Reaching and maintaining equilibrium is not done by force of heredity; it’s something we cultivate through the way we live. Genetics plays a part, of course, and balance certainly does seem easier for some. But looks can be deceiving; some may actually mask unhealthy habits. Consider the proverbial model who eats nothing but burgers and pizza yet doesn’t gain a ounce. Genetics may be protecting her insides—for now—from this assault (if not from our envious glares.) But, just as likely, such a woman may in fact be less well than one who must pay much more attention to what she consumes, how much she moves, etc. Genetic predisposition to slenderness is not, as I have said, disproportionately distributed among French women. Most who appear to live in healthy balance are actually working at it. But that work has been made infinitely easier by wise cultural conditioning and practice.
Unfortunately for all women—see under “life, unfairness of”—the equilibrium we work to achieve shifts as we age. If we don’t continue paying close attention to our bodies, our healthy balance will be pulled out from under us. But despair not: attention and incremental adjustment throughout life are easier than big corrections following long intervals of imbalance. Alertness and rapid response can allow us to enjoy a long life of pleasures while never getting fat.
Still, it does happen. We can be eating well and staying active, etc. for years, when, bang!: force majeure. This is true for all humans, but especially women, whose weight and silhouette can be radically altered by three major physiological and psychological events, in which hormones run amuck: adolescence, pregnancy and menopause. All three present a serious potential for troublesome weight gain, and it’s better to plan for them, rather than eat first and ask questions later.
With increased life expectancies, this stage, dismissed as old age just a few decades ago, is now for many one of the most vital times of life. (Better late than never.) Well being, while not rare, is, however, more fragile in these years, when health problems that might roll off a younger woman’s back can have much more serious effects. For this reason, pampering oneself is important. You must acknowledge the positive form of “selfishness,” which is not self-absorption but a more refined and serene attentiveness to needs, comforts, and now limitations of the body.
After 50, most women have the good fortune of clearly recognizing the things they truly care about. It’s a time in life when we focus on those things, improve our lives through simplification and get real about the things to be let go. In some ways, it’s when we learn to say no, not out of self-denial but because we know better. The mind is never a stronger ally in wellness. Take it easy. This does not mean spending the rest of your days in sweats. It’s not the time to be négligée (in the sense of negligent, not underwear) but soignée (elegant and groomed).
This time can be full of pleasure but graceful aging requires some sensible renouncements. In a society obsessed with youth—always has been, but it used to be 20-year olds not pre-teens—that’s not always easy, and will require all the resources of self-awareness you have cultivated. Aging can be a crisis for any woman, but those who do it well are those who end up accepting it as natural. Mourning youth is perfectly natural too, but some, like Hamlet, mourn too long. Acceptance is rewarded with the realization that life can go on wonderfully well.
The well-tempered mind is what saves us from dwelling too much on the past (regret and loss) or the future (no longer unlimited). The same mind and breathing exercises that we use to regulate proper eating, help us concentrate on the moment and living properly. These years must be taken a day at a time. Every day is a bonus. With acceptance of one’s age and time remaining comes gifts: a wise reluctance to waste little moments of happiness (whose preciousness the young often fritter), peace of mind that comes with tolerance, as well as patience and less resentment of the world. If you do it right, time (which might seem an enemy) will seem more an illusion.
Physically, the worst offense is trying to be une vieille qui veut faire jeune (an older woman who decks herself out like a young thing): mini skirts, bikinis, too much make up. They are not unheard of in France, where occasionally the well-preserved fall prey to the temptation of flaunting it. But there’s nothing lovely about a 70-year-old-woman at the market in short shorts no matter how great her legs are. Modesty is de rigueur the more impractical concealing one’s age becomes. At that point being natural is the best revenge. Surgery and rouge pots suggest one is not bien dans sa peau, which, as we say, is the essence of a French woman’s mystique.
The French rightly acknowledge there is a particular mystique to une femme d’un certain âge, an expression with layers of meaning including respect but also worldliness and hints of seduction. Our media have no trouble projecting the sexiness of Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Rampling. Here the difference between France and America is amazing. In Europe, men naturally find women of this age group desirable, even sexy, and are often caught turning around to look at one entering a restaurant. If she is eating alone they are more likely to flirt with her than pity her. It’s inconceivable in New York, where eye contact seems to have gone the way of smoking.
If you are alert, aging seems to present you with its own common-sense instructions. But here are some adjustments to consider:
- Practice some routine physical exertion all your life, and you’ll be in better shape to continue. But if you haven’t, it truly is never too late to start. And the little stroll, which may have seemed a trivial improvement to your younger self, may seem more a life-affirming ritual. A reliable daily accomplishment.
- Revisit your food selection, and revise again in favor of more fruits and vegetables. Have fruit, especially berries, at least twice a day in season. Try to keep meat to once a week and fish to twice a week; eggs are fine but no more than one a day, lentils, green vegetables and salads, potatoes (avoid mashed and fries), brown rice, and bien sûr, a glass or two of wine a day. Keep eating yogurts religiously.
- Meals and portions tend to get smaller automatically as the older body reaches satiety faster. Sometimes the problem is not eating too much but too little, and suffering deficiencies. When having meat and fish, three ounces is sufficient for good nutrition. Adding the afternoon goûter is a good idea. A simple flan is a good source of protein and calcium. In fact, you may want to out-French the French and consider 5 smaller meals instead of 3 standard-size ones. Because their taste buds are no longer as sharp, seniors grow bored with their foods more quickly. It makes more sense to eat smaller portions than to force feed a younger woman’s diet, as sometimes happens.
- Be attentive to how easily you digest. Rich desserts may no longer like you as much as you like them. Reserve for special occasions and have little portions.
- Lubricate skin morning and night. Don’t forget your hands—moisturize after every wash. (Old-fashioned Vaseline Intensive Care lotion is fine. No need for outrageously expensive creams with genetically engineered ingredients).
- Another remarkably therapeutic change: add two tablespoons of walnut oil to your daily diet. Studies have suggested benefits for mood, blood flow and heart rhythm. It’s also an anti-inflammatory. This would have interested my relatives in Provence who recognized this stuff as a magic potion. They used walnut and hazelnut oil frequently but sparingly (it’s expensive) on salads throughout life. Both are also wonderful new flavors if you haven’t tried them.
- Water, water, water! I know I am harping, but after 80 years of living, hydration is a life-and-death matter. When my mother reached her 90s, her doctor, not Dr. Miracle, alas, but of the same school, reminded me that at her stage the two greatest dangers can be dehydration and sudden weight loss. Je n’ai pas soif (I’m not thirsty) is a common refrain among the elderly, but following his instructions she emptied one glass every 3 hours.