By Laura Garren
I wish I could feel as compassionately toward myself as I feel toward other people, especially regarding physical appearance. I understand that the media has distorted the idea of beauty to such an extent that many women think they aren’t attractive if they aren’t 25, 5’6” and 110 pounds (all in perfect proportion, of course), with glossy long hair, a glowing complexion, deep pools of eyes surrounded by thick black lashes. I exaggerate, of course, but my point is that many women feel bad about themselves because they don’t meet the ideal standard of beauty.
While I understand the concept intellectually, however, my feelings betray me when I look in the mirror. Interestingly, I felt this way as a teenager, when I was passing through the awkward stage that some girls do. Then I hit 17 and suddenly was considered pretty. I remained unconvinced simply because I had never before felt that way, but I realized by the reactions of others—particularly men—that I was attractive. I enjoyed this experience through my 20s and 30s, even as my hair turned prematurely grey. My thyroid stopped functioning when I was 37, which caused my hair to become brittle and thin. I was forced to cut my formerly long, thick, curly hair. I missed it, but otherwise looked the same.
Then, as I started creeping through my 40s, I enjoyed less and less the act of looking at my reflection. I started noticing that my jaw, never chiseled, was losing definition; and I started to develop lines alongside my mouth. As I approach my 50th birthday, the cheeks themselves have started to sag around these lines, and I have what I call a goozle: that skin right under the chin that puckers up into a horrible little wattle. I have been dreaming of plastic surgery for years, and I hate to admit it to myself, let alone anyone else. I wish I would look at myself the way I look at other aging people: I don’t see their wrinkles and sagging parts; I’m reasonably sure they aren’t looking at mine.
But when I look in the mirror, I think, “I look so old!” Why have I internalized the idea that being old is something to be hated, feared or ashamed of? When did we, as a society, start discounting old people? I am almost a crone, much wiser than I was at 25 and with a much larger store of knowledge. (Of course, being 25 and pretty is its own reward. Thank Goddess for the trade-off: wisdom for attractiveness.) In our culture’s past, old people were revered. Of course, advertising hadn’t been invented. Or had it?
I read somewhere that women, especially, are more attractive when young because their youth advertises reproductive fitness. And beauty advertises a vigorous, healthy, well-fed potential reproductive partner. So it’s not surprising that many men, of all ages, want beautiful young women. But I digress.
My point is that I wish I could look at myself forgivingly. I wish I could accept my aging face the way I accept that of others. I know many people, men as well as women, who are 50+ years and who I think are very attractive. I wonder if they think they are?
I don’t know what to do about my self-shallowness except to keep dreaming about plastic surgery. I don’t really know if I would go through with it, even if I could afford it, but the idea of looking in the mirror and liking what I see is very appealing. Until I win the lottery, I guess, I will just have to keep trying to love the face I have. After all, it served me well for a long time, and now reflects the life I’ve lived, for good or for bad. I need to try to show my gratitude by not disdaining it now just because it has lost that youthful glow and firmness.
As I wrote the paragraph above, I had an epiphany: I realized that I need to separate my face from myself. When I was thinking of my face as a separate entity, I felt a rush of compassion for it and the loss of its youth. I felt guilty, too, for wanting to change it. It needs acknowledgement and validation for its suffering. It needs to be cared for and cherished. I just hope I can hold on to that idea.
Another lesson in the big trade off of looks for wisdom. I never would have realized, in my 20s, that I would one day be so smart!