Standing at the copier, I hear her practical, navy blue pumps coming around the corner. She forces a smile, which feels more like a smirk, and says, “Cute dress.” But her tone drips some sort of latent judgment that implies otherwise. I give her as genuine of a smile possible and nod a thank you. “A couple more years and you will be too old to wear cute things like that.” She grabs her papers and leaves the room.
I have just had my thirty-ninth birthday, and forty—four. zero.—looms big ahead of me in an unexpected way. I have dyed my hair for years now, faking that dark, lush look that once came so easily. The wrinkles on my forehead make me look like an aghast version of my mother and I suddenly hate my smile. My ass gets exponentially larger each year, while breasts droop and bunions grow. The only thing I can count on is the closet full of lovely second-hand dresses I have carefully collected over the years, and here this woman in dowdy pumps is telling me that really, I’m getting too old to wear those, too. I’m guessing by too old, she means forty.
Four. zero. It gnaws at me for months and I can’t shake it. I buy a convertible. I quit my job. I start writing a book. I buy tickets to Europe. But I am still terrified of impending age. I want to be pretty and spirited. I don’t want to wear cat sweatshirts, high-waist jeans, and moccasins to Walmart to buy toilet paper in bulk.
And I know strong women aren’t supposed to admit this, lest we disrupt the nuanced boundaries of political correctness, but I enjoy male admiration. I like flirtatious gestures and the approval that rests in men’s eyes. I want my husband to desire me, and I want other men to wonder if they would ever have the strength and patience to wrangle me. And I want to be able to admire them right back. Sensuality and sexuality are not the antithesis to feminism.
But four. zero. No pretty dresses. Deteriorating everything. No men. This is where my mind lulls itself in self-agonizing angst when I land in Paris, a childhood dream of mine: stained cat sweatshirts, a droopy, lumpy bottom, and an androgynous future.
The sun rises above Montmartre on my first morning in Paris, but I miss it because of our midnight stroll to the ghostly Sacre Couer the previous night. It doesn’t matter though, because we learn throughout the week that our tiny Parisian street stays quiet until well after 10 every morning. In fact, at that time, wafts of fresh-cooked bread still linger in the cobblestone streets as we search out the perfect baguette. Over the course of a week, we become familiar with the winding streets. The kind man who runs the marché slips my son an apricot to try while we purchase fresh berries for lunch. The barista at the patisserie knows our coffee order. The father and son who run the grocery store below our flat allow me to work through my terrible francais. I have heard that the Parisians are impatient, rude, and outright snotty, but have yet to meet one. In fact, I am enamored with the people.
But mostly, I am enamored with the women.
On the Metro, they sit with their ankles crossed, adorable shoes adorning their feet. I see women with painful looking bunions, unabashedly wearing beautiful sandals. Scarves are thrown carefully to create a careless effect around shoulders. Headbands hold back simple hairstyles. The women do not slump in their seats. Their backs are straight, their shoulders square, their faces poised. On the street, skirts do not impede bike riding nor do daily errands impede style. Trips to the grocery store or park still necessitate being put-together. There is no sloppy-hair-in-a-bun-and-here-are-my-sweatpants look happening. Amazingly, there are also no kitten sweatshirts anywhere. And I am not talking about just the twenty-somethings—that generation which, in America, is granted the only permission to be beautiful. I am talking about all women, all ages and all sizes. Style, dignity, poise, and simplicity breed sensuality and each woman holds herself as though she feels desirable, regardless of her age and shape. She commands herself as both smart and sexual. She is young. She is old. She is definitely four. zero. And she is certainly not getting too old to wear cute dresses.
I watch her—on a park bench, in the fromagerie, at the Metro—and I am in love with the Parisian woman. I visit the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Venus de Milo, but none of them are as captivating as the women I encounter on the streets and in the stores.
In the evenings I sit at the flung open window of our flat, drinking wine, listening to Chopin fill the air between me and the theatre house across the street, immersed in my own comfortable solitude of thought. Every morning I get up, put on a cute dress, grab a scarf, and spend a couple extra minutes with the hair and makeup routine, checking my square shoulders and reminding myself to keep my chin raised. Poise is sensuality.
When I return home, I read ridiculous amounts of literature about French women, looking for the secrets and discover there’s a whole market out there on face creams, diets, and lifestyle coaching. But it seems too unnecessarily complicated and too expensive, so I dismiss it all. In reality, all that marketed advice ignores what I learned most from Parisian women: Take care. Be beautiful. Embrace. If you can do those things, dismissing the heavy-handed messages our media and the woman at the copier send us, four. zero becomes just another number, and we walk into just another kind of sensuous beauty.
And sensuous beauty looks different depending on who you are, what you’ve embraced, and where you embrace it. Despite all the seemingly terrible ways my body has changed, it is still strong. My arms are softly sculpted from lifting rocks and carrying firewood, my waist, school-girlishly delicate and small. My hair, even though tinged with reoccurring silver wisps, is still long and thick, and my humor is still sharp. My curiosity is still peaked. Wrinkles emanate from the corners of my eyes as evidence of a life filled with laughter and surprise.
We cannot all live in France. I live on a small farm in New Hampshire and teach in a public school. Sometimes my Bogs, flannel, and thug hat are my dress for days on end, as are short shorts and tight tank tops while I dig in the garden. Braids and Keens are practical to take to the mountains in, and a run to the store does sometimes occur with messy hair and sweatpants. I do not regularly stroll the streets of Paris and cannot always be Parisian in style. However, I can still be a beautiful woman on my own count. Even at forty.
And most mornings, you can find me at the copier wearing a cute dress.