Rhytiphobia: f**k that.

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:

Contributor 1:

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.

Contributor 2:

You can also see LC’s wrinkles in magazine shoots too. Aren’t they supposed to photoshop them out?

Contributor 3:

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.

Contributor 4:

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.

18 replies to “Rhytiphobia: f**k that.

  1. No idea whether it is utterly different for men and woman but the number of anti-aging products for guys is expanding. It is funny how loaded some appearance becomes.

    I think my attitude to a changing me is ridiculous — I never minded an accidental scar on my head but loathe the intentional piercing hole in my lip. I never minded grey head hair but when my beard began to turn I felt unhappy. I’ve had lines around my eyes since I was 24 (I’m expressive, right?) and couldn’t be bothered, but a line on one side of my forehead from sleeping on my left much more than my right really annoys me.

    Not sure where I’m going there. Think even though dressing up can be fun, being authentic is where it’s really at. Glad you had that glimpse.

      1. Not sure. It’s central, perhaps I hate the obvious symmetry. But then, I ought to like the lopsided wrinkle. Perhaps it reminds me of hasty and irrevocable decisions of naive youth. I think it probably just looks daft. A beard conceals.

        I’d love my hair to turn entirely silver overnight. It’s gradual transition through shabbiness that’s a drag. Like trees that have lost their high summer zest but have yet to turn truly golden.

  2. Worry not! Without my permission, someone has pleated my upper lip. I have tissue paper (crumpled) instead of eyelids, and an average sized jellyfish has come to live around my waist. Who is this Demon Crumpler? He/it has also turned my crowning glory into a badger fleece. And thinned it out for good measure.

    The answer: Live an unemotional life, be continually placid, and then when the time is right have wall-to-wall Botox and book the rest of your time to live under a stone. Trust me, this will work. Sunblock, be damned!

  3. Sometimes I despair of all the shit that STILL gets pumped out to women and girls. Aaaagh did feminism ever happen I sometimes wonder?. However, it’s a tricky negotiation being a woman – we have to navigate the waters of the hegemonic culture which is like being in a canoe on the sea, sometimes it feels great and then whoop and you’re off course and nearly sunk. Until you get older, having lived your life as a fully functioning educated clever woman, you actually don’t realise how much you have relied on your looks – why wouldn’t you when the culture is continually reflecting it back to you – and then it can be a shock!. But yes it has many compensations, infact ageing in general is very interesting. I love that you’re getting this out there, and I’m glad that you feel beautiful (you are!) in your older skin. I go up and down about it but that could be hormonal 😉

    1. Well… I did write this on a good day. Sometimes I feel like a troll under a bridge and that I’d be doing the world a service if I left my curtains closed all day so nobody could see my hideousness. But I mostly feel like that if I read a women’s magazine by mistake. When you’re busy thinking about more important things then how you look seems completely irrelevant, I think. And keep away from the media! Thanks for your interesting response xxx

      1. Strangely, because beauty = currency in the world at large, when you feel it slipping away it does in fact free you up to think and do much more interesting things. I made a conscious policy to stop buying womens magazines in my mid thirties – there have been a few slip ups along the way and I like looking at the fashion if someone passes me one but I totally agree that they should mainly be avoided. I’m having a troll moment – I’ve got some cream which is supposed to prevent skin cancer and it makes it all scabby and sore – on my nose! But I don’t really mind, it’s quite interesting.

      2. Yes! I’m glad you feel the same way about the freeing up thing. Although I wouldn’t say you have in ANY WAY lost your beauty. We’ve just moved out of that stage where women are seen in terms of mating potential by all and sundry. THAT’S why it feels more free. And bugger women’s magazines. They also assume women are semi-retarded.

  4. Uncle M. Speaks:
    To be true, I like my stripey badger locks, but am looking forward to the time when it all turns into a dramatic silver curtain. I shall toss my locks and say, “hey ho! I’m a blonde reely!”
    I used to be a promising blonde once, when I was two. As for my Crimplene carapace, it’s not that bad, and very soft . . .

  5. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  6. I am 63 and enjoy being 63. I have earned every line and wrinkle on my less than perfect face and I love the fact that my face MOVES with each emotion.

    I loved this blog and wish more women felt that they could be themselves and not some air-brushed, botoxed, unexpressive plastic version.

    1. I wish that too. And I wish that we didn’t have to wait until we’re middle aged to feel that sort of confidence. I wish that girls of all ages felt free and confident to be exactly whoever they are regardless of what they think boys / society expects of them.

      When we’re happy and busy and focused on interesting activities, we often forget to think about our appearance. That’s what I’d like for our young people.

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