How old are you? Is a question I recently saw while scrolling through Instagram. Intrigued (I’ve been thinking about my age a lot, lately) I followed the link and read this brief and gracefully-written post about… getting older. My face has been scaring me lately–not because I look bad or especially old, but because for the first time in my life, I look older than I feel. Often, I still feel like a kid. I still feel like skipping, or burping, or making a fart joke, or dressing up in a dress that hardly covers anything at all, and dancing the night away. Often, I feel like I’ll probably always feel: somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, with sporadic dashes of nine, twelve, and sixteen. A few weeks ago, I looked in the mirror and saw a face that was clearly thirty, and I totally panicked. I ran to Rite Aid, and with the help of my best-friend-forever via text messages, bought some age-appropriate creams and potions, and a little bit of make up, too. For the first time in my life, I gave a fuck (like, a real one) about how I looked.
Ask my mother. For years, we fought daily about my outfits, my hair, and my attitude about the aforementioned things. Even into my twenties and thirties, she and I would go out and she’d often express mild horror at the clothes I’d picked, or the tangles at the back of my head. I liked looking messy because I felt messy on the inside–and I still do–but messy doesn’t look as good on a thirty-three-year-old face.
Last year, I participated in a fashion show at my school. I was going to walk down the runway with a strikingly beautiful Somali student, so I let her pick my outfit, and do my makeup, too. I wore long, shimmering pants, a loose dress sewn with sequins and tightened around my waist with a decorative belt, and also a hijab made from from sheer purple and silver fabric. I felt like a princess, I felt beautiful; but for many of my students, this outfit was ordinary, they came to school like this everyday. I said aloud to a coworker: “I wonder how differently I’d feel about my life if I dressed up like this everyday, if I felt this beautiful all of the time.”
The science of aging is a little scary, even depressing. I treated myself to a night of reading about how and why skin ages. I learned about how after the age of twenty, skin produces less and less collagen each year. I learned that eventually, collagen and elastin cease production, and fibers break or clump, eventually leading to weak skin that’s easily bruised and damaged. It all sounded terrible to me, something that should be avoided, except, to avoid it is to, well, die young. Clearly, that isn’t the superior option.
What to do, then, when faced with these two options? Well, I suppose one could take pains to preserve the look of youth–lots of make-up, skin treatments, hair dye, perhaps even surgery–but that merely treats the superficial changes. What about the deeper shifts and realities at play? Weakening bones, thinning cartilage, muscle that slowly atrophies despite our best efforts? Worse–that ever present truth that all of this leads to one place, and once place, only–the grave. I saw no sense in making myself look younger when I wasn’t actually getting younger–when I knew that was really bothered me was that all of this was simply evidence of my eventual tomb.
I know, I know. A little dark. But the truth is, we’re all dying. We’ve all been dying since the moment we were born. It’s only that in our thirties that this suddenly becomes impossible to ignore any longer. While it might take me some time to conquer my fear of death itself, I think I can make a few adjustments in how I see myself, my life, and aging in order to not become frightened every time I see my reflection or photograph.
Yesterday, I attended the same fashion show I participated in last year, but this year I just watched. I remembered, sitting in the darkened auditorium, how I’d felt in that outfit I wore down the faux red carpet. Aside from feeling like some kind of princess, I felt put-together, because I was. Every part of my ensemble had been chosen carefully. My make-up had been applied with thought and attention. I wondered if my life had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: nearly every morning for years, I’ve done as little as possible in order to present myself to the world: I barely combed my hair, maybe applied mascara, and sleepily chose a plain but acceptable outfit. I’ve always looked a little messy–and to date, my life still feels like a bit of a mess. Before I left to drive home from the fashion show at my school, I snapped a self-portrait in the harsh gray light coming in through the window by my desk—it did a really good job of defining the lines around my mouth and between my eyebrows. Evidence I’ve spent a lot of my time on earth either smiling or scrutinizing (and worrying, too, let’s be realistic!)
I can think of my aging skin and bones scientifically—slow but increased cellular damage and death—or I can think of it as a map of how I’ve felt, how I’ve lived, and where I’ve been (I don’t doubt my years in Ecuador will lead to premature sun spots, or “star spots” as I’ve decided I will call them). As my time runs out, my body does an increasingly good job at reminding me how how I’ve felt so that I can better focus on how I *want* to feel, live, and be… in my present, as well as my future. I can be angry that I have so many lines on my forehead already, or I can embrace the fact that I’m a worrier and thus have spent a lot of time thinking and re-thinking all my decisions (because despite my careless attitude about dress, I’m perhaps too careful in how I decide to navigate my life). And actually, I should probably do a better job of embracing all of my life—even the ruts, even the dry and seemingly endless plateaus and those woods so thick I can’t find the sky. This is all I get after all, this singular and tiny life—it’s up to me to find the beauty that is nestled within the geography of a ditch. I suppose if I am going to be stuck there, it’s better to appreciate it than hate it.
I talk about ditches and plateaus and thick woods because for a long time now I’ve felt quite lost in certain realms of my life. And no, I don’t think taking the time each morning to make myself look more presentable and beautiful will resolve all my problems and put me on a clear path, but I do think it will make a difference in how I feel about myself, and my place in the world. There’s also something to be said for simply taking the time to do anything—not rushing through processes, even the daily and mundane ones—after all, these are the things that accumulate, that make up our lives. What’s more—taking care that I don’t look messy might also help reshape my attitude about my life—maybe it’s not such a mess, after all. And my face and body (aging as they will) they’re a map of all of it, the beautiful places I’ve been, and the dark ones, too. The laughter, and the worry. And it’s ok. All of it.
Initially, I was worried that wanting to spend more time on my appearance meant I was becoming vain. But last week I found myself teaching my high school students about architectural decoration. I asked them: does a house need these things? Brightly painted shutters? Gardens? Strings of lights? Potted plants? No, a house will stand just as well without any embellishment, but we might not feel as good walking into it, spending time in it or around in. Decorations not only look beautiful, but they’re evidence of care, of attention, even love. Of course, there are lines, there *can* be excess and vanity, but I’m talking about simple decor here, and I suppose a body is something like a house; we do spend our whole lives in it. And I’d never want my home to sit in a barren lot, unpainted, no grass or plants, without shell chimes hanging from my porch roof.
(Let’s just be clear though: I’ll never be one of those women who looks great every time she goes out. I’ll still have raggedy days and times when I make no effort to look nice. Simply because I’m me, and I’ll never be able to pull 100% off, nor do I want to. It’s OK to look messy at times… sometimes, life is just too messy to look any other way! And for me, embellishing means: picking out an outfit instead of throwing on whatever, brushing my hair [do you know for how many years I didn’t!? You don’t want to], putting good lotion on my face, a little blush if it’s winter and I’m extra pale, some tinted lip gloss, mascara and maybe eyeliner if I have the time or desire. I’m not talking about a massive make-over here!)
We collect wisdom as we go, too—embellishing not only our exteriors, but our minds and hearts as well. Each age offers us something new, something that was undetectable before; even if shallowly buried, we could never have reached it. I suppose thinning skin is a fair price to pay if I get to keep uncovering, if my mind gets to keep learning, and my heart keeps expanding. None of us can ever have it all. And I think another thing about getting older is that we are always all of the ages we have been before. I might still feel 27 and 12 most of the time, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also sometimes feel 33. I can always enjoy inappropriate dance music, but I love classical music, now, too. Maybe someday I’ll even love opera. And even when I’m sixty-three, even when I’m 96, I’ll still be a chubby-cheeked toddler. Somewhere within me—she’ll always exist.