The way of all flesh 

It's sleeveless season when middle-aged women can no longer ignore the dreaded flabby upper arm.

I'm talking about the place where your triceps reportedly reside, the skin that sags and flaps when you wave your hand.

Even women who have lost enough weight to still consider wearing a bikini (those who aren't too self-conscious about the blown out veins behind their knees, the stretch marks on their bellies and their cottage cheese thighs) have flappy underarms if they've reached a certain age.

When we do arm extensions in yoga class, my teacher tells us to firm up that part, to make it as solid as the top of our arms. We stretch farther and laugh, our arm flaps jiggling as we reach.

Fitness guru to the stars, David Kirsch, author of Sound Mind, Sound Body offers this advice to women with underarm flab: shadow boxing, 10-15 pushups a day in three different positions, and reverse walking crabs.

We laugh.

Flabby upper arms are proud markers of time. The breasts sag, the tummy rolls, the buttocks shrink and the underside of our upper arms flap. Bikinis don't fit and neither do Lycra one-piecers. It's all relative. Some of us are skinny and flabby; some of us are fat and flabby.

Forget becoming our mothers; we are becoming our grandmothers.

My friend Cate told me about her recent picnic with her kindergarten class, an end-of-the-school year event beneath the trees of Monument Valley Park. A little girl climbed up in her lap and started stroking the soft, hanging skin on the underside of her upper arm.

"Do you like that?" said Cate. "Here, watch this."

She held out her arm and slapped at the underarm skin, making it swing back and forth like a punching bag. The little girl laughed and other classmates climbed on board. Soon they were taking turns whacking her underarm flab, laughing as it rocked and rolled.

Ever the science teacher, Cate went on to show them the stretch marks in her armpits, signs of enormous weight loss she'd undergone in the previous year, explaining how the skin was formed, layer by layer. The kids were enrapt.

"It was wonderful," said Cate. "They were loving my flabby arms and it took me right back to my grandmother, my clearest childhood memory of her."

She is a little girl, looking up as her grandmother's arm extends past her face, her jeweled hand reaching to tap a cigarette tip into an ashtray. Cate reaches up and strokes the soft skin of her grandmother's underarm. It jiggles when she touches it.

Her reverie took me back to my own grandmother, a hard woman in many ways whose body was as soft as a feather pillow. A photo of Mammaw and her sisters when they were all in their 50s shows a row of stout, round women with downy jowls, their breasts sagging down toward their waistbands.

I remember watching my grandmother put up her long black hair, sitting at a 1950s-vintage vanity with a tall mirror and deep drawers on either side. She uses wavy bobbie pins that are already spread open to capture her thick hair. One arm holds the bun in place while the other goes back and forth in search of pins. I sit beneath the raised arm, taking in her sweet talcum smell. Her underarm skin is impossibly smooth and white. I reach up and give it a soft smoosh, then a gentle swing. When she is done she gives me a swift hug, my face smashed in her pillowy bosom, before we both go to the kitchen to start our day.

Last night, using the last light of day, I decided to spread seeds in an experimental plot of my garden. I mixed the seeds with a little fertilizer, some potting soil and sand, then stirred them in the bottom of a plastic bowl. Standing in my yard, I held the bowl in one hand and waved handfuls of the mix over the garden with the other hand, my underarms flapping with the gentle back and forth motion.

My four-year-old neighbor Max ran over.

"Whatcha doin'?" he asked.

"Spreading seeds," I said, then gesturing to my rocking tricep added, "Look, Max."

He looked up and laughed, then stretched upward on tippy-toes. "Can I touch it?"

"Sure," I said. He gave it a soft poke, then a swing, then ran back home.

It's sleeveless season and this year there'll be no shadow boxing for me, no push-ups, no reverse crab walk. The flabby upper arm, for better or worse, is here to stay.



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