In the poster, star Lisa Edelstein is shown smiling while giving the camera her ring finger (as opposed to her middle finger).
There is a faded tan line on that finger, right where her character’s wedding ring used to be. The tag line accompanying the photo is “Go Find Yourself.”
I like the ad, which caused me to do a double take the first time I saw it. Is that an F-off gesture? I wondered, before realizing that it was the ring finger and not the middle one that Edelstein was raising.
The comedy is based on the popular Girlfriends’ Guide series by Vicki Lovine. Considering that it chronicles the life of a fortysomething woman who finds herself single again—probably at a time in her life when she least expected it—the ad makes perfect, tongue-in-cheek sense to me. Sometimes in life, you really do have to just say, Go F-(ind) yourself.
But the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City and Metro Los Angeles, as well as certain mall owners in L.A., think the ad is too offensive to display. Yet this ad, unlike others, doesn’t contain the kinds of gratuitous nudity or violence that get past the censors all the time. In an interview with Fox411, Katie Yoder of the politically conservative Media Research Center (MRC) Culture said that the show’s promo “trivializes marriage while serving as an ad for divorce.”
What, exactly, is so offensive about an ad that depicts a woman choosing to approach life in an empowered way, even when faced with an event as devastating as the end of her marriage? That is not the same as minimizing the institution or encouraging women to get a divorce. Considering that quite a number of marriages end in divorce or separation, why not allude to the possibility of a hopeful, happy future instead of a bleak one? Fortunately, not everyone agrees with the ban. The ad has found placements on other sites in both cities, including this one:
I ended a long-term relationship nearly six years ago at age 38, walking out of our home together and starting all over. Even though everyone tells you that living together is not the same as being married to someone, there was still a lot of loss and grief (along with relief) that came with the separation. I loved him. And if I honestly thought that with hard work we could have found a way to resolve our problems and make each other happy, I would have stayed forever.
With my renewed single status I could tell that certain people felt anxious for me, especially at “my age.” Hurry up and find someone new before it’s too late! You’re getting older. That biological clock of yours will only tick for so long.
I also discovered that because I had never been married, there were people I met who considered this a liability. I was asked the question “why have you never been married” more than once in a tone that seemed to imply, what’s wrong with you that you never took the plunge? Or, was it just that no one was willing to scoop you up? There was also another kind of reaction, with some men I met expressing worry that by now I must be desperate to marry.
This may be the 21st Century, but it seems to me that the idea of a woman who is going it alone without a man, especially as she gets older—whether by choice or because that’s how her life has worked out—still makes some people nervous. I’m not talking about economically. I mean that socially and culturally.
And then there are the derogatory words used for an older woman who has never married: spinster, old maid. The word divorcée, which references a woman, used to have a negative connotation to it, too.
The reality is that despite our best intentions and efforts—a marriage, cohabitation, boyfriend-girlfriend, girlfriend-girlfriend, sex buddies—not every relationship can or should last forever. Some women may prefer to go relationship-less.
And sometimes, in life, whether by choice or circumstance, a woman may just have to stick her I’m single finger up again. And really, what is bad or shameful or inappropriate about that?
For me, at that time in my life, it was the best choice. Who am I? What do I really want? I’d been so busy playing the role of someone else’s other half for so long that I’d forgotten. I took the next four years to find out.
Yet that decision did not preclude me from eventually finding committed love with a partner. If anything, the kind of relationship I have with this man—made up of two healthy whole people instead of two halves trying to make a whole—is only possible because I took the time I needed to find myself again. This time around, I am determined to hold onto both of us for good.
When women come together
Their bodies can reverberate
Creating a rich stew
Of yummy nourishment
I’m floating in a warm pool surrounded by women. Eyes are closed. Hands gently lap the water. Movements are languid, barely making ripples. One woman sits underwater, as if suspended. Above the surface, her breath rises, forming bubbles.
We look like we are hibernating, which in a way we are. This is, after all, a retreat.
It’s just us ladies, so no pressure to pull in one’s tummy to create the illusion of flatness. No need to wear oversize t-shirts to hide soft upper arms or round thighs or skinny hips. No need to walk sexy or look hot. Each of us is resting, saturating in what it feels like to fully inhabit our own skin. We are hiding nothing.
All these women, relaxed in their bodies, have their guard down. They are granting me the privilege of seeing them in all their beauty—flaws, which aren’t even flaws, really—and all.
Out in the world, the definition of a beautiful woman is restricted to such limited ideals. Anyone that doesn’t fit the bill because of tiny breasts, overflowing curves, or fill in the _____ (blank) might make the mistake of thinking she is subpar looking, ugly even.
