After Gwyneth Paltrow made headlines by posing nude on her 48th birthday, Body+Soul suggested that writer Angela Mollard mark her 50-something celebrations with a birthday-suit photo shoot of her own. Despite some reservations, she found the experience to be unexpectedly liberating.
It’s a long-held truism that the older you get the wiser you become.
Not me. Rather, as I entered the starting blocks of middle age I began doing and suggesting ever-more ludicrous and adventurous pursuits.
I travelled the Great Ocean Road on the back of a motorbike, jumped off a 20m platform into the sea in Bali and hiked up a perilous cliff in the dark to see the sunrise.
Then, a few months ago, I saw Gwyneth Paltrow had marked her 48th birthday by posing nude in her garden and mused in my weekly newspaper column that I might do likewise.
I was never going to look more “OK” than I do right now, I reasoned, and wouldn’t it be fantastic in my dotage to look back at a photograph of myself looking fit and healthy? It would be an image just for me, though I did joke with my daughters that I’d frame it and hang it at the top of the stairs.
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A “significant” birthday (which they all are after a certain age because you’re just grateful to be alive) went by and a few cheeky readers offered to take the picture for me, but then I forgot about it because, you know, life. Unfortunately Sarrah Le Marquand, the editor-in-chief of Body+Soul, did not.
She texted me with an idea on a Sunday evening – her message arriving after I’d had a couple of glasses of wine – suggesting her team give me “the full Gwynnie treatment”.
This was not, you’ll be pleased to hear, vaginal steaming and a Paleo meal plan but full hair and make-up, and a top fashion photographer to shoot me as I replicated Paltrow’s pose. She even proposed the magazine’s brilliant style director, Kelly Hume, would oversee the shoot – though I wasn’t sure how you’d accessorise a birthday suit.
“Eek, sure,” I responded, wondering how I could lose 5kg, tone my arms and have a boob job within two weeks.
And then I pulled myself together, remembering that I actually quite like my body and am beyond grateful that it has served me well for more than five decades. It’s strong, athletic and agile, responds well to good nourishment, forgives the occasional excess and gets on board – even when given little warning – when required to, say, climb a mountain, or become as stretchy as a liquorice strap on a six-day yoga course.
Plus, I have two daughters who are ambushed constantly by images of perfect bodies on Instagram. Ever since they were little I’ve only ever championed my body, never hated or critiqued it.
There are no scales in our house and I have never dieted. Self-loathing isn’t a language I wanted them to inherit (and I thank my wonderful mum for never role modelling that insidious self-talk). But, like me, where do my girls get to see normal bodies? The only ones I glimpse are in the changing rooms at my local pool after my regular Saturday-morning squad session.
When you’ve lost friends to breast cancer and have a friend in a wheelchair, it’s unforgivable to treat your body with anything other than gratitude. As author Caitlin Moran writes in More Than A Woman, if you feel bad about your body, for the sake of your own happiness the only solution is to find a way to feel better about it.
“All we are, at the end of the day, is bodies and minds – and if your mind is pained by your body, then you are, fundamentally, split down the middle at war with yourself.”
Long ago I decided that was a battle I wasn’t prepared to have. My body is the vehicle by which I live my life and I will treat it similarly – with fuel, a regular service, enthusiastic outings and an acceptance of the occasional scrapes and bumps. That didn’t mean I wasn’t seriously nervous when I turned up to the shoot, especially when the willowy Ms Hume asked if I was starving on account of not eating for five days.
Oh no! Was I supposed to fast? Did Jennifer Aniston, Deborah Hutton and Demi Moore fast when they posed nude?
As the make-up artist applied some light coverage – “do you think anyone will be looking at my face?” – and the hair stylist ignored my request for extensions that might cover my nipples, I invoked the mantra I took on when I turned 50: for the second half of this precious life I would give “zero f*cks”.
And so, on a Wednesday afternoon in October, I took off all my clothes, stood in the sunlight, dumped my inhibitions and inhaled the smell of star jasmine.
Gwyneth was right. It was fun.