On being a grand dame, or why I like Maggie Smith


First I think of Maggie Smith. Every time. She is the quintessential grand dame. She is incredibly unapologetic and she stirs admiration, she inspires courage and she lives with integrity.


In the past I have written about wanting so badly to fit in to the athletic model of beauty that is so prevalent. I generally eat less than 1800 calories a day and am usually on a diet of some kind. I work out whenever I am not injured and sometimes then too. And I recognize a sort of self-betrayal in this.


Lately I have been wondering about aging and what aging well would mean. I have begun letting my hair go gray and I have insisted that exercise must be joyful or I won’t do it. I have begun to imagine that I too could be a grand dame, that I too could live with the integrity and courage that I imagine someone like Maggie Smith to live with. 


When others look at me askance because I am overweight I want to raise my right eyebrow and look them dead in the eye. Dare them to comment and make fools of themselves. Sometimes I do manage a little anger but often I turn that anger on myself. And I wonder what it would be like not to do that.


When courage is called for and someone needs to speak up, often I do, but often my voice shakes and my words lack conviction. I hesitate and I wish I didn’t.


When I think of women of courage and authenticity I am inspired. I too want to stare down people who would disparage me. I too want to raise my voice when courage and compassion are called for and not hear it quaver. And I want to be fully who I am even when, or especially when, it’s just silly and it’s just fun and it makes me laugh.


And so I wonder if the process of becoming a grand dame isn’t about owning the desire to fit in and be liked, to be approved of. If it isn’t about recognizing that loneliness is the intermediate step between fitting in and stepping out on your own to find internal acceptance that doesn’t diminish or rely on other’s recognition.


I am beginning to realize that I can never hope to live as fully and joyfully as a grand dame nor command the respect of one if I try to make myself over into other’s expectations.  I must insist on being treated well and being valued.


One thing I am sure of though is that becoming a grand dame requires one to authentically like oneself. It requires a quiet acceptance of one’s flaws and one’s strengths. And I am beginning to believe that it requires one to mourn the loss of youth and a nubile frame, to go beyond that and accept aging. I am aware that sometimes being young and firm makes it easier to avoid difficult issues that seem to simply wait us out, hanging on the edge of consciousness until we can no longer ignore them. 


I am beginning to believe that being a grand dame means living on the existential cusp of being, where one faces dissolution and death as imminent and inevitable possibilities  and chooses life instead of despair. And I believe that becoming a grand dame means refusing to diminish oneself even if showing up fully makes others uncomfortable. 


As I think about the future what potential exists I know that I will never again be a sexy young thing but that I can become more myself. As a young woman I lived for others and sought their approval, met their needs, fulfilled their desires and when I was no longer able to do this I was discarded. I had difficulty even identifying what I wanted or liked.


Becoming a grand dame means choosing to honor myself as well as others. It means not participating in my own betrayal, my own diminishment. It means choosing positive self-regard. It means honoring my own wounds and respecting the brittle edges that surround them. It means finding that balance between being gentle with myself and being rigorous in maintaining my standards. It means showing up fully as who I am and doing my best to be unapologetic about it. It means accepting that my own power and ability to influence others, to effect change, and to speak wisdom.  It also means acknowledging that only if I can do these things will I be able to encourage other women, young women, to do the same. It is because of Maggie Smith and women like her that I feel I might be able to do the same. 


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