When I go out in public my first response is to want to scrunch inward—my attempt to squeeze into the narrow images of what beauty is supposed to look like. Stomach compressed in! Skinny jeans on! Show some, but not too much, cleavage.
I try to convince myself that it’s just me I’m reducing down to size. When really, whenever I purposely conform my body into society-approved shape, I’m keeping the objectification of women going.
Here, with this group of women, made up standards of beauty don’t carry any weight. We come together to nourish and support. We gather to shed our shame and self-hatred. We are reclaiming our power, learning to love our bodies.
Even my skin feels like it can breathe more when we’re together. My body relaxes, and I open.
Growing up, looking at other women’s bodies was about comparing. Each glance was another opportunity to rate myself as more than or less than. Always, I was never enough. No one else was ever just right, either.
I didn’t know back then that gazing at a woman’s body could be an act of reverence.
One of the women floats by me on her back. Her soft belly, with its rows of stretch marks, is bare for everyone to see. Another woman stands, the tips of her graying hair create a trail behind her in the water as she heads for the ladder. Her hips, which have curves like a pear, mesmerize with their I’m-taking-my-time sway. She reminds me of Eve in the Garden. All that is missing is a snake to drape around her neck.
Several months ago I wrote, “Stopping the Violence,” a blog post about a verbally abusive relationship I was in. He and I were together for nine months—longer, if you count the times we got back together. While nine months might not sound like a long period, the emotional injuries I sustained from those months with him were significant. It took me years to recover.
Yes, I stayed. Even after he punched a wooden fence one night in a jealous fit because I’d said hello to an ex-boyfriend. Yes, I stayed. Even after he swung his fist at me, stopping just before making contact with my face.
I definitely have had my issues, some of which I was working out with him. For a long time, I used to think that it was all my fault. If only I had been stronger or tougher, or perhaps less broken. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved with him at all.
Then again, some of the strongest and smartest women I know have been in relationships where domestic violence was involved. These are women that if you looked at them you’d think twice before messing with them. These are women that on the outside appear nothing like what you would expect a victim of domestic violence to look.
And like me, it took them a while to realize what was going on. Most of these women didn’t leave right away. One of them is in her abusive relationship still.
At first, I stayed because I didn’t realize that his behavior was abusive. I mistook his jealousy and temper for passion. At that time in my life, nearly twenty years ago, I was numb and out of touch with emotions. The yelling, the torrid makeup sessions would get my adrenaline rushing. The highs and lows created by our dynamic together allowed me to really feel.
I also was under the false impression, thanks to the patriarchal and misogynistic society that I grew up in, that “real” men should want to dominate their woman, “wear the pants.” I found that behavior sexy back then, not offensive and harmful like I do now. Not to mention that the stereotype disparages and is harmful to men.
When the angry outbursts turned into verbal fists and put-downs, I stayed because by then I was emotionally invested in the relationship. I loved him. And it’s not like I sometimes didn’t give as good as I got.
Maybe he was right. Maybe I really was too sensitive. Maybe I needed to toughen up or get a better sense of humor. And like he said, did I really need to talk to my guy friends anymore now that I had him?
Looking back, I realize that, all my rationalizations, this was the abuse talking through me. Blame the victim until she starts to blame herself.
But I was so deeply involved with him, I couldn’t think or see clearly. I no longer had a handle on the relationship. The abuse was handling me.
In her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, author Patricia Evans lists the numerous effects of verbal abuse on women, including:
- A distrust of her spontaneity
- A growing self-doubt
- An anxiety or fear of being crazy
- A desire not to be the way she is, “too sensitive,” etc.
- A reluctance to come to conclusions
- A hesitancy to accept her perception
- A concern that something is wrong with her
I hadn’t understood how abusive his behavior was until I read her book. She described our dynamic, and all my feelings, perfectly.
If I can just make him understand what he is doing, he will want to stop, I thought. But all attempts to explain ended in fights.
I started thinking up reasons I could give him for why we needed to break up. “I want out because you’re abusing me” didn’t feel like it was going to cut it.
I worried about hurting his feelings or making him mad. I felt obligated to give him a reason he would find acceptable. I tried to get him to break up with me instead.
During one of our horrible fights, I gave him an ultimatum that I knew he wouldn’t agree to. I wanted him to think that ending us was his doing.
You’d think I would have been relieved to be done with him. But when he reached out a few months after our break up, I decided to try again. And again. Maybe we just needed time off from one another. Maybe this time will be different. It never was.
