Discover more from Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar
Greetings from Austria, where I am sailing down the Danube River on my “cruise with Cheryl Strayed” excursion. It has been tremendous fun, though I almost didn’t make it because COVID finally took me down earlier this month. I’m feeling much better now, though it was rough for several days. I was in Greece when the illness hit, so my stay there extended a week beyond what I’d planned. As I lay in my sick bed in Corfu—which sounds more romantic than it was—I thought a lot about how very grateful I’d be once I was well again, how very much I won’t take my good health for granted.
I’m there now—in this dazzled post-summer fever, post-COVID state of thank you—watching the river flow by, marveling at the beautiful landscape as our ship sails past, feeling stronger and more awake by the day, feeling like I really will start doing yoga and planks and squats and deep breathing exercises at least six times a week forevermore (check back with me on that).
While I’ve been away in Europe, production began on the TV adaptation of my book, Tiny Beautiful Things. I’m a writer and executive producer on the show and have spent the past many months working alongside the magnificent showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, who has become a beloved sister to me, while teaching me everything I know about making television. Our star is the brilliant Kathryn Hahn. Every time I think about how lucky we are that she is our Sugar I almost burst into joy tears. I mean, she’s always wonderful, but she’s especially wonderful in this. I cannot wait for you all to see the show. It’ll be out on Hulu soon (I know that’s vague, but I promise you’ll be the first to know when I have a date to share).
From the department of announcements: I’ll be teaching a writing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York the weekend of October 7–9. At the moment, the website only lists the in-person option, but we’ll be adding an online livestream option soon, so if you’re interested in that, check the website in a week or two. If you want to come in person, I can tell you it’s a beautiful place to write and commune, so I hope you’ll join me. You can find out more about it and register here.
Since I’ve been so immersed in thoughts about the body this month—how we love, hate, harm, and heal our dear bodies (oh, and since I’ve had to put on a swimsuit a time or two as well)—I’m going to sign off with a Dear Sugar letter from the archives from a woman in her mid-fifties who wrote to me about how she struggled to feel comfortable with her body. It’s called “Tiny Revolutions” and you’ll find it below.
Thanks for subscribing to my newsletter. I hope you and yours are healthy and well. I’m waving to you as I pass by on my river boat. I’m sending you my love.
“Tiny Revolutions,” from Tiny Beautiful Things.
I’m a woman in my mid-50s. I read your column regularly and believe that my question is pedestrian but am humbly asking for your advice and support anyway as I sit in the pain of it all.
After a couple decades of marriage, my husband and I are separating. I’m at peace with it as I feel my marriage has essentially been dead for a while. My husband never was demonstrative emotionally or physically. I have spent many years feeling horribly lonely. No amount of trying to get from him what I needed brought change. It took a lot for me to finally believe that I was worthy of more and to make a step toward that possibility.
Of course the future terrifies me and excites me at the same time. I want to create more loving relationships in my life, both in friendship and romance. I want and need loving touches, loving words. And at the same time, I’m terrified that I’ll never feel the tender touch of a man. Yesterday, as a friend was telling me about a wonderful intimate moment with his partner, I was frightened that I would never have that in my life.
I worry about sex. I haven't been with another man for a long time. The sex in my marriage was routine and uninspiring. At one point, I told my husband I wanted to have sex more often and he made a joke of it the next night. And, I am afraid I am not very "good" at it. I would orgasm regularly with my husband so it isn't that. We hid behind what worked until it got boring. For years I imagined robust, adventurous sex and yet, I would allow the routine to continue. I am afraid that I will meet a man that I connect with and we’ll have sex and I will not be any good in bed.
I need help. How does one go about changing that before it's too late?
And, then there is the issue of my body. With clothes on, I am presentable. Without clothes, my body reveals the story of significant weight gain and significant weight loss. I feel good about losing weight, but naked my body is droopy and I’m embarrassed by it. I try to imagine how I will be present sexually with all my insecurities in that department. Surgery is expensive and out of my means. My doctor says without it, my skin won't regain the same tightness. I imagine orchestrating ways to keep from being seen but I know that probably won't work and I am so afraid of how a potential lover will react. I don't want to hide behind my fear and yet, I am so very frightened of exposing myself. I know you can't do it for me Sugar and yet, I feel so alone in this place of fear.
Are there men my age who date women my age who will be accepting of my body? I know you really don't have the answer but I ask anyway. Emotionally, I am very brave. Sexually and being vulnerable with my body, I am not so much but want to be. And, of course, I am equally terrified that I won't have the opportunity to express myself and challenge myself in that way. Please help.
When my daughter was five she overheard me complaining to Mr. Sugar that I was a big fat ugly beast who looks terrible in everything and immediately she asked with surprise, “You’re a big fat ugly beast who looks terrible in everything?”
“No! I was only joking!” I exclaimed, in a falsely cheerful tone. Then I proceeded to pretend, for the sake of my daughter’s future self-esteem, that I did not believe myself to be a big fat ugly beast who looks terrible in everything.
My impulse is to do the same for you, Wanting. In order to protect you from a more complicated reality, I want to pretend that droopy-fleshed women in deep middle age are lusted after by droves of men for their original and seasoned beauty. Looks don’t matter! I want to shout in a giddy, you-go-girl tone. It wouldn’t be a lie. Looks really don’t matter. You know they don’t. I know they don’t. All the sweet peas of Sugarland would rise and ratify that statement.
