The side street lured me with its quaint cobblestone, flickering lamps, and ancient buildings. “It’s a shortcut,” I told my teenage son, pointing to the map as I stepped forward.

It was my first day in Amsterdam without a knowledgeable guide, and I was eager to be drawn into the intriguing history of this special city, something I still enjoy a decade later. I knew an adventure was awaiting us—I just didn’t expect the one I got.

I had walked a few steps in, when I looked up and gasped.

A woman was standing in the window, smiling at me, with her head beguilingly tilted. Apparently, we had stumbled into the red-light district. But that wasn’t what took me by surprise.

This woman’s makeup was thicker and her lipstick was brighter, but other than that, we could have been sisters. Only her fine lingerie set us apart.

She had reddish curly hair like me, and dark eyes. She was middle aged—at least, my age or older—and large, perhaps larger than me, but in the same range.

This woman had a double chin forming, a tummy pooch, and cellulite running down her legs. She had all the “problem areas” I am hyper-focused on in my body.

And yet she was beautiful.

Though she was not a young beauty, she had a regal air. Her gaze conveyed the knowledge and power of someone who has seen and experienced a lot.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And when I stared, she didn’t slump or look down. On the contrary, while meeting my gaze, she straightened herself and peered directly at me, as if to assert her beauty and presence.

She was not ashamed. It was me who felt shame . . . about my gray and stretched underwear, which was thankfully hidden, and my baggy shirt. I silently vowed to upgrade.

“Come on, let’s go,” my son urged. “Stop looking. This is embarrassing. This must be the Walmart section of the red-light district, with discount prices for old businessmen. The girls I saw last night with my friends were young and hot.”

My husband and I have laughed many times about his comment. Of course, a teen boy couldn’t see what I saw. Teenagers typically can’t appreciate the beauty of older women. And that’s OK. They too will grow up and come to appreciate different forms of beauty.

I felt sad for that beautiful woman, although maybe it wasn’t necessary. Sex workers in the Netherlands have rights, health care, and a union. And, I hope, other options in life.

But mostly I felt sad for myself, for thinking my body wasn’t beautiful with its extra padding and marks of aging. I felt sad that I had relegated myself to the discount-store bargain bin for those whose beauty is past.

I knew in an instant of looking in that woman’s face that you don’t need to be young or thin to be beautiful. I knew I wanted to live my life with an air of knowledge, power and presence—like the woman in the window—regally taking in the world around me as if I was the Queen Mother.

I’ve thought of that woman many times and silently thanked her for the lesson. When I look in the mirror now I try to see a wise woman, whose life experience is beautifully written on her face and body, a woman whose knowledge and power portrays a different vision of beauty—that of a queen rather than a princess, a grown-up rather than a child.

When I start obsessing about my body’s flaws, comparing myself to the young girl on the beach or the airbrushed magazine model, I now try to remind myself to step back and adjust the focus.

And to see the value of lipstick, lingerie, and nice shirts no matter what your age or size.


This article originally appeared as a guest post on the blog of Anne-Sophie Reinhardt. You can find it here.