After him, I became wary about men who liked to fight. I became wary of most men, really.
Years later, I dated a man who appeared to hate conflict. He would shut down at the hint of an argument. He would spoil me, taking me on trips abroad and showering me with expensive presents.
But over time he’d start to tell these jokes. There was the one about how I needed stop wearing my red high heels because they made me look like a slut. Just kidding, sweetie! Or how when people saw us together they looked at me and immediately thought “mail order bride.” It’s just a joke, honey!
Sometimes, he would imitate me when I smiled. Only, he would scrunch up his eyes and twist his mouth sideways into these grotesque expressions. This is what you look like, sweetie! Then he would lean over and kiss me.
His remarks, cushioned in teasing, affectionate tones would catch me off guard. The “jokes” would usually happen at the most unexpected moments—a romantic dinner at an expensive restaurant, while laughing with friends at a wedding. I’d be feeling happy and relaxed or confident and that was when he’d strike.
Until this man, I had no idea that domestic violence can happen even when there is no yelling or fighting involved. I had no idea that it could be doled out so tenderly or take place in such public, even fancy, settings.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that approximately 42.4 million women in the U.S. have experienced intimate partner violence. Domestic violence impacts individuals of all ages and from every level of education, economic background, gender, race, and nationality. Often, intimate partner violence happens behind closed doors.
I doubt that NFL player Ray Rice ever thought that anyone would be watching him punch out Janay, his then-fiancé, inside an elevator. She later married him.
Many women are too ashamed or terrified to admit to anyone, including themselves, that their boyfriend/fiancé/husband/wife/the father of their children is abusive. It is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to refuse to press charges against her partner.
When a woman is deep in an abusive relationship—which is often when the violence starts—the abuse happens enough times that her tolerance level goes up. Someone going into a rage in the middle of the night for the smallest reason starts to feel like normal, instead of unacceptable, behavior. Leaving him, which would seem like the obvious, logical choice, gradually turns into the last resort.
Maybe a woman has come to depend on her partner financially. Or maybe he is the father of her children. Maybe she is afraid he’ll kill her if she tries to leave. Or maybe she can’t imagine living without him.
I am in no means advocating for anyone to stay in an abusive relationship. Leave immediately, if you can, is my advice. But I do want to honor the many reasons why women stay with their abusers, as evidenced by everyone who tweeted their own reasons under #WhyIStayed.
Their reasons may not make sense to anyone else. Some of their reasons may not even make sense to these women. Then again, nothing about domestic violence makes sense.
I saw a woman at the bank the other day. A bank teller. She had the same kind of liver spots on her face that my grandmother used to have, right on the side of her cheeks by her eyes. She had laugh lines like my grandmother did. The shape of her face was almost exactly like hers. So was the texture of her skin. I wondered if the woman’s skin, like my grandmother’s skin, is what old lady Filipina skin is supposed to look like… like a coconut but not so hard, smooth even though it looks rough.
Seeing this woman was like looking at grandmother again, as if she were standing in front of me even though it wasn’t really her. The teller also had drawn in eyebrows, except my grandmother never used black eyeliner to pencil in her eyebrows. She always used a brown pencil. (Although when my grandmother was in her seventies once, she drew one of her eyebrows in blue because she was in a hurry and didn’t notice. When my sister pointed it out hours later my grandmother laughed so hard that she had to put her hand over her mouth to keep the rest of her laughter from spilling out all over the floor.)
I wanted to touch this bank teller’s face. I wanted to press my face next to hers and inhale deep to see if she smelled like Pond’s cold cream and Johnson’s baby powder, just like my grandmother. If I could have stood in front of the teller window longer I would have looked at her hands to see if they were wrinkled in the same places where my grandmother’s fingers had been wrinkled too.
As a little girl living in the Philippines, when it it was time to take a nap, I would get into bed with my grandmother and wrap my arms and legs around her until I’d fully sunken into her down comforter softness. I would hold on to her tight because I knew that once I fell asleep she’d find a way to free herself from my limbs and get on with the rest of her day. I didn’t want to let her go.
When my grandmother died in 2006 I didn’t make it to her deathbed. I wasn’t able to fly back from the U.S. for her funeral either, so I never got to hold her goodbye. For that first year after, the longing to hug her one more time was this big, constant ache inside of me.
Until one day, while moving in my body—which is my way of going inward and working out stuff in my life—the realizations hit me:
I come out of the womb of my mother, who came out of the womb of my grandmother. We’re like a Matryoshka doll—only human, not wooden; Filipina, not Russian. My body comes in part from my grandmother’s DNA, which still very much lives on in my DNA. My grandmother is right here, right now, alive in me.
