Sometime in 2010, I was standing with a group of nervous 22-year-old interns at a work happy hour for my very first job. As the drinks flowed and everyone loosened up a bit, one of the higher-ups joined our circle as we were chatting about dating. “I’m getting Botox. I’m going to a trainer. I’m doing whatever,” she announced. “I’m 40 and single, but I’m not going down without a fight, ladies!” We laughed in a way that we hoped came off as neutral and polite, but probably radiated discomfort.
As my friend and I left to catch the train that night, we quickly debriefed on the moment. “Yikes,” we said to each other. “It’s just aging!” We may have been broke and stressed and unsure of ourselves every hour on the hour, but we knew in broad strokes and gut feelings what our future was going to be like, and it wasn’t that. I have a very casual relationship to my looks as I am a very casual woman, I thought. I will be chill.
Nearly a decade later, I am now, for the first time, not just getting older, but aging—in what feels like the prime of my life. How unjust! Unsure of myself for most of high school and college, I emerged out of my awkward phase at the graceful age of…I dunno, 24? And I’ve just gotten more comfortable with myself since. But just as I felt like I was settling into myself, I started noticing the way my forehead wrinkles when I arch my eyebrows. Or how the grays in my hair have started to congregate in one spot (fingers crossed that they at least do me the solid of turning into a streak, but I’m trying not to get too attached to the idea).
But it’s not just cosmetic! Oh no! My hip hurts all the time. I rarely get carded. I’m haunted by the fact that I have yet to roll over my 401K. At this rate, I’m not saving nearly enough for retirement. I recently added the PBS app to my Roku. More of my friends are married than not. I am wary of eating too many chia seeds. I’m worried that every time I talk to my mom on the phone it may be the last. I’m concerned I’m not getting enough calcium. I’m afraid I may never stop being selfish. I’m afraid I’m going to become an object of pity. I’m afraid I’ll never stop being scared.
Well, would you look at that. It seems as if I am decidedly not chill.
Part of my low-level panic is, when I see wrinkles, I see a physical representation of a loss of time. I was never going to be a wunderkind, I knew that pretty early on. And it took some wandering career-wise to figure out what I wanted—or rather, to gather the courage to go after what I wanted. So while I know that 22-year-old me wouldn’t have been able to handle New York or a job in media, I can’t escape the feeling that my window of youth is closing, and that maybe I waited too long to jump through it. I’m mourning the loss of that space where I didn’t quite feel left behind (though sometimes I do) but didn’t feel locked into anything either (though again, sometimes I do).
So yes, I’m uncomfortable with what the wrinkles represent, but honestly, I’m not thrilled about the wrinkles themselves, either. When it comes down to it, I am pretty vain about the way I look in that I think I can afford to not think about it that much—so the fact that I’m giving this any attention at all is unsettling. Why do I care? As someone who has never really been “cute” or had a youthful glow (I came out of the womb glowering), I don’t think my fall from aesthetic grace will be a large one—probably more like a hop off of a curb. Plus, when I think about the things that truly scare me about my future, my face falls pretty far down the list. But wouldn’t it make dealing with the things I’m worried about easier if I looked younger? Maybe, maybe not. But if I am freaking out about losing time, it seems like the more pressing issue than my wrinkles is getting right with myself. Figuring out what a nice life means to me, what I want beyond surface-level notions of success.
Another woman at my very first job, one who set the mold in my mind for how a woman can lead, once said in a meeting, “At a certain age you wake up and just think, me again?” At the time, it made me sad. I think it still does. Because even though I understand it more now—that living is kind of a slog—I still wake up happy to occupy the body and space that I do, I think in part because getting here was so hard-won. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to give up on liking myself yet. So if my wrinkles and grays and fears are still here, reminding me that I like what I have enough to worry about it slipping away, maybe that’s a good thing. It can light a fire under me to move toward what I want and cherish what I have because, after all, we’re all gonna die, so why wouldn’t I raise these eyebrows with reckless abandon?
Photos provided by Nora Taylor.