Five years ago this June, my calendar alert sounded to remind me that I had my annual OB/GYN appointment the next day, and while I don’t think there is a single woman alive who actively looks forward to that day each year, I was lucky in that I had a doctor I liked and trusted at a practice that was as comfortable as it could conceivably be considering the marginally-less-than medieval torture that seemed to go on in there.
As a teenager, I was aware of my body; typically, any attention I paid to it was rooted in a need for outside validation. In my 20s, I was consumed with how my body looked, which may seem to be in direct contradiction to how I treated it. My graduate school friends and I may have been studying to be academic experts, but we’d already locked down our doctorates in drink specials any day of the week, sometimes doubling up our discounts. When I wasn’t carrying trays at the restaurant where I worked after classes, my workouts usually consisted of dancing to cover bands or DJs until the wee hours of the morning.
At 41, I now think about how my body feels, and I worry about its functionality. Last fall, one of my closest friends experienced a fairly significant health emergency, and in her experience, I realized I could not be so cavalier about my own health anymore. I’d always been vigilant about my annual exams, but I explained to my primary care physician that while I was in my 40s, I didn’t feel like it. In my head, I am still far younger than my birth year indicates. An hour later, I’d leave her office with no less than seven appointments with various specialists all over town. So much for her “you’re in pretty good health” just a few moments earlier.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been poked by an allergist (no allergies; can you believe it?), had part of my toenail removed by a podiatrist (more painful than it sounds), and stared at the ceiling as a dermatologist examined my face under the hard glare of a blinding fluorescent light (severe rosacea; thanks, genetics). Although none of these appointments overly concerned me, I’ve learned that being healthy is not the same as not needing a doctor’s attention.
Yesterday, I sat in the breast health—I can’t make that up—inner waiting room, and the other women and I all lounged in our swanky robes, reading one of the ubiquitous fashion magazines that are always scattered around any place designed to make you ignore the minutes as they tick slowly by. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we were sharing in a mental health “me” day at some overpriced spa, waiting for facials, massages, and mani/pedi combos. It’s as if in building this illusion of low lights and zen gardens that the designers convinced themselves that the very women who sit in those seats, day in and day out, aren’t making silent pleas with the universe that the scans will come back clear and that words like “cancer” and “treatment” will never be uttered.
For reasons I cannot quite understand, we treat women’s health as though it is fragile, in need of some complicated disguise. Companies air commercials where our most basic selves are cloaked behind the smiles of women who always seem to be jogging, flanked by their equally fit BFFs. The women in these ads always have perfect hair and makeup, and they never seem to sweat or grunt or utter any curse words while they run. As women, we talk about our bodies in language laced with euphemisms, and we paint everything from vitamins to tampons in various shades of pink as if women never progress beyond the swaddling blankets and onesies we dress infants in so that their sex is evident to strangers and friends alike. It’s as though health professionals want women to ignore the very bodies that they are treating and instead concentrate on how our health makes us feel rather than on how our bodies function; that if we close our eyes and pretend hard enough, our bodies will be something other than our own.
This was not my first mammogram as that appointment years ago led to a scare that required far more complicated maneuvers than this one had, and the technician was nice enough. Thankfully, she did not feel the need to engage in inane small talk as she repositioned me in the most noninvasive invasive way possible. I wanted to tell the tech that she didn’t need to tell me to hold my breath, the vice grip she’d clamped down had already stolen it away, rendering me incapable of doing anything more than nodding.
There is a small part of me that appreciates the attention paid to making me feel comfortable, but let’s be honest: is there anything anymore dehumanizing than being manhandled by a machine? For all the effort that goes into making women try and forget their bodies, you’d think someone would have invented a machine that didn’t require my unforgiving layer of back fat to be shifted and pulled so that there is enough tissue to fill the X-ray tray.
I used to listen to my mother, her friends, and various women in my life lament how everything changes after 40. Back then, 40 seemed so old to me. At 41, I look back and wonder if they felt the same way I do now. That for all indications, my body is aging, but my brain swears I can still dance all night only to get up and do it all over again the very next day. Thankfully, I am not planning on testing this theory any time soon as I am sure the outcome would not be anything like what I’ve imagined. Instead, I am sitting at my kitchen table—coffee mug empty, laptop open, music playing—as I cross another appointment off my list and silently ask for another all clear phone call once my doctor reviews the scans. Until then, I will fill the time with chores that demand my attention, and I will probably engage in some form of physical activity. In doing so, I will pour ugly buckets of sweat with my hair pulled up in bands and barrettes, panting and cursing, as my body stretches and bends and strengthens.
I don’t think I’ve ever engaged in a workout alongside my best friend outside our required gym classes in school, and I am confident I have never managed a smile while doing so. My wardrobe contains precisely one pink shirt, and I only wear it when I have exhausted all of my other options, which if you know anything about me means it may see the light of day once a year. Like a mammogram. Cycling around as a reminder of the passage of time, my health, and my age. The real one; not the one in my head. Because as much as I want to pretend it isn’t happening, I am firmly in that middle-aged demographic now. And trust me when I say, it’s not so old anymore.