I’m 48 years old today. I don’t mind it. In some ways I feel younger now than I did in my twenties. I’m fitter, for sure. I sleep better. I eat better. I don’t drink so much. Nonetheless, in just two years I’ll be 50. It seems remarkable. I’ve been bouncing around this world for nearly half a century.
For much of my life I looked younger than my actual age. I still looked like a kid in high school. When I went to work after college, I felt I had to constantly prove I was old enough to be in the room. I wore terrible suits and teased my hair and put on too much makeup. Even with all of that a board member once patted me on the head like a child. When I was hired in a management position, one of the employees in my department asked me how old I was. I could hear the resentment in her voice. When I told her I was 30, she relaxed. “Oh, I thought you were younger than me.” She was 23.
When you look very young it is hard to get people to take you seriously. When you are also female, blonde, and have a southern accent, it is damned near impossible. I spent the first two decades of my adult life working way too hard to prove myself. I (mostly) shaved the drawl off my accent. For years, I wore nothing but black. When an important man at a business conference said I looked too young to be there, I didn’t laugh or tell him my age. I assured him I was fully qualified and said we should stop wasting time with small talk and get to work. Yeah, sometimes I lost my sense of humor.
Now, all of a sudden, I no longer look like the kid in any room. It isn’t sudden, of course, but it feels that way. I see myself in a mirror and I think, “Oh, right, that’s what I look like these days.” I have some wrinkles. My profile isn’t as sharp as it once was. To quote Nora Ephron: “I feel bad about my neck.” When I spent a month in Mississippi recently, my mother and I could go nowhere without someone commenting on how alike we look.
Now that my face has reached maturity, I confess I wouldn’t mind things slowing down a bit. I’m ashamed to admit that. It sounds shallow and vain. I would like to embrace this aging process. I would like to point to the lines on my face as proof of a life well lived. It’s not an easy attitude to adopt in a society where thirty-somethings get regular Botox injections and the actresses we grew up watching are hardly recognizable under the shiny stretched skin of their latest facelift. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to do whatever she wants with her own body, but I don’t want sharp objects anywhere near my face.
I keep trying to talk other people into aging naturally with me. “It’ll be great,” I say. “When we’re in the nursing home, everyone else will look like plastic and we’ll have the soft doughy faces of our grandmothers. We’ll be dignified and wise.” Most of them aren’t buying it.
All of this is at the forefront of my consciousness right now because my class reunion is coming up later this summer. I went to high school in Mississippi where, if you’re female, it is supremely important to be pretty. People there will tell you that Mississippi women are the prettiest women in the world. It is an odd assertion and it isn’t true, of course, but you’ll invite a fight if you try to argue about it with a Mississippi man.
When you grow up with the idea that physical beauty is paramount, it’s hard to let it go. The world does not want us to let it go. There is a multi-billion (trillion?) dollar industry devoted to convincing us we’ll be happier and forever young with just an injection here and a nip or tuck there. Thanks to social media, we can all see which of our former classmates have embraced anti-aging procedures. Some people have smoother faces now than they did in their senior portraits. And I’m not above trying to look attractive as I grow older. I use face creams and sunscreen and makeup, but I have drawn an arbitrary line that stops before needles and scalpels and anything invasive and irreversible. I barely trust doctors to treat my sinus infections. I’m not about to let them shoot something called “botulinum toxin” into the grooves of my face.
So as I grow older, I will look more and more like my mother. The two of us will look more and more like my grandmother. And the truth is, we will look more and more like ourselves. We can stop trying so hard to look like everyone else. For example, I’ve stopped wearing so much black. Finally I can wear floral dresses without being mistaken for a child and I do wear them, even though the magazine articles say it isn’t age-appropriate. I wear much less makeup these days than I did when I was younger and I don’t have enough hair to tease. I can be ready to leave the house in 15 minutes or less, shower included. I’m less critical of my appearance today than I was twenty years ago. It’s freeing. And when my thoughts do tilt toward vanity, I remind myself that beauty never accomplished a damn thing. Years from now when I’m really old, when I have a soft doughy face full of wrinkles and a neck that sags and wattles, I hope I won’t mind it too much. I hope I can be grateful for the way time has stamped itself across my face.