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I'm 45 And I Look My Age
Raging against the tyranny of beauty & the cult of the male gaze
Ten years ago I asked my dermatologist about Botox. It may be ironic, but it seemed like the natural next step.
“You could do your elevens,” she said, plainly.
“My elevens?” I asked.
“The two lines between your eyebrows. They make you look stern.”
“Do they?” I asked, scowling into the mirror as she pressed a gloved finger into them.
“That’s what they say,” she said, whisking away a glass slide with a few millimeters of my flesh lying on it.
I thought about that disembodied flesh, floating in some sort of liquid. Despite having just been excised from my arm, it was already so unlike the skin still attached. It was no longer me, no longer mine, just another sample on its way to a lab.
I looked at my arm, knowing that the pink and gaping wound would soon be just another scar on my body like the others. Some are raised and fleshy, some are flat and white and barely visible. A few are pinched and keloided, gathered together from all directions. Every one of them is the result of biopsies and excisions and reconstructions designed to help me not die of cancer someday. By the time I was 35, I’d had almost a dozen procedures, likely due to my tanning bed habit as a pale and vitamin D-deficient teen during gloomy Michigan winters.
I was sixteen. I just wanted to be tan.
“What if I want to look stern?” I asked the doctor, wondering if she’d laugh the way most beautiful women in Los Angeles do when I say things like that about stuff I’m supposed to hate, like my elevens.
“Then you leave them,” she said. “They’re just lines.”
I guess that’s why she’s my doctor. She was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and graduated from Harvard Medical School. She gets that it’s OK to look like you mean business.
I do like looking like I mean business. I even like looking stern sometimes, and am comfortable not being a “cool girl”. But I can’t pretend that being pretty doesn’t matter to me at all.
I think I look distinct, solidly planted in a style that represents me. I like feeling cute when I’m in the mood. These are things some may consider shallow, but to me they have value. They are worth investing a little time and money into, though I can’t really tell you why.
Not too long ago I walked along Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, from Beverly to 3rd Street, on my way from grabbing a quick lunch to an appointment at Cedars. It’s a path I’d walked probably a hundred times in my 20s, usually with a cigarette in my hand. I sold the trendiest clothing to young, wealthy people at a shop on Robertson: Juicy velour tracksuits and low-rise denim; Cosabella g-strings and cashmere sweaters. It was a good job, paying my rent and tuition when I decided to finish my twice-abandoned college degree.
As I made my way down those blocks, my stride shifted. I went from a mom in men’s Levis clunking around in Chelsea boots to striding like I did as a young woman: smooth and almost liquid, my back leg lingering behind for a fraction of a second before picking up to take its turn up front, landing with the kind of confidence that makes your ass shake just a little as you walk; chin up and neck long. It was muscle memory, as if I were walking that sidewalk in a tank top, flared jeans and high heels to get a latte at Cuvée, boys and bills and late-night plans on my mind.
It felt natural for a moment, and then instantly absurd.
It was the walk of a woman on display and it brought forth an emotional memory, too: of being a young woman with an identity just barely developed. Someone who wanted to be seen while trying to make sure it didn’t seem like she wanted to be seen.
Then I exhaled, rooting myself back in my 40-something body. Just the memory of being that young was exhausting.
When I worked in that trendy shop, my favorite customers were the women over 40 who would chat with me as they tried on clothes. These women, usually ones with fancy jobs and growing kids, would leave their dressing room curtains halfway open so they could keep casual eye contact while we talked.
Any time this happened, I’d wonder how a woman becomes so comfortable in an imperfect body; a body with stretch marks or loose skin or scars or rolls. It wasn’t judgement over the supposed imperfection of their older bodies — it was pure admiration and jealousy.
I wanted to be that comfortable in my body.
It didn’t matter that I fit the mainstream expectation of what a young woman in LA should look like. I wanted to be like them, the ones who laughed and allowed their belly rolls to fold over as they bent to pull up a pair of jeans. The ones with c-section scars and beautiful-yet-supportive bras that left marks on their shoulders from doing the work of holding breasts with real weight.
