I am desperate to see aging on women’s faces

Beautiful, old, craggy, weathered wood.

After spending most of my 30s and 40s getting compliments on my youthful appearance, aging has dramatically shown up on my face. Now in my early 50s, I’m pretty sure my face has aged much faster and more significantly than anyone else I know. The stress from the first few years of the pandemic really changed my appearance, as did my recent perimenopausal weight gain, in which my thick genetics fully kicked into high gear. But the thing that truly bugs my ass is my thyroid condition, an autoimmune disorder that has irrevocably changed my face. My eyes look simultaneously like my mother’s—crooked and puffy from her own busted thyroid—and like my father’s, with the whites showing around the bottom of the iris. Seeing both my parents in the mirror when I wake up in the morning is patently disturbing and most unwelcome.

All of these factors are beyond my control.

Losing the pretty privilege I lived with for most of my life (without even realizing I had it) has sucked. Like a teenager battling acne, I have moments when I feel incredibly self-conscious about it. Often when I meet with people, a fearful voice in my head will start up: “They’re thinking about how different you look from before. They can’t believe how much you’ve aged. Look, they’re scrutinizing the giant hair you grew on your second chin!!

I profoundly resent it. A decade ago, I was objectively pretty cute, but I had a terrible body image. Now that I have a pretty solid body image, it feels like a cruel joke that my face is aging me so significantly. When I try to coach myself around my thoughts about my changing face, an angry teenager inside of me silently roars with disbelief that she’s back at square one.

I am so desperate to see aging on other women’s faces. Maybe it’s because I need to know I’m not alone. More than that, I need to be able to see that I am part of a community of women who are becoming crones.

I want to see other women’s wrinkles, scars, age spots. I was to see the thinning of the skin, the necks—as Nora Ephron so succinctly put it—disappearing. I remember many years ago, when I still had a semblance of neck, taking a meeting with an impeccably dressed older woman. As we sat in an airless board room, I had a profile view of her. I watched the skin between her chin and collarbones, knowing that my own neck would, one day, be very much like hers. It wasn’t a judgement, though; it was more like pausing to drink in an almost certain reality for my own future face.

Watching Leave the World Behind, I leaned towards the screen to marvel at Julia Roberts’ wrinkles. Watching May December, I revelled in the scene where Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore stand side by side, looking straight into the camera, every asymmetry and patch of unevenness fully lit. And I was absolutely blown away that Annette Benning was even allowed by Hollywood to look as non-glamorous as she did in Nyad. (Reader, I even watched the excellent Carol & The End of the World—a literal animated TV show!!!—precisely because the protagonist is a middle-aged woman!)

I take these scenes in with an intensity I have never felt before.

It feels like a gift to watch these particular women’s faces as they have grown and changed over the past 20 and 30 years. It also feels safer to study the faces of rich celebrities who can’t see me do it. I do not feel at ease studying the faces of people I actually know in real life. I think it’s because I fear that if I look too closely at the faces of those I love, it will invite the same scrutiny from them. This feels a bit like a body image backslide.

When Oprah came clean a few months ago about using Ozempic for her weight loss, the commentariat came out to lament her ongoing obsession with weight “even at her age.” I probably had the same thought. But my next thought was:

To be clear, my ardent hope is for all girls and women to not care about the size of their thighs—or their age spots—at every age. An even greater hope I have, though, is for the engines of fatphobia, ageism, racism and sexism to be smashed to smithereens so that the burden of “not caring” no longer falls to individual women and girls.

And to be doubly clear, I don’t give a shit about women who have surgical or cosmetic treatments on their faces. If that’s you, then do you. I understand the pressure many women face when they earn a living from being seen on stages and screens. I’m not in the business of condemning a woman for the choices she feels she has to make to survive in this messed up world.

My objection is to the remarkable double standard older women face compared to older men. I am infuriated by the idea that, as we age, we’re supposed to just magically stop giving a shit about what we look like because we should somehow be better than that. (And yet, we gasp with awe at the Angela Bassetts of the world, who retain every ounce of glow and beauty into their 60s). I can’t stand that we’ve told our whole lives that our worth lies entirely in our appearance, and once we age past the point of being fuckable, we’re supposed to just quietly see ourselves out.

I know this is the point in the essay when I’m supposed to say, “Well, fuck that. I’m still here.” And a part of me genuinely does feel that way. Problem is, this, too, feels like a cliché or Hollywood trope for “women of a certain age.”

Instead, this is my plan for this present moment in my early ’50s:

  • Process the losses. The losses include deaths of dreams. The deaths of loved ones. The deaths of social capital—gone are the days of “you’re 42?! You look 36!” Take it in, feel it all, let it go. Rinse and repeat.
  • Locate the widsom in having fun. Fun is an energy that leads me back to myself. What I have always found fun is what makes me me. I will take advantage of how few fucks I truly do have to give these days by shamelessly prizing my own sense of play.
  • Never stop taking time to mend and maintain my relationships with my body—including my face. The work of fighting against the social and political forces that devalue our bodies is ongoing, so the mental work I need to spend to lovingly tend to the one body I have is also ongoing.

Moving through perimenopause genuinely feels like moving through a second adolescence, so I fully expect all of my thoughts and feelings on aging to change as the years go by. I’ll use this space to record precisely that.

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