Last week, I struck up a conversation with my Uber driver. As the conversation continued around politics, he made an assumption that we were close in age, saying as someone in her late twenties/early thirties, surely I could relate. I pointed out that I’m actually in my mid-forties (I’ll be 45 in June), at which the driver abruptly adjusted the rearview mirror with shock and said, “There is NO WAY you’re that old! You don’t look your age!”
This situation happens to me often. I know he meant it as a sincere compliment, but I’m troubled by the concept that somehow I’m winning at life because I don’t have more visible, external signs of aging. It seems after a certain age, “You don’t look your age!” is supposed to be the Mother of All Compliments, feathered in a soft nest of “I would never have guessed!” and “OMG, are you serious?” While I appreciate the flattery, I’m always left with a very uneasy feeling: what does that say about how we feel about women and aging?
What makes this well-meaning compliment so unsettling is it implies there’s something wrong with looking middle-aged or older. We live in a youth-obsessed culture. It’s almost as if we have invisible expiration dates on our skin, and any sign of wear and tear sets off an alarm. The catalyst makes us feel suddenly shamed and expendable.
Our societal thirst for youth is undeniable. Entire magazines dedicated to “The Age Issue.” Intense media scrutiny on the appearance of every woman in the public eye, as parodied by Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and others in “Last F*ckable Day.” And the beauty business wages a full-scale war on time, complete with antiaging weaponry meant to eradicate, decimate, and bury all evidence that a woman might be getting older, like “age-defying lasers” and “miracle worker” eye creams. Every day, I watch women battling time with everything they’ve got, attempting to stay in the same jeans from high school while pushing foreign matter into their faces in order to literally freeze everything right where it is today, forever and ever more.
The fear of being seen as anything less than sexually viable, the palpable threat of being traded in for a younger model, the intense messaging that we’re going to die alone if we show a crack in the armor of our skin – all of it is crushing, pervasive, and punishing. We treat women like the newest release of the iPhone: just wait a minute, because we’ve got a hot newer model coming, and she’s so much sexier than your old one that we’ve made the old model obsolete.
I find this incredibly disturbing. The lines running across my forehead mimic those of my father’s. And I can’t imagine doing something to get rid of them. Recently, I discovered the magical power of rainbow-colored hair, and I defy someone telling me I’m too old to have it. My jawline and breasts are slowly descending, and outside of exercise, good bras, and products, I’m letting them continue on their path. I truly find softness truly sexy. But I am worried about the women my age (or older) and for the young impressionable girls who are imprinted with an unnecessary fear of aging.
My age is awesome. I know so much more than I have ever known before. The light that shines within my skin is knowledge of how amazing life can be if you just hang in there. I laugh more easily, and I’m so much better in bed because I know my body. My soul, wit, intelligence – the very spark of life within me makes for my vibrancy. I feel like I’ve done a pretty damned good job taking care of myself. I come from a long line of extraordinary black women who take incredible pride in appearance, and we all have daily rituals that reinforce that sentiment.
“The less you do to your face, the less you will ever have to do to you face,” is a mantra my mother once said. I swear by it. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I cleanse, I treat, I moisturize; repeat daily. Outside of that, I’ve never had anything “done” (re: cosmetic dermatology). The only needles near my face have involved piercing my ears and dental work, and the only surgery has been wisdom teeth removal. No fillers, no nothing. It’s real, and it’s all mine.
That said, I did start using products at the young age of 9 years old, when my Olay-obsessed Aunt Bert used to slather my face with the legendary cream. I would stand on the stool in her bathroom as she performed her nightly beauty ritual.
Image Source: Courtesy of Kristin Booker
At first, I used moisturizers as a teenager to offset the drying effects of cleansers and astringents. And that routine has now evolved into a twice-daily regimen of cleansing, serums, and moisturizers. My regiment has guest-starring appearances from other products weekly, because I test so many things.
Since there’s no beauty cream or cosmetic procedure that can cure our obsession with youth, I’d like to propose a different solution: awareness. Instead of telling a woman she doesn’t look her age, just tell her she looks good. Really good. “Wow, you’re beautiful,” is something every single person on the planet recognizes as sincere currency, and we can live off that bank of positive energy for days.
Also, accomplishments, goals, dreams, and intelligence are incredibly beautiful. Women living unapologetically, like Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Lauren Hutton, Meryl Streep, and Rita Moreno, are vibrant, exquisite beings. Smart brands are starting to recognize the sensuality that comes from a life of experience. Marc Jacobs embracing Jessica Lange, Joan Didion in a Céline campaign, NARS featuring Charlotte Rampling, and most recently Lancome signing on Isabella Rossellini are all steps in the right direction.
The childish fear of the inevitable end of our lives is forcing us to take extraordinary measures that don’t celebrate women. Ladies, if you’re with people who don’t see the sum of your beauty, ditch them and find your tribe of women who are as juicy and amazing as you. Same goes for the men in your life. Someone out there will love you right as you are . . . no further assembly required.
It’s time for a new standard of beauty. Let’s all look amazing, regardless of our age. The ultimate compliment is to recognize all of what’s in front of you, inside and out. Every single woman has something to bring to the party, and it’s time we celebrate that in all its glory.