Something weird happened to me this week when I was standing in a shop changing room about to try on some jeans.
The woman I beheld in the mirror was wearing slightly too-loose charity shop jeans held up by a man’s belt, a pair of army-style boots, a baggy man’s jumper and a wooly scarf. Under the jumper she knew there was a roll of flesh that had not been there a few months ago. Her hair could have been used as the ‘before’ image on an advert for anti-frizz serum, and where the dye had begun to grow out there was a touch of grey at the temples. She was the sort of scruffy middle aged lady that Dorothy Perkins changing rooms are not designed for.
But instead of looking at her with the sort of helpless distress I have become accustomed to as an actual carbon-based female life-form negotiating a culture’s demands for a moulded plastic exterior, I experienced a MOST unexpected sensation: I thought she was a bit beautiful. I mean, I though that I was a bit beautiful.
I know we’re not supposed to say things like that about ourselves, and I’m certainly under no illusions about my actual looks, but what I felt was that I looked just right. The woman in the mirror was an exact reflection of what I am supposed to look like. It was as if, for the first time I can remember, my inside and my outside were in a kind of agreement with each other.
Five months ago, I didn’t feel like that. I felt like this. I was terrified, like so many people in this culture that overrates youth, of the process of visually aging. We even have a name for the fear of wrinkles: Rhytiphobia.
I put the word ‘wrinkles’ into Google and here are a couple of the first things I encountered.
“So, first of all, try to avoid these wrinkles. Always apply suncreen cream before going out. Try not to wrinkle your forehead every time you laugh, smile or cry.”
If we’re female we’re dead familiar with this sort of thing. Three imperative sentences not suggesting, but telling us we must work hard to avoid the natural marks of having been alive for more than a couple of decades. The third sentence is just plain hilarious. Remember: never move your face or nobody will ever love you. Here is the illustration that should have accompanied that advice.
On another site there was a horrified discussion about some celebrity female who had the audacity to have lines round her eyes:
I don’t understand why Lauren Conrad already has so many wrinkles around her eyes. I’m like 5 years older than her but I’m 100% certain that I–or any of my friends–have crow’s feet. It’s even noticeable when you watch her show.
You can also see LC’s wrinkles in magazine shoots too. Aren’t they supposed to photoshop them out?
Some women pass these off as “laugh lines” or “smile lines”…on women, it’s gross…but on a man? Now that’s different because men can look downright sexy with some eye wrinkles.
Hasn’t she heard of sunblock and eye cream? She’s too young to have those wrinkles.
The language is brilliant – it’s clearly morally wrong for this woman to have lines: “hasn’t she heard of sunblock”?! It’s evidently a weakness in her character. Women like that try to pretend they have lines because they’ve laughed or smiled, but we all know it’s really because there’s something wrong with them. And doesn’t the magazine know any better?! They’re supposed to Photoshop them away so that poor innocent smooth-faced people don’t have to be grossed out! It’s a bloody outrage.
Here’s a picture of the aging monstrosity of whom they speak. There is no hope for the rest of us if this woman is gross.
So clearly rhytiphobia is a real thing. People are scared of and repulsed by wrinkles. But when I looked at my face in the changing room mirror and I saw the crinkles at the sides of my eyes, and how they all go upwards as if I have been smiling a lot, I thought, I like them. I really, really like them. They made me feel like a real, valid person with a history and a character of my own; with a sense of humour and something to say; with skills and abilities and something to add to the world. And I realised that I like being older.
There’s a liberation in aging that I never expected. When I was young, strangers never took me seriously as a person – I was treated like a girl, not a human. Boys tended to speak to me if they fancied me or if I was their friend’s girlfriend – very rarely because I was a person in my own right. Younger women were (are?) always sized up in terms of their sexual attractiveness before they were seen as an individual.
But now, with my wrinkles and grey bits, I am treated with respect. I’m sure this is more to do with the confidence I project now I am grown up than it is to do with the world in general, but whatever is causing it, it’s excellent. Even when I am occasionally found attractive by a male, it is expressed in a much more respectful way than it ever was when I was young. And the outcome of this is that I finally, finally feel that I belong in the world in a way that I never did as an insecure young woman. There is a place for me as I am, with crow’s feet and unruly hair, not as I feel other people think I should be. If only we could give this kind of confidence to our daughters when they’re young, they wouldn’t have to waste time obsessing over perfectly functional bits of their bodies and what people think of them, and could spend time working out who the hell they really are instead.
I don’t know how to to give our daughters this freedom to be humans instead of girls, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.