This morning I got an email from a colleague that said “Happy International Very Good Looking and Damn Smart Woman’s Day” to which I thought “right on!” The message went on to list a number of sayings and quotes about women and life in general – “inside every old woman is a young woman asking what the heck happened”, “the hardest years in life are between the ages of 10 and 70” and other similarly humorous phrases. It’s Friday, so I took the time to read through them. They all made me smile, but then I read one that actually made me think: “35 is when you finally get your head together and body starts falling apart.” I massaged my neck as I stared at my computer screen and thought to myself, “too true”.
When I was 18, I fell in love hard. It was on my very first day at college. He was older and sexy and funny and charismatic, and cooler than anyone I had ever met before, next to my brothers. For some reason he took a liking to me and put on the charm from the first moment I met him. I distinctly remember my parents walking me into the admission office, and this very suave manlike boy turned around, and as his mouth slowly unzipped into a stunning smile, he said “you’re Kim Cullen?” When we found out he was a resident advisor in my dorm, my dad spluttered something like “oh boy” (only, I think a bit stronger). I instinctively sensed he was Dangerous, but I was already in – hook, line, and sinker. We dated for a few weeks, until one morning, I walked over to his room, and as I raised my hand to knock on his door, I heard the sound of laughter… a woman’s laughter. I was devastated. I spent the next months avoiding him, crying in the bathroom, drinking too much at frat parties, eating a lot. The rest of that first year was torture. It wasn’t only about him – this was a precarious time in my life: I was away from home for the first time. I felt like an outsider among American kids since even though I was American by passport, I had grown up overseas. I was struggling to redefine my relationship with my parents as I slowly began to exert my independence. And to top it all off, I had had my heart ripped to shreds by a gorgeous older boy. I returned home at the end of the year hoping to be able to piece myself back together. I discovered aerobics, and found stability in physical strength. It became addicting and I worked out daily, sometimes twice a day. As the baby fat started to melt off, I realized that eating less would speed up the process. By the end of the summer, I was eating less than 300 calories a day. When I returned to school in the fall, people noticed. I had never experienced such appreciation simply because of the way I looked. Once, I was even approached in the dining hall by a senior who asked if I was modeling… You can imagine the boost.
Therapy helped me get back on track. So did cigarettes and peanut butter. I realized that eating was actually fun. But with it came a swing back to being overweight, and a brand new cycle of feeling bad about myself. For me, eating (or not) became my way of handling pain. The deeper the pain, the more I damaged myself. This continued for years, and riding the pendulum from healthy to unhealthy (both physically and emotionally) again and again left scars on my psyche – not to mention stretch marks on my body. There have been many peaks and valleys in my emotional development, but when I was 32, I finally got mad. The anger came out in all kinds of ways, and in the end, I found myself signing my divorce papers. I remember talking to my brother on the phone the night before and asking him “what does one wear to a divorce?” He told me to find something in my closet that made me feel confident but “hot”. Oh, and definitely cowboy boots, he said. And so it was that I walked into my lawyer’s office the next day wearing jeans, a tank top and a blazer, a sexy tiger-striped scarf, and cowboy boots. I felt good.
It was during this time – at the height of my troubled adult life – that I met and started dating Dave. Dave made me feel like a different kind of woman altogether. For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to be thinner or fatter. I didn’t need to worry about how I looked because he thought my MIND was sexy. It didn’t matter if I had bed head, or bad breath or a pimple, or if I was bloated… he loved ME and that was enough. When I turned 35, he joked about how it was all downhill from there, and he’d soon be looking for a newer model. The glimmer in his eye as he said it gave him away, though, and last fall, we got married in Las Vegas.
The irony is this: I’m 37 now and yes, my body sometimes hurts. My back aches when I stand for too long. My neck tenses if I don’t take breaks from the computer. My hips and knees get gimpy on rainy days. My recovery time after a workout is longer than ever before. And I can’t drink more than a glass and a half of wine anymore. But when my husband smiles at me, I feel younger and sexier than I ever have. When he tells me I am beautiful, I know it’s true. And when I feel his eyes follow me as I walk by him, I know that this Kim, the 37 year old one with the body that sometimes aches, well… she finally got her head together.