On Ageing, Media Scrutiny, and Self Perception
I consider myself lucky to have never gone through a period of self-loathing or depression over my physical appearance. Like anyone, I have struggled, especially as a teen, to embrace parts of myself, always hoping for them change – for my lanky limbs to fill out, my boobs to come in (still waiting for that one), for my bad skin to clear up. Unlike some though, I have never really hated my appearance or struggled the way some do, and I am grateful for it.
I’m telling you this to fully highlight the newness of a situation which I found myself in couple of nights ago. For the first time, I spent a longer period of time than I ever have standing in front of the bathroom mirror and despairing over what I was seeing. I scrutinised at length the lines which are starting to form permanently around my eyes. They’re not just there when I smile anymore – though they certainly deepen significantly – they are now etched lightly on my skin no matter my expression.
After a while of pulling in vain at the skin around my eyes until it was tight and once again line-free I had a sudden “what on earth am I doing” moment and became pretty overwhelmed by the whole ridiculous scenario. The sadness and frustration that was a minute ago caused by what I saw in the mirror was suddenly redirected to a new and much more worrying cause – how I had reacted to what I saw; my first experience of reacting this way to my own face.
Only a moment ago I had been thinking how I really needed to invest in a quality anti-ageing cream; now I reflected on how absurd that name even is. “Anti-ageing” implies not only can we stop the process of ageing but we can turn it on its head altogether which, when you think about it, is nothing but complete nonsense. Lotions which promise to be “anti-ageing” are just one of many factors which contribute to this underlying message we receive that ageing = bad.
The most concerning thing about this subconscious pairing of ageing with 'the bad' is the futility of it all. Of all the things which make up life, getting older is the one that we cannot change; the one thing we have no control over. It is within our power to change almost everything else... our happiness and the happiness of others, our wealth, our education, our experiences. Life offers endless possibilities to us but the one thing it doesn’t negotiate on is the passing of time. Whatever path we choose in life, we have to walk it no matter what. We cannot stop the endless ticking hand of time, and so we cannot stop ourselves getting older.
Even those who decide to undergo injections and surgery to eradicate lines are not stopping the ageing process; they are merely altering it. The youthful do not need to do these things so, in a way, facelifts and Botox are merely another, yet much less graceful way of ageing.
I have always held my opinions on ageing gracefully; always quietly judged those who go to such measures to deny it and heralded those who embrace their age. And yet, when I noticed the signs of age on my own face for the first time I literally panicked. I hated what I saw, and that makes me unspeakably sad. These lines have been put there by hours, days, months, actually years of smiles. Smiles caused by friends making me laugh. Smiles from films and books telling good stories. Smiles from animals doing funny things. Years’ worth of moments that have brought me happiness are starting to show, and this is meant to be a bad thing?
Part of the problem – and not a small part – is the way in which the media represents older women. I am noticing it more and more as companies and brands the world over are starting to step away from Photoshop and proudly portray natural, healthy body types in advertising. While this is a fantastic change to see, I can't help but notice the lack of another change we should be making; by their absence I notice older women remain practically invisible in mainstream media except when fulfilling a matronly role.
While ageing men are commonly referred to as “silver foxes,” women who are seen to be ageing are often described with words like “haggard,” “tired” or looking “worse for wear.” Perhaps the worst I have seen was the panic that erupted last year when Kate Middleton dared to step out with – dear God no! – some grey hairs on display under her half-ponytail. The following is the first two sentences taken from a story covering the scandal. Sure, the story may be from the Daily Mail and sure, the opinion may have been controversial, but the messaging was put out there all the same, and this adds to the taboo.
We are fed these messages, and even though we may realise them for what they are, we cannot help but let their words cause a little bit of harm each time. We then see the cruel way in which women who attempt to rectify the situation by getting fillers or face lifts are spoken about, and are left in this terrible middle ground. We cannot be seen to be aging, but we should not be foolish enough to try to stop it and insodoing ruin our appearance. We go crazy over women whose faces seem to be frozen in time (think JLo) as if they are the fountain of youth and we NEED to know how they do it. Case in point, how the internet lost its shit in late January when the below photo was posted on Twitter by an Indianapolis teen with the caption “Mom, twin and me” prompting a viral and all-consuming frenzy about which of the three was the mother and just how the hell we can do what she’s doing.
Guys, some people just have really rad genes.
Now I’m not so much of an idealist that I wish for a world where women never have little pangs of envy over each other... this will never change. But this comes from seeing, judging, then wishing – you literally see the process when two women come across each other. The encounter can leave us wanting to grow our hair out or wear more red lippy or even work out a bit more based on what we have just seen, but these are all things we can change if we so desire.
What I wish is for women to stop desiring to change the unchangeable, as it causes nothing but bad feelings towards ourselves. What I wish is that we would stop fretting at the sight of fine lines appearing which are quite literally the mark of happiness in the life we are living. What I wish is that the media would stop rendering everyday older women invisible so we panic when we no longer see ourselves reflected in the images we consume. What I wish is that there no longer be this impossible scenario of being cautioned from letting your age show but admonished for not ageing gracefully. What I wish is that we stop glorifying those who die young and remain eternally youthful, but rather appreciate the beauty of getting older and having the memories, the smiles and the life lived etched onto our faces. That is what I wish.
These are my smile lines. I'm determined that they will not make me scared when I see them anymore. They are going to make me smile even more for everything that has put them there.