In 11 days, I’ll turn 38. The strange thing about turning 38 is that two years later, I’ll turn 40, and 40 has always been “my father’s age,” even though he’s now in his 60s. When I think 40, I think “Dad.” And you never think you’re going to be as old as your dad. It’s especially confusing because seeing my dad as 40 means simultaneously seeing myself as 17 (which is how old I was when he was 40). 38-40-17… It’s discombobulating.
I’m also at an age, I’m finding, when skin starts losing its elasticity in certain areas (typically, the areas most destroyed by the sun). When I was younger, I’d read about things like this. I’m pretty sure every female with a writing outlet who’s entered her late-30s/early 40s has written about it. This is nothing new, until it’s happening to you. “It’s true,” you think. “There it is. When I crunch my shoulders in, the skin on my chest wrinkles in that way it does on ‘older’ women.”
My first reaction to this, naturally, is, “Great. Yuck.” Because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to think: Older = grosser.
But I have a different reaction when I find new gray hairs hiding under the top layer of my bangs. I must have at least seven of them on each side, and when I find them, I hold my hair so they stay visible and run to find Ian. “Look! Grays!”
When I show him, he says, “Uh-huh.”
He’s not as fascinated/thrilled by them as I am. Probably because he sees his new gray growths all the time in his thick, brown, military hair. They poke out pretty visibly – no way to hide those suckers. But I can’t help but see them as this new stage of life, this new thing happening, this new experience. “I’m becoming an older woman!” I think. Which should be every bit as exciting as the moment, whatever it is (first blood, first sex), when girls think, “I’m becoming a woman.” Right?
Yesterday, me and my seven semi-hidden gray hairs were in Marshall’s, where I found a form-fitting gray dress. I tried it on with one of the belts in the belt section, and I decided I must have it. It fit well, and it was, I thought, kinda classy. I took a picture while in the dressing room so I could show it to Ian. The text I sent with it read, “Trying on things I’ll never wear (even if I do like this).”
Immediately afterward, I took it off and returned it to the rack.
The thing is, maybe I would have worn it at 17, when I used to go out every weekend. I might even have worn it at 25, when I went out less but would have found a reason to go somewhere just so I could wear it. But yesterday, when looking in the mirror, all I could think was, “Is it too short? Too tight? I am, after all, almost 40. Is this too young for an almost-40-year-old? Shouldn’t I be dressing ‘for my age’ so I can try to look good ‘for my age’?”
That, in turn, made me wonder, “What the hell does that mean, to look good ‘for my age’?” And then I remembered the post below, which I wrote and published on another blog under a pseudonym. As my birthday nears and as I get increasingly giddy about it, it seems pertinent to share this again, but under my own name. If there’s anything I want to take credit for, it’s my age and having been privileged enough to have the number of birthdays I’ve had (and the many, many more I hope I’ll get to have).
As I get closer to turning 40, and as I get more and more
exciting excited with each passing year that I get to celebrate another birthday, I get closer to the demographic of women addressed by media personalities continually trying to make them feel terrible better about aging.
Recently, the Today Show featured gorgeous images of Cher, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Sophia Loren, and Vera Wang as evidence that women over sixty can still be attractive.
Can we do it without millions of dollars for trainers, expensive creams, and facial treatments? We don’t know! But that’s not the point.
What is the point?
Lester Holt introduced the segment on sexy aging, “Stunning, Sexy, and Sixty,” saying, “More and more women are defying their age and showing the world you can look fabulous at any age.”
That is, we can look fabulous at any age as long as we defy our age.
Today Show correspondent Joelle Garguilio hosted the feature and asked by way of introduction, “Could age really just be a number?”
I’ve always liked to think so. A number and more. Every year is 365 more days filled with any number of experiences, large and small. It’s that many more laughs, that many more meaningful encounters with people, that many more learned factoids that mean nothing in the end but that are fun to share with other people, that many more kisses, that many more days hearing the birds, that many more sing-a-longs in the car to really bad songs, that many more glasses of wine, that many more mornings of coffee and the Today Show.
