Some days I look in the mirror and I think: You look pretty good for a woman pushing 60. Other days I glance at myself and wonder: Who is that woman? She looks nothing like me. More than once I catch glimpses of my mother and my father in the way I look. And when I see photographs of my grandparents and parents when they were the age I am now I am both stunned and saddened. My parents look as I remember them, young and beautiful. My grandparents look like old people. Nice old people but old people nonetheless.
I am not sure what 59 is supposed to look like. That’s the number on my next birthday, upcoming in a few weeks. What I do know is that I do not have the face I had at 19, 29, 39 or even 49. It has thinned, it has wrinkled, it has…elongated. It resembles my other faces but it isn’t quite what I think it is when I don’t look at it. I have been looking at my face for more than half a century and I should be used to the changes. But I’m not.
Recently I asked my son if I looked like the mother he had as a child. He took the question seriously (I like that about him) and said, thoughtfully: I don’t know. I would have to look at photographs. You are not unfamiliar, he said.
I am not unfamiliar.
Part of the reason I feel bad about my face is that for too many years I did not accept that youth and heredity had been kind to me. I had no real idea. I know from memory and photographs that at 14 I changed quite dramatically: off came the braces and the glasses; I learned how to properly wear my hair; my body caught up to my boobs, and, perhaps most importantly, that small amount of confidence was just enough to propel me to expand my mind and my horizons rather than obsess about why I wasn’t a cool blonde cheerleader/homecoming queen. I was no longer homely. But I wish I had been slightly more grateful. Perhaps I would feel less bad about my face now had I been more aware then.
When my boyfriend tells me I am beautiful, I tell him: You should have seen me years ago. Apparently I really was beautiful then. In fact, a friend just sent me a photo of myself from 20 years ago. I recognize that woman but, boy, does she look young. The face my boyfriend knows is the face he met at 54: to him I will remain that face forever (or at least I can hope). He can never know me prettier. Or younger. But he also won’t know me far more insecure. This is, I suppose, not a bad thing.
It isn’t fashionable to admit to feeling bad about how you look because if you do and if you do anything about it (like surgery or fillers) people will mercilessly attack you for feeling bad about your face AND for doing something about it. Unless, of course, you’re Nora Ephron and you write your fear funny. And besides, I feel fine about my neck (although I do notice a recent crepiness); it’s my face that has me in a sometimes tizzy.
And yes, I know beauty and the loss of it is a first-world problem, a supposed woman’s issue, nothing compared to the death of the environment or the end of the world or anything huge and really worrisome. I am supposed to be grateful I am aging at all and not, sick. Or dead. I need a disclaimer just to write this essay.
But I still feel bad about my face.
I have spent enough money on lotions and potions and tools and creams and make-up and serums and miracle wrinkle cures to feed a thousand people. I am sure of it. It isn’t as if I really believe the hype but I buy into it anyway; a good part of me is convinced that the relative smoothness of my skin is due to this or another cream, rather than genetics or luck. Or even delusion. It is entirely possible, probable even, that my looks don’t change at all day to day; what changes is only how I react to my face. If I’m busy and things are going well I feel pretty; if I am laid low by illness or something tough is going on then I might spend far too much time in self-examination. And no face, no matter how beautiful, can stand up to a 10X mirror and the critical eye of an unsettled beholder.
And as I have been trying to write about the losses my face has suffered I am keenly aware that there are lots of things I could do about those losses. The recent kerfuffle around a noted actress’s new face notwithstanding, plastic surgery has been around a long time. I can easily remember Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday, her gorgeous face wrapped in white gauze and her eyes hidden by huge dark glasses. I was 17 and contemptuous of women who would go to such lengths. What did I know? I still had years and years of youth on my side.
But while I am not averse to injections of all sorts, or peels or whatever else one can do without surgery, I am against surgery for myself because I am terrified of anesthesia, more terrified of the short term memory loss which accompanies it (and grows more prevalent with age) and the possibilities that something could go wrong than I am of the surgery itself. I am also against surgery for myself because surgery is permanent and if I wind up with a face which is not familiar then what do I do? It is hard enough living with the ‘naturally’ changing face I have without having to deal with one made by a doctor who is trying to turn me in something I thought I wanted but have no real idea of. On the other hand, Jane Fonda looks damned good and if she gave me the number of her surgeon and held my hand throughout the procedure I might reconsider.
My mother was a gorgeous woman with an arresting mien, more stunning than beautiful. Hard to look away from. Individually her features were gravely imperfect. But she was a looker. For the past ten years she has had little knowledge of how she looks or how badly she has aged, or how her face has collapsed in on itself. Alzheimer’s has taken over her mind and stolen her beauty. For the first couple of years she fought back: she wore lipstick and mascara, dressed elegantly, carried herself like a queen. But all that is gone. Now her hair is fixed against her desire. Her nails are painted shocking colors by a group of young volunteers who come to her in assisted living. She is dressed by aides. She is not familiar. She is not at all familiar. On the other side, my aunt, my mother’s sister, jokes that her own worsening macular degeneration has an upside: she can no longer see how old she looks: the wrinkles blurred, the age spots not visible in her blindness. For that tiny thing she remains grateful even of her loss of vision has rendered her far more helpless. But she can still see her own decline as it is mirrored in her sister’s face.
I neither wish to lose my mind nor my sight. So I supposed that if I am lucky enough to keep both then I will have to continue to confront my face. And sometimes feel bad about it.
Aging is a bitch. There isn’t a woman I know who doesn’t suffer from some vanity, no matter how ignoble we think it is. We may not color our hair but we fix our nails and our face; we may not wear makeup but we color our hair. We may not care much about shopping or clothes but we plunk down good money for skin care. And all of us have that moment when we pass by a mirror or a window and see ourselves and we are not familiar. Not familiar at all.
(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side and is included in the anthology Growing Old)