Knowing this doesn’t make the hurt of losing her any less, but it does make the pain feel a little less tender. Now, when I miss my grandmother, rather than looking everywhere and wondering if she’s out there, I sink into my body a little more deeply instead. Because I know that’s where I can always find her.
I love to drop into my womb. I first learned about this practice when I started studying The Tantric Dance of Feminine Power™ over ten years ago. “Drop into your womb” is one of the instructions the teacher gives you before you can dance.
As someone who was used to connecting to my body from the outside-in—usually secondhand through the male gaze—I’d never thought to connect to my body from inside of myself, let alone to my womb of all places.
That very first time I tried to drop into my womb, I ended up in my belly area instead. Since the belly is the part of the female body I would see grow bigger in pregnant women, I figured that was where my womb must be. But when I went home later that night and Googled “womb” just to be sure, I discovered that it was located lower down in my body.
Up to this point, I’d spent a lot of my life living in my head, thinking… thinking… thinking my way through life rather than being fully in my body and present to the moment. My body, as far as I was concerned, was for getting me places and attracting the opposite sex. It was also the part of me that my mind couldn’t seem to control no matter how hard it tried. I felt like I was occupying my body but not really connected to it.
My body liked to disobey me. Like in gym class when I was a girl. I so wanted to hit that volleyball over the net whenever it came flying my way. I would try to “think” my arms into gracefully knocking the ball over, but noooooooo! My hands would helplessly flap at the ball, while the rest of me tried to get out of the way because I was afraid of getting hit.
I also was fearful of my body’s natural appetites and impulses. I believed that if I wasn’t constantly regulating my own behavior I might overeat, get knocked up, or end up in other sorts of trouble.
“Think with your head! You can’t trust your body,” one of my male relatives would warn me.
No wonder it took me a while to learn how to drop into my womb and stay there.
Now, when I say that I drop into my womb, I don’t actually physically re-enter my uterus or go sliding around in my fallopian tubes. That would be truly frightening—and probably grotesque and very messy. It’s about focusing my awareness down in my pelvic area instead of letting it stay up in my head.
When I drop into my womb, my awareness—some might call this the mind, consciousness, or spirit—comes down and links up with my body. My head and my body no longer feel like disjointed parts, at odds with one another. They become unified parts of a whole—that whole being me.
I’ve grown to love this way of connecting with my body so much that I’ve started to drop into my womb even when I’m not in dance class.
When my mind and my body are joined up, it is easier for them to work together and communicate with one another. Playing volleyball would be a different experience now if I were to drop into my womb. I’d let my body and its instincts and impulses kick ass, rather than trying to play the sport from just inside my head.
Connecting to my womb space has made a lot of life’s experiences more satisfying. Sex is more pleasurable when my awareness is down around my pelvic area instead of in my brain, where I can’t feel anything. As a performer, I do my best acting when I’m dropped in my womb instead of agonizing about remembering my lines. And believe it or not, I even drop into my womb when I parallel park!
And you know how sometimes you just know things even though you don’t know how you know them? These hits of insight and intuition come through me even stronger when I’m dropped into my womb:
You don’t have writer’s block. The story you want to tell just needs more time to gestate in your body… I know you think you blew that job interview by not pretending to be more excited. That was your body’s way of helping you weed out the wrong opportunity…. Stop trying to figure out what to do next! Stay connected to your body and wait for the answer to come to you.
It’s as if by dropping into my womb, I connect to a flowing fountain of wisdom—my own wisdom. This is not information that comes from books or experts. It is knowledge that comes directly through my feminine body.
So many women are taught to cast aside their own instincts and feelings in favor of the opinions and instructions of external authority figures—male ones, especially—that it can seem wrong to act upon that inner knowing. It also can feel bizarre and frightening. But what if there is no better guide for how to live our lives than our own female bodies?
When we are plugged into our bodies, we become embodied. This transforms us into women with full access to the unique wisdom, abilities, and powers that reside in each of us, waiting to be unleashed.
As a young girl living in the Philippines, I used to stand in the middle of my bedroom, stretch my arms wide, and turn around and around in place. I so badly wanted to transform into Wonder Woman—or, at the very least, her younger sister.
I thought I wanted to be a superhero, like Superman or Batman, when really what I longed for was to experience my own power.
Every time I drop into my womb, I am Wonder Woman. I become my own kind of wonder woman.