Running’s toll on the body
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the December 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine
Catherine Deneuve, actress and legendary beauty, apparently said that when a woman gets older, she has to choose between her ass and her face. You can’t, apparently, save both from the depredation of aging.
No one needs to tell this to a woman runner.
Like most if not all women, there are parts of my body I hate (my legs are bowed, I don’t have a waist, the feet are hideous), but generally I don’t spend much mental time on how I look. As I enter my 50s, I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. My body is hard and my little muscles ripple. But whenever I start to feel good about myself, I remember a quote from Guy Ritchie, who said that sleeping with his ex-wife, Madonna, was like “cuddling up to a piece of gristle.” I may be the only one to appreciate me.
But I am starting to notice the toll the past two decades of running has taken on my appearance, especially my face. I’m trying not to let it bother me. But the truth is, it does.
In many ways, being active and athletic imparts youthfulness. Fitness indicates vitality. There’s a reason the metaphors for youth have to do with ripeness. As we age, we shrivel and shrink, and running doesn’t help with that.
Most runners spend a lot of time outdoors; the elements are not benign. We get weathered. Our skin starts to look like a topo map, layered and mottled, replete with contour lines and weird geological features like mini mounds and craters, especially the sun-exposed parts. Especially the face.
This can serve to make men even more attractive. Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Robert Redford continued to get roles as romantic leads at grandpa-age. Even younger guys like Daniel Craig and Thomas Haden Church can get away with looking older and still be hot. Other than Harold and Maude, I can’t think of a lot of movies where you see 80-year-old women in bed. Or 40-year-old women who can move their Botox-frozen foreheads.
I suspect that many–perhaps most–male runners don’t think about the possible deleterious effects of our sport on their looks. The guys I know pay obsessive attention to their bodies. A tire around the middle can be identity-threatening, and a few excess pounds can provoke sorority-girlish “I’m so fat” laments.
But cheeks hollowed out by the miles, parentheses around the nose and mouth, elevens between the brows, crow’s feet so big they could belong to ravens–I wonder how many men even notice these in the mirror. When I think about the faces of my running friends, all handsome men (aren’t our friends by definition people we find attractive?), I love their creases and crags. They look, especially those with boyish miens, more manly. Wrinkly women do not look more womanly.
In fact, my friends, the men, think that running makes them more attractive. One believes that it’s helping him keep his hair–more circulation to the scalp. Others note increased blood flow to appendages, where hardness is not simply a matter of vanity. (Some of the more honest dudes mention fear of becoming less fit lest they Bob Dole-out.) Some guys don’t even know that they have wrinkles; some feel wizened and distinguished by them. Many have told me that when they go to reunions, their classmates wonder if they’ve dipped into the fountain of youth.
The great irony is that so many people start running because they want to look better, and, in particular, to lose weight. As we pass 40, men continue to reap the cosmetic benefits of being athletic while women can end up looking, well, haggish. At a certain age, the tradeoff for a cute body is a less-cute face. Things start to sag. Jiggly bits get more jiggly.
Arguments about the gendered cultural constructions of beauty are familiar and cliched. Americans are used to seeing rich and powerful–albeit fat and bald–men with luscious young, under-achieving women, and think: That’s a typical attractive couple.
As with many things, Ben Franklin weighed in on this issue. In an essay that could be called “Why You Want To Be Cougar-Bait,” he instructs a young man on the choice of a mistress and explains why older women are preferable. His list of reasons includes:
“Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.”