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When what we see isn't what we get, and other tales of the aging face in an age-hating culture

Dear Reader: This article explores people I know, my own journey, some tributaries around the aging face and our complex relationship with what the mirror insists on delivering: bad news, if we are to believe that aging is terrible.

What if we didn't? What if the Goddess has always known beauty on Her own terms all along? Why does society insist on seeing long life as a curse instead of a gift, judging it so exclusively on the basis of our looks? I don't know. It's a question worth exploring.

In the waning years of the Twentieth Century I was living in Spokane and writing for Spokane Woman Magazine. One assignment was about an older woman- someone the age I am now at 70- who was about to get a face lift.

I spent time with her before the procedure, was with her right after she came out of surgery, and checked in with her again some months later. One comment she made stuck with me.

"I want my face to reflect the way I feel inside," she claimed, something that I couldn't relate to then but in far more ways can appreciate now.

Of course inside our heads we often feel much younger. The soul doesn't age in our rented body, so the head can house a host of fantasies about ourselves, some of which are true. Many aren't.

The mind can be terrible liar, convincing us that we have capacities and skills and looks we don't possess. That can lead to devastating and deadly consequences. Every year, hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers treat plenty of folks who were in  complete denial of their age, the shape they're really in or both.

Just for the fun of showing how this works, I can't resist this clip of Tony Luke, Jr. doing a fine job of demonstrating the problem of overestimating one's abilities. This is from Invincible:

We do this. Hell, I've done it. Like when we write our online dating profiles, akin to overpricing an antique because we have a strong emotional connection to Mom's chipped dinner plate. Sometimes we ARE overpriced antiques. Sometimes our overblown opinions of who we are can trip us up when we want to find love, find work, find a place in our communities.

We do it when we go to the gym and try to lift a kettlebell five times what we should, because we could do that in our twenties. You get it. The mind can be a terrible deceiver, most particularly if it just can't deal with the truth of what the mirror reveals.

We truly can feel so ageless in our minds. When faced with THAT face, it's cognitive dissonance. The mirror lies, we tell ourselves. I sure don't feel old. I can't be that old. Can I?

Like Snow White's Wicked Queen, we want a mirror to tell we're all that and a bag of chips, too. Sadly, today's filters do the work of the slave in the mirror, to our detriment. Time does what she does, like it or not.

Lots of us can relate. Plenty of older woman are now using filters, which for my beauty dollar is about as foolish as it gets. You might find this intriguing. Not only is that a one-way street to perdition, an addiction to them is the worst kind of slavery. You'll never be free from what you "could" look like, if only....

Some of it isn't all bad, though. Not the filters, the mirror-gazing. In some therapeutic cases, a dementia sufferer might well find their way back through the haze of memory if faced with their younger, vital selves.  

This article spoke with affection to that very thing:

Reflections: Portraits of the Elderly Seeing Their Younger Selves
When my grandmother was suddenly stricken by a massive stroke, my family had to make the heartbreaking decision to let her go. The doctor told us that

It's the affection piece of it that seems to be missing. My reaction to the mirror ranges from outright guffaws at my morning mouth before dentures to the ridiculous situations in which I find myself these days. Hilarity is a fine handmaiden to the mirror. There is a slowly growing combination of affection, acceptance and appreciation of what is, what's coming, not what I've left behind.

Hell. Most of my younger years weren't worth remembering anyway, right? Besides, it's not going to improve- by this mean look any younger. My face, that is. How I feel about it can improve. Meanwhile it's a regular source of comedy.

My hair's like a tri-color tabbycat on acid; after coloring it for two decades, the lower part is way too dark, the part around my face is a mass of blurry racing stripes, and in-between is about a foot and a half of makeupyourmindalready.

It's universal, it's human, it's so vulnerable. For me it's funny. For lots, it's not.

In our society the aging face can feel like a living death sentence, especially if we believe that youthful appearances are what keep us relevant.

One friend of mine is approaching ninety. A lifelong dark redhead, she's been unwilling to let her hair grey. Three facelifts as well. The last time I saw her I was struck by how much her dark red hair no longer complemented her skin, how her face no longer matched the photo from thirty years ago which she uses to identify herself.

That's not a judgment, simply an observation. Our skin does change as we age, which includes thickness, color and sometimes discoloration, especially if we've been sun bunnies. At some point, keeping our hair color from our youth ends up being visually disconcerting.

My sixtyish-friend Alice stopped by the other day, having recently had her hair colored much lighter. It suits her complexion and it also suits her energy level. Her hair is short and spiky, easy to care for, which allows her an active lifestyle. Mine's in a long braid, which is also easy to care for. Okay, yeah, unless it gets caught in an express elevator door.

The iconic Iris Apfel, now 101 and still going strong, signed a modeling contract at 97. While that most assuredly gave a few of us hope, we aren't likely to be hounded by the press for photographs the more wrinkles we sport.

Why is it so difficult succumb to how the Goddess paints us as we age? So much has improved as we evolve, should we care to notice it. When we are distracted from valuing who we are becoming vs. how age has stolen our youth, we miss so very much of the best of what aging offers us.

Who am I if I don't look like that any more?

Does letting go of my attachment to a Certain Look free me or condemn me?

Photo by Nhia Moua / Unsplash

Perhaps a more potent question:

Who am I preventing from coming into the world if I keep hanging on to who I once was?