Because I’m so enthusiastic about this opportunity to be alive until the dreaded day when I’m not, it was with high hopes that I sat back to watch the segment. Forgetting Holt’s “defying their age” and focusing instead on “great at any age” and giving the segment the benefit of the doubt, I prepared myself for coverage of changing views on age and aging (for women, anyway – this is rarely covered with as much frequency for men. Hm.).
We’re seeing age in a new way, I imagined them saying. Women are no longer hiding their age, but taking pride in it, viewing their laugh lines as evidence of a happy life and celebrating the fortune of their continued existence the older they get. Why, even Kelly Osbourne has put her stamp of approval on age by prematurely dying her hair gray.
The images came, then. Cher, Tina Turner, Jane Fonda…each more fabulous than the last, none showing any evidence of having had plastic surgery, and with Garguilio’s voicover saying, “Proving you can look great no matter how old you are.”
Of course, the thing Cher, Turner, Fonda and the rest have in common is that they look young for their age. (And, of course, pretty – they were fortunate to not have their features change in a way we as a society would judge “unattractive” as they aged.)
But, wait–maybe it’s not about youthfulness at all! The next clip featured Harper’s Bazaar Executive Fashion and Beauty Editor Avril Graham saying, “Age is just an attitude of mind.”
(This is true. I’m 22, and have been 22 since I was 14.)
An attitude of mind, she said. What could follow that but interviews with older women who are living fun, interesting lives and feeling more vibrant than ever?
As it turns out, it was an image of Vera Wang, who “showed off her age-defying body in a recent Harper’s Bazaar layout.”
(My camera is adding ten pounds to the original image.)
So, age is not an attitude of mind. Again: looking good as an older woman means defying your age. “Her body could easily belong to a woman in her 20s,” Garguilio said of Vera Wang.
Once finished holding up Wang’s very thin body as the look older women should aspire to, it was time to move on to the undeniably beautiful Helen Mirren (fuller-figured than Wang, but they didn’t show her recently-famous bathing suit shot), about whom Garguilio said, “Dame Helen Mirren credits sleep for her youthful appearance.”
The segment then tried to take a more responsible direction, with Garguilio asking, “But do these images of fantastic-looking women help or hurt other women who struggle with body issues?”
Guest psychotherapist Robi Ludwig had the answer to this laughably absurd-for-its-lack-of-self-awareness question:
Do these images of fantastic-looking women help or hurt…?
If this serves as a role model for women to be as healthy and look as youthful as possible, then fantastic. If women are going to use it as a way to attack themselves for not looking a particular way, or fitting some small idea of beauty, then of course it can be a bad thing.
If this serves as a role model for women to…look as youthful as possible, then fantastic?
Actually, what has the most potential to lead to any emotional issues American women have when it comes to aging is segments like this that equate “fantastic-looking” with “young-looking,” whose message is “Aging well means looking young.” Not, “Aging well means having good muscle tone and some weight on you so that when you fall you don’t break bones.” Not, “Aging well means staying active and engaged and truly living your life.”
No. Aging well means looking unrealistically young.
I don’t blame the Today Show alone for perpetuating this ludicrous ideal. It’s everywhere. It’s so everywhere that it’s almost impossible to fight. I find myself feeling complimented when people say I look young for my age, and then I kick myself.
Aging is inevitable, and this emphasis on the idea that age is bad, that we should feel self-conscious about the physical changes we absolutely cannot control, is the worst possible message to send.
Today Show, women’s magazines, and all others insisting that youth is the standard of beauty, I refuse to let you mess with my head and sully my enjoyment of every extra year I get to live.
I refuse to empathize with those people who lament another birthday, who in effect complain that they’re still alive and punch this incredible gift in the face.
I hope that the day I overhear someone saying “She looks old,” I can honestly and happily think, Thank you!
Today, I’m going back to Marshall’s. I hope the dress is still there.