The Gravity of Vanity

The late lamented Nora Ephron – she who delighted us with “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” and showed many of us how to get even with an adulterous husband (write a bestseller) in her LOL memoir, Heartburn (1983) – felt bad about her neck, and I totally felt her pain. When she came out with I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts On Being a Woman (2006), her collection of essays that displayed her trademark self-deprecating humor, she was 65 and had already spent the greater part of two decades lamenting and most probably laughing about her bodily changes that, alas, happens to every woman no matter how privileged.


Women past the age of 43 – the year the neck starts going, says Ephron’s dermatologist – know what it’s like, oh yes. No matter how stretched, scuffed, moisturized and painted our faces are, our necks are a “dead giveaway.” “Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth,” Ephron points out. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it unless one is willing to go the distance, meaning a total face-lift because, according to her, no plastic surgeon will tighten your neck unless you have your face tightened too.

Like Ephron who says “I would rather squint at this sorry face and neck of mine in the mirror than confront a stranger who looks suspiciously like a drum pad,” I have scratched out face-lift as an option for myself. This despite my neck unmistakably shouting out my age, at one point driving me to desperate measures such as spending a good part of my alone time blowing an imaginary feather in the air or sleeping with my head stretched backwards in the hope that my neck muscles would tighten. No dice. Vanity is no match for gravity, and the sooner we accept that, the easier it is to shift our efforts to more realistic goals such as, uhmmm, becoming more interesting as we age.

So since I’ve given up on my neck, I’m focusing instead on what doctors call “excess abdominal wall fat.” Bilbil as we Filipinos call it. Or “bill blass” among my equally problematic friends.

Bilbil is the curse of women in the age of menopause. It’s what jiggles when we move and continues to jiggle for a bit longer after the rest of our body has stopped moving. (I’m paraphrasing another funny author, Anne Lamott, here). It’s the love handles that scream out for freedom when we torture ourselves in tight girdles so we can wear those tight pants and figure-hugging dresses.

Bilbil is why we have to update our wardrobes with shirts a size bigger than our usual, just so all the buttons will close. It’s also why we can’t eat too much when we’re wearing jeans otherwise the zippers won’t zip or we can’t breathe, or both.

Bilbil is the unsightly mass that makes middle-aged women look pregnant even if we’re past the age of reproduction, and cause us to suffer backaches because of the added weight we have to carry frontally. Bilbil makes bending over difficult and buckling one’s shoes without aid of a chair next to impossible.

For those who can take this excess baggage in stride without losing one’s sense of humor, bilbil is a marker in time. When did we get together last, we would ask a long-lost girlfriend, was it when our boobs were still bigger than our bilbil, or when our bilbil had already overtaken our boobs? We explode in mirth well aware that the joke is on us.

My bilbil seems to have increased significantly just in the last two years. I’ve done everything the books say I should do: eliminate rice completely from my diet; be upright for 30 minutes after every meal; take small meals; eat more proteins and vegetables and less fats and carbs; exercise regularly. But this blasted bill blass seems to have a life of its own, defying my efforts at being healthy and conspiring with the weighing scale for what I can only define as the sadistic pleasure of hearing me curse whenever I muster the occasional courage to check my weight.

What’s going on here, I asked my doctor. Is there a tumor in my stomach that’s growing? Since my blood tests showed that I’m otherwise healthy, her answer was clinical. Women our age then to expand in our bellies more than our hips or thighs. It has something to do with the correlation between estrogen and fat cells, how our bodies need to hoard estrogen in fast as a natural defense against the ailments of aging. Apparently, fat women are often spared the debilitation of osteoporosis, it is said.

Okay, that explains how plump can be healthy when you’re 60-something, but it still doesn’t explain why my body fat seems to congregate more stubbornly in my middle. Even the god of the perplexed – Google – can’t give a satisfactory answer, leading me to consider two possibilities. Was this my karma for being so disdainful of people with potbellies when I was young and fit, or is this a cosmic cue to invest in a new wardrobe that’s more appropriate to my age and body shape?

And then I met a high school friend who was skinny and bilbil-free. How do you do it, I asked. Turns out she had a traumatic accident that didn’t allow her to eat anything solid for three months. I gazed enviously at her flat stomach but realized that the investment was too much.

So I’m back to my usual routine: eating the food I love in moderation, walking, dancing, yoga. If my excess abdominal fat’s staying power is stronger than my efforts, then so be it. I’d rather be plump and happy than slim and miserable. Besides, at this age, losing a lot of weight means looking much older than your peers. Maybe someday, like Nora Ephron’s neck, my bilbil will earn me a bestseller yet.  

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino