It happened to me in a hotel room in Cedar Rapids, an odd place for an epiphany. The bathroom had poor lighting so I dragged a chair over to the window for the morning makeup ritual. I angled the mirror in my blush compact so I could see what I was doing and stopped, stunned by what I saw. Lines. And these weren’t the charming laugh lines around my eyes. These were something else entirely. These were caused by the force of gravity. I’ve read so much about how to stave off the signs and effects of aging, but less about how it feels when you are forced to come to terms with your own mortality.
It seems many (maybe all?) women have that moment when they suddenly discover they aren’t immune to aging after all. It’s more of an uh-oh than an ah-hah sort of moment. It might involve a four-letter word. And it may have nothing to do with your face. It could be when the sales clerk at Nordstrom appraises you in the dress you’re trying on and—without malice—observes that the bra style you’ve worn since college no longer provides adequate support. It’s with some degree of shame that I marched to lingerie to be fitted for something more suitable for a woman my age. What was I thinking, wearing that flimsy thing? I was thinking it still did the job, not realizing the job requirements had changed.
We can go for years, happily disregarding the contrast between how we feel we look and what actually appears in the mirror (and obviously, the angle of the mirror can make a difference). Perhaps we watch elderly ladies moving slowly and carefully in the grocery store and think, “I’ll never be like that.” We can invest in skincare products, increase the amount of exercise, deal with hair where it doesn’t belong, slather on the sunscreen, take vitamins and adapt our diet to whatever the current thinking is about antioxidants. Depending on our level of disposable income, we can also opt for injections and surgery.
Certainly, the gauntlet has been thrown down by movie stars who are helping redefine notions about beauty. I was delighted when 41-year-old Jennifer Lopez was featured by People magazine as the “Most Beautiful Person of the Year.” Even better was when the not youthful, not thin, but ever compelling Meryl Streep landed on Vogue. Her smile told me she knew it was a big deal to be the oldest woman ever to appear on that cover, and that she was tickled.
So society and the media seem to agree that beauty is no longer the sole province of the young. That’s terrific. Now I feel enormous pressure. It’s as though with all the options and unguents, I have an obligation. I had thought that once I became a woman of “a certain age,” I’d be off the hook. Apparently not.
Let’s face it: Even with 21st-century science, once the cat is out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back in. That morning in Cedar Rapids, I knew the gig was up. I wasn’t 30 anymore. I wasn’t even 40 anymore. The long period of successfully holding time at bay had ended. I was tumbling toward ruin.
Because isn’t that what aging is? Gradual disintegration?
I think it boils down to verbs. When I think about aging, I can’t decide which word fits my attitude best. Will I accept it with grace? Will I succumb with resentment? Will I fight it with everything at my disposal? Will I try to deny it’s happening? The thing is, I can end up feeling all of the above, sometimes at the same time. I’d like to blame menopause for this inability to make up my mind. Why not—I blame it for practically everything else.
After I read Nora Ephron’s book, I started supervising my neck. When exactly would I begin to hate it? What would it do to betray me? I’d never paid any attention to it before, and suddenly it required constant scrutiny. Then one day I saw it. I was turning my head as I dried my hair and noticed the skin on my neck wasn’t tracking quite properly. The neck chapter had begun.