They exuded something I couldn’t imagine as an attachment-wounded early-20s woman who had no idea what my life was going to be. Their presence, so grand and expressive, held a promise of what I could have someday: freedom from the tyranny of beauty and the cult of skinniness.
I had a flat belly and tiny cute boobs and feet that could tolerate four-inch heels, but those open-curtain dressing room moms had ability to not give a f*ck about the flat belly and tiny cute boobs. To not give a f*ck if anyone was looking. How did they get that? I’d wonder. What age do you have to be to suddenly wake up and know you’re OK, that your body is inherently good?
My sun-marked skin, my waist that no longer curves in, my hair that thinned after each of my babies and never quite came back, my eyebrows that seem to be disappearing from the outside-in, my less-cut jawline, my soft upper arms, my hands with scars and sun marks on them and nails I’ve kept short since my first diaper change in 2005 all serve to mark me as exactly the age I am — and I love it.
I’m the open-curtain dressing room mom now. The one with the degree and the job and the growing kids and the f*ck-it attitude.
But is it the body and the skin and the boyish walk that gives me the freedom to disappear from the male gaze — or is my waning interest in appealing to the male gaze the reason I let myself become the woman with all the freedom?
What I didn’t understand about those open-curtain dressing room ladies when I was an insecure young woman was that there isn’t one moment where a girl goes from worrying about every little dimple and mark to the woman who leaves that curtain open. There isn’t a moment or even a year where you go from being hyper-aware of your body in a string bikini that never sees actual water to the mom folded over in a swimsuit solid enough to stay put, helping a 6 year-old catch sand crabs to plop into a bucket.
It isn’t like you release all of that shallowness and pain and objectification and dysmorphia one day when you turn 35 or 42 or 48. Those wounds don’t fly up and out like balloons you’ve just let go.
You can’t just open your hands and release strings you’ve been tightly clutching throughout your whole life and expect the hurts and habits soar away until they’re tiny dots.
That feeling of freedom, that willingness to tear off my sweater in front of the gals in the shops and my comfort in wearing a bikini even with a stretched-out belly, came in tiny increments. It came with finding my voice and my place in the world. It came with raising little boys into men with beards and then having a little girl with a body just like mine: my grandmother’s long torso, my mother’s muscular legs and my great aunt’s strong arms.
I chose to wear the bikini until I got used to my new body in it. I chose to wear shorter denim cut-offs until I no longer thought about the texture of my thighs. I chose it daily and yearly until it became a habit.
I choose not to worry about my freckles and my lines. I choose to let my sternness show, let myself be the scowling one with something to say. I choose to take risks in my career, put my name and my heart on the line, and I choose to believe that I can be something other than the woman who used to be pretty.
I choose to see the reality of today: that I am almost 45 and I look my age, and that I’m pretty. Not “still pretty” or “pretty for my age” but pretty in the ways that feel right to me today, but might not in ten more years. I scowl when I’m displeased and I squint into the sun. I laugh hard, make weird faces without realizing it and am a master eye-roller.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grimaced at my age spots and bemoaned the fact that jeans never fit right in my waist. And then I make a choice: I’m going to do something different today. I’m going to wear what I want, build the career that I want, and look stern even when society suggests I don’t.
Let go of one balloon at a time. Let it float until it’s a tiny dot in the sky.
Tomorrow and the next day there will be more, and I’ll let them go, too, until one day — maybe — I’ll just be me, a woman who writes stuff that a few people seem to enjoy. A woman who lives in a body that grew and birthed three brand new human beings, a body that’s been sliced and stitched and preserved for the time being. A body I love for getting me around and giving me pleasure and joy.
All I ever wanted — before I even knew I wanted it — was to be a woman living in a body that isn’t the center of the story, but rather one who understands that the body is simply the vessel through which the story has been lived.