“Old age was growing inside me. It kept catching my eye from the depths of the mirror. I was paralysed sometimes as I saw it making its way toward me so steadily when nothing inside me was ready for it.” Simone de Beauvoir.
We’d stand in nightclubs eyeing the thirty-somethings in faded band t-shirts and tight jeans (not on in the late nineties) and roll our eyes. We’d make promises to each other that we would never be the oldest ones in the club. Easy promises to make when you are fifteen years old but already feeling pretty jaded as you’ve been chugging Newkie Brown in the shadows of shitty clubs with sticky floors for at least a year. “Nothing worse than an ageing hipster,” we’d sneer to each other as we ran to the dance floor.
We promised to never be that person. That thirty something so clearly desperately clinging onto the dregs of their youth in suburban nightclubs as the people around them just got younger and younger as their friends moved on to do what thirty-somethings are supposed to do. But what is it we’re supposed to do? I’m 35 and I’m still waiting to be told to put the faded band t-shirts away and swap them for a nice blouse. How will I know when to stop replacing one pair of battered Converse with a fresh pair that I will wear until they have holes in (and then still wear them for a while)? My best friend and I used to laugh at people who wore ‘transitional shoes’ to help ease them into their thirties. Not quite a trainer and not quite a shoe, they often looked something like a Camper lace-up. I’m not sure what I imagined I would look like at 35 when I was younger but I’m pretty sure it involved me washing my hair more often and my shoes not having holes in.
When my mother was my age, the youngest of her four children was three years old and she was twice divorced. She had a perm, a nice collection of shoulder padded outfits and never left the house without her ‘face’ on. She was a proper grown-up. Me? I live in a protracted adolescence along with most of the thirty-somethings around me. As we put off marriage and kids until later and later, we also by default, put off thoughts of ageing. Our clothing and haircuts haven’t changed that much in last fifteen years nor our socialising habits so if we’re still feeling and acting like we’re in our early twenties, then surely we’ll always look like we’re in our mid-twenties?
I seem to have inherited my mother’s genes for most things and it would appear, for the most part, that this also includes the ageing gene. When I would tell my friends how old she was, the number would be met with disbelieving gasps and often followed by leering looks from male friends. I have yet to find any grey hairs and a childhood spent living in fear and slathering on sunscreen to avoid cancer is finally paying off. I have always enjoyed looking younger than I actually am as I felt that it afforded me the chance to wear things that I either didn’t have the confidence or money to wear when I was younger, knowing that I could still pull it off. I wasn’t bothered that I started my chosen career at thirty as I knew that it didn’t matter because I didn’t look thirty. No one ever genuinely seems surprised when I tell them that I am not married and child-free as they take in my chewed fingernails, tattered hoodie and neon pink lipstick. I felt, unlike many women my age, free from the shackles of ageing in a patriarchal society and safe in the knowledge that I would look and feel twenty-four forever.
And then things started to ache in the mornings. I started looking a little closer in the mirror and noticed that the skin around my jaw was getting crepey. My hair started to get coarser and harder to manage and when I looked at photos of myself in the make-up that I had worn for years, I had started to resemble Baby Jane Hudson. Around this time, I found myself getting a little irritable when I was told that I looked younger than I actually was. One particular incident involved a senior colleague telling me that, even though I had been working there for over three years at the time, she thought I was twenty-four (I was 33). Instead of fluttering my eyelashes and demurring that I was in fact much older, I half-jokingly asked her if that’s why allowances were being made for me being shit at my job (half-joking because I was half, ok fully, panicked but fyi, I’m not shit at my job). I started thinking that everyone just had really low expectations of me and why was I happy for people to think I was younger than I actually am?
Ageing had never bothered me, perhaps because I didn’t have to think about it for so long. After a particularly nasty break up, I consulted a beauty therapist about getting fillers in my thin lips (thanks mum). She told me that she also offered Botox as she poked at my forehead nodding to herself. Oh yes, she could definitely see signs of ageing. I politely told her that I was 27 and certainly too young for botox. She grimaced and gave me a pitying look. My lips remained thin and my forehead creased. I’ve never bought into anti-ageing products, smug in my knowledge that the only thing that keeps skin healthy is sunscreen, not smoking and keeping yourself hydrated and my skin care routine has always been pretty cheap and basic. I never gave much thought to the way some women seemed to endlessly chase youth until I had to face up the demise of my own.
As women, we are constantly bombarded with the idea that youth equates to beauty everywhere we go. From the miracle creams designed to keep us looking like teenagers to the insidious sexualisation of young girls (see: Millie Bobby Brown). We are constantly fed the notion that ageing is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Obviously these advertising executives are men because I would say it ranks pretty low down on the list after, among many other things, gender-based violence and rape culture. Our value diminishes along with the collagen in our cheeks and we are encouraged to chase that elusive ‘dewy plumpness’ (our lips and cheeks are the only things allowed to actually be plump) to ensure that we remain youthful and therefore attractive. Attractive to whom, you may ask. Men with an unhealthy obsession with the sexuality of young girls. Every man is Humbert Humbert and nearly every woman is desperately trying to fulfil the role of nymphet.
We all know that a society fixated on women trying to look younger and thinner is a society fixated on female subservience (read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth). If we are busy hating ourselves and scrubbing our faces with glycolic acid then we do not have the time or energy to fight these firmly entrenched standards of beauty so detrimental to our physical and emotional health while keeping a lot of people (mostly men) very rich. Go on, take a look at your skin care regime and see how much of it is designed to make you look younger and therefore more attractive in a homogenised-eurocentric-patriarchal-kind-of-a-way. How about using skincare that smells nice and makes you want to stroke your own face?
Globally, the anti-ageing market was estimated to be worth £195 billion in 2016 and expected to reach £258 billion in the next three years. It goes without saying that the market is an almost entirely gendered one with companies preying on women’s insecurities convince them to part with often around £100 of their hard-earned cash on a small jar of empty promises. A jar that promises to remove all of that hard-earned character from your face so that you can look like you’ve never laughed or cried a day in your life.
So yes, my upper arms wobble more than they used to and when I laugh, the lines don’t always disappear but I wear my life on my face and my body. I have a body that is covered in scars, bruises and tattoos so why shouldn’t my face also tell the story of my life? I have blackheads, crows’ feet, freckles, spider veins, scars and frown lines and my face tells the story of a life that has been lived. I am proud of being 35 with all of my failures and achievements behind me but with plenty still ahead of me. Convincing someone I am ten years younger will never erase the last decade so why should I pretend to try? When children make me laugh, I want them to see my face move in a million different ways; flared nostrils, laughter lines and double chins. When my partner shows me a sad video of a dog on his phone, I feel no fear about the ugly cry that I inevitably do every time. I will not be scared of showing emotions for fear of them leaving a lasting impression on my face. The aching shoulders and creaking knees as I haul myself out of bed at five-thirty every morning? I’ll take all the Botox and glycolic acid you’ve got.