The art of self-portraiture has advanced significantly since the Middle Ages, from panel portraits by European artists in the fifteenth century to high-resolution videos of internal organs of middle aged Americans in the twenty-first.
Not content even with the digitally enhanced selfie, healthy middle-aged people with health insurance undergo significant, self-imposed discomfort in order to see inside their own bodies. Unlike the navel-gazing of our youth when we sought enlightenment, we now engage in this particular kind of inner inspection deliberately looking for trouble.
In the health of youth, physicians measured our wellness with a ruler and scale; they looked inside our ears, mouth and nose. Those of us who are now middle aged probably remember being subjected to the rectal thermometer as kids, an undeniable deterrent to complaining about feeling sick.
Advances in medical technology have eliminated this indignity, and now internal body temperature can be measured with a roll of a sensor across a brow – an electronic version of your mother placing her hand on your forehead prior to using the rectal thermometer.
As we grew, we submitted to the self-consciousness of the annual school photo and the minor discomfort of blood tests. As we developed, women tolerated the probing gynecological exam as a rite of passage in the march toward sexual maturity, sexual activity, and pregnancy prevention and/or childbirth. These were the heady days of growing up, right up to the pulling of one’s wisdom teeth, which like recovery from the mumps, was soothed with ice cream and smoothies. Not so bad.
Middle Age is different.
The medical tests we undergo to reassure us we really are as well as we feel are significantly less comfortable and more invasive. For women, there’s the mammogram, the discomfort of which a friend describes as willingly lying on the garage floor in winter and asking your husband to drive his rig over your naked breasts.
This is only a mild exaggeration. Soon, I hope, some female Gen-X bio-engineers who’ve undergone this procedure themselves will discover the need for a more comfortable machine and invent it.
In the meantime, we middle-aged women line up for portraits of our breast tissue and willingly undergo the discomfort to be reassured that there’s no cancer lurking inside.
For guys, it’s a blood test for Prostate-specific antigen and a Digital Rectal Exam, known by their initials PSA and DRE, respectively, perhaps to seem as reassuringly familiar as baseball’s RBI or football’s YAC.
Aside from the anxiety that arises from the possibility of finding the trouble you’re looking for (and hoping isn’t there), undergoing a mammogram or prostate exam is fairly simple. Not so the colonoscopy, which requires a famously unpleasant preparation; taking this test is a true sign of maturity.
It’s the optimistically named GoLytely (polyetheylene glycol 3350) that’s so awful, both the drinking of it and its effects: it moves everything in your digestive tract explosively out. Put plainly, it’s vile tasting stuff that one must drink in vast quantities in order to achieve self-administered diarrhea.
But that’s the worst of it. If my doctor hadn’t taken high-resolution color photos of my innards, I wouldn’t have known he’d gone spelunking inside me, thanks to great drugs that rendered me oblivious while I enjoyed one of the best naps of my life. And stepping on the scale afterwards was both a boost to my vanity as well as a sobering indication of how much “stuff” I habitually carry.
Where once artists had to use mirrors to paint their self-portraits, nowadays, all we need is a smart phone to snap a selfie. But the great portraits of our inner lives just may be the digital images of our intestines, which, thankfully, are safeguarded within the privacy of our medical files.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story between people in their mid-sixties, set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com.
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