Early in my fifties I had facelift.  Like my mother I was terrified of what age might cost me. In her case, she had reason. Mom had her children past forty in the early 1950s. She was never a young mother, and motherhood was rough on her on the farm. My mother had been a society girl of class, cotillions, crackling crinolines and pots of expensive creams. Not a hot, sweaty Florida farm surrounded by pigs, goats and cows.

Worse, despite the fact that my mother's excellent bone structure and fine features stayed with her for life, my father's withering, hateful criticism of her aging body and face wrought terrible damage. I heard my father hurl insults at her nearly every day. My father's body and face were no walk in the park either. I suspect he was taking out his disgust about his own failed form on her.

Likely the real reason that I fear age is from watching this unfold at home, to say nothing of how media and messaging shame us for getting old. The daily abuse my dad showered on my mother for not staying thirty, slim, and stunning until she died was an object lesson in how life ends at a Certain Age in our society, especially if you're female. We learn to hate the mirror's gaze.

Most of that abuse is self-inflicted.  Dr. Becca Levy's book Breaking the Aging Code goes a long way towards explaining the harm our attitudes can have as we age, and how the way we view ourselves can dictate a great deal of quality of life.

But again, there are such gentle, gracious lessons about love, self-love, loving the world and the chance to be in it a very long time.

Best friends- not saying a word-because the beauty of the sunrise says enough.
Photo by Briana Tozour / Unsplash

My friend Melissa just celebrated her third year anniversary with her partner. They are both quite attractive women in their mid-sixties with short grey or blond/grey hair. And slightly soft bellies, Melissa pointed out to me the other day.  

Okay, so?

She has love, companionship, activities, she has a great deal of joy in her life with this person. What's a bit of belly between lovers, right?

Melissa's observation about her own belly, which has in the past been unkind, this time sounded a much softer acceptance.

"We both have them," she said during our morning call. "Our bellies don't get in the way of our loving each other."

The softness of that attitude, the relinquishing of the foolish demand to have cobblestone abs to be worthy of love is what I celebrate. For my aging dollar, that's the Goddess talking.

Sometimes in our eagerness to recapture what can't be recaptured, we block our access to so many better experiences. Those are afforded us when we can release our fears of the aging face, the aging body, the limitations of time. I've done it myself.

Those years when I was young, when I was far more pretty by societal standards than I am now, I despised my face and body with a passion I was never enough, fat ugly and stupid (the Terrible Triumvirate, according to so many of my female friends who are none of those any more than I was). As do so many of us today, because fear and loathing of our poor "rental units," our bodies, sells an awful lot of products and procedures.

Can we love our aging faces? As with all things, it depends. What I love far more is the ageless soul which inhabits this aging body. What I love and appreciate far more is the rich sense of humor afforded me by time, experience, personal growth and the deep work of deconstructing the stories which lent me so much pain.

That ability to overwrite history, to negotiate better terms with the stories we've allowed to own us, are just part of what aging gives us, should we be open to its gifts.

Old age is a gift.

We can discuss this conceptually, nod our heads sagely, then toddle off to the toilet to heap insults at ourselves for the crow's feet, the mouth lines, the sagging jawline.

Pick one. The journey is short enough as it is to not spend precious, irretrievable time barking at our bodies for betraying our age. It's ridiculous to feel resentment at ourselves for embodying the gifts of the Goddess' handiwork, the lines and grey hairs and stooping posture, all of it. Those are proof-positive that we have been allowed to hang around this long.

We have earned the right to enjoy life more, be more grateful, more gracious for being alive. Better writers than I point out that this gratitude becomes far more poignant the closer we get to our own final hours.

It's taken me way too long to reach the point where proof of age is a gift to the world I inhabit. It's proof that I have earned the right to inhabit, and fully enjoy, the time I'm given, what time I have left. You, too.

While the young will always chafe at the old, we grey-hairs can revel in the fact that all those pushing and shoving at us now to get the hell out of the way will, only if they are fortunate, enjoy the same brutish treatment at the hands of those younger who in such a hurry to be....older.

The irony, right?

As George Carlin said, Wait a while.

Finally, one more story. At the famed Beaver Creek Resort, where I was speaking at a conference years ago, there was also a conference of retired NFL players. Among them was a gentleman nearing sixty and his new wife. They had met late in life, fallen hard, and were now spending their days doing something I found profoundly odd. To be around them was to hear them constantly say that they'd wish they'd met sooner.

To have found enough other at all is such a boon. To spend so much time bemoaning time lost, when it's entirely possible that an earlier pairing might have been disastrous, is to waste the time you have left. But that's my take. I'm likely wrong; all I can do is report what I saw.

Melissa and her partner found each other in 2020. Many of us discover love or adventure (my hand is up here) very late in life. Let's not waste even more time wallowing in self pity about how we wish we'd found it all sooner.

We found those people, those experiences when we were ready for them. If the Goddess decided to sprinkle us with grey pixie dust before we found our life's biggest treasures, who are we to complain?

My aging face speaks to the incredible adventures I've had. Many more are to come. It also speaks to the prices I've paid to be present on this marble. I can't speak for you, but I wouldn't have that agency erased. Nature, the Goddess, whatever you call Her, knows what She's doing.

And for that, I am grateful beyond words to precisely what I am now: seventy, and counting.

Photo by Krisztian Tabori on Unsplash

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