And yet. But still. We know it’s not entirely true.
Looks matter to most of us. And sadly, they matter to women to a rather depressing degree—regardless of age, weight or place on the gorgeous-to-hideous beauty continuum. I don’t need to detail the emails in my inbox from women with fears such as your own as proof. I need only do a quick accounting of just about every woman I’ve ever known—an endless phalanx of mostly attractive females who were freaked out because they were fat or flat-chested or frizzy-haired or oddly shaped or lined with wrinkles or laced with stretch marks or in some other way imperfect when viewed through the distorted eyes of the all-knowing, woman-annihilating, ruthless beauty god who has ruled and sometimes doomed significant portions of our lives.
I say enough of that. Enough of that.
I’ve written often about how it is we have to reach hard in the direction of the lives we want, even if it’s difficult to do so. I’ve advised people to set healthy boundaries and communicate mindfully and take risks and work hard on what actually matters and confront contradictory truths and trust the inner voice that speaks with love and shut out the inner voice that speaks with hate. But the thing is—the thing so many of us forget—is that those values and principles don’t only apply to our emotional lives. We’ve got to live them out in our bodies too.
Yours. Mine. Droopy and ugly and fat and thin and marred and wretched as they are. We have to be as fearless about our bellies as we are with our hearts.
There isn’t a shortcut around this. The answer to your conundrum isn’t finding a way to make your future lover believe you look like Angelina Jolie. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you don’t and never will (a fact, I’d like to note, that Angelina Jolie herself will also have to come to terms with someday and probably already struggles with now).
Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before. It’s the man who opts not to invite his abusive mother to his wedding; the woman who decides to spend her Saturday mornings in a drawing class instead of scrubbing the toilets at home; the writer who won’t allow himself to be devoured by his envy; the parent who takes a deep breath instead of throwing a plate. It’s you and me standing naked before our lovers, even if it makes us feel kind of squirmy in a bad way when we do. The work is there. It’s our task. Doing it will give us strength and clarity. It will bring us closer to who we hope to be.
You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be thin. You don’t have to be “hot” in a way that some dumbfuckedly narrow mindset has construed that word. You don’t have to have taut flesh or a tight ass or an eternally upright set of tits.
You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all of your clothes and say, I’m right here.
There are so many tiny revolutions in a life, a million ways we have to circle around ourselves to grow and change and be okay. And perhaps the body is our final frontier. It’s the one place we can’t leave. We’re there till it goes. Most women and some men spend their lives trying to alter it, hide it, prettify it, make it what it isn’t, or conceal it for what it is. But what if we didn’t do that?
That’s the question you need to answer, Wanting. That’s what will bring your deepest desires into your life. Not: will my old, droopy male contemporaries accept and love the old, droopy me? But rather: what’s on the other side of the tiny gigantic revolution in which I move from loathing to loving my own skin? What fruits would that particular liberation bear?
We don’t know—as a culture, as a gender, as individuals, you and I. The fact that we don’t know is feminism’s one true failure. We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority, we gathered the accolades, but we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans. There are a lot of reasons for this, a whole bunch of Big Sexist Things We Can Rightfully Blame. But ultimately, like anything, the change is up to us.
The culture isn’t going to give you permission to have “robust, adventurous sex” with your droopy and aging body, so you’re going to have to be brave enough to take it for yourself. This will take some courage, Wanting, but courage is a vital piece of any well-lived life. I understand why you’re afraid. I don’t mean to diminish the enormity of what’s recently ended and what now will begin, but I do intend to say to you very clearly that this is not the moment to wilt into the underbrush of your insecurities. You’ve earned the right to grow. You’re going to have to carry the water yourself.
So let’s talk about men. A whole bunch of them will overlook you as a lover because they want someone younger and firmer, but not all of them will. Some of them will be thrilled to meet a woman just exactly like you. The sexiest not-culturally-sanctioned-sexy people I know—the old, the fat, the differently-abled, the freshly post-partum—have a wonderful way of being forthright about who they are and I suggest you take their approach. Instead of trying to conceal the aspects of your body that make you feel uncomfortable, how about just coming out with it at the outset—before you get into the bedroom and try to slip unnoticed beneath the sheets while having a panic attack? What would happen if you said to Mister Just-About-To-Do-Me: I feel terribly self-conscious about how droopy my body is and I’m not sure if I even really know how to have good sex anymore, since I was frozen in a boring pattern with my ex for years on end.
In my experience, those sorts of revelations help. They unclench the stronghold of one’s fears. They push the intimacy to a more vulnerable place. And they have a spectacular way of revealing precisely the sort of person one is about to sleep with. Does he laugh and say he thinks you’re lovely so just hush up or does he clear his throat and offer you the contact information of his ex-wife’s plastic surgeon? Does he confess his own insecurities or lecture you appallingly about yours? Is he the fellow you really want to share your body with or had you better walk away while the getting’s good?
I know as women we’re constantly being scorched by the relentless porno/Hollywood beauty blow-torch, but in my real life I’ve found that the men worth fucking are far more good-natured about the female body in its varied forms than is generally acknowledged. Naked and smiling, is one male friend’s only requirement for a lover. Perhaps it’s because men are people with bodies full of fears and insecurities and shortcomings of their own. Find one of them. One who makes you think and laugh and come. Invite him into the tiny revolution in your beautiful new world.