35 years, 33 days

I am alive at night.
I am dead in the morning,
an old vessel who used up her oil,
bleak and pale boned.
No miracle. No Dazzle.
-Anne Sexton, "Moon Song, Woman Song"

I followed a Twitter link, the other day, to an article that said "the age of 35.09—or approximately 33 days past your 35th birthday—is the precise tipping point," the point at which a woman's looks inevitably, irrevocably, go downhill. The study, such as it was, was paid for by a skin cream company, natch. It still hit me hard. I just turned 35 in December. My D-day had been January 25th. It was all downhill from there. I updated Facebook with the link, and commented "Nothing left to do but die." This birthday has been dragging me down. What was the point in all that exercise and healthy eating and not having baby weight if my visage is just going to get hag-like anyway? Nice legs, shame about your face.

I have "marionette lines," that look to me as if someone carved them in with an Exacto knife. It's the years of smoking, taking their toll. Everything a 20-year-old does, they do with supposed impunity, without any real knowledge of the fact that aging comes for all of us. I remember, so well, feeling invincible.

As a kid I was taunted for my looks, for being ugly, acne-covered, and fat. I internalised all of that. I did my time in the Disordered Eating Dungeon. I never felt thin enough, though I relied on being thin, because I always felt so ugly. Last year, at 34, I discovered running, and the for the first time I felt real peace with my body, and consequently with my face. Photos were taken of me that year that I liked, not just tolerated. When I looked in the mirror I consistently enjoyed what I saw. For once, for a year, I felt good about myself. If this was aging, I was all for it. Then came the lines. And the 35th birthday. So much for all that.

Maybe it would behoove me to read I Feel Bad About My Neck. See how the older half lives. I have beautiful friends in their 20s. They're dewy and gorgeous. One of them expressed surprise at my feelings on aging. She asked, doesn't one become more confident? I replied that you have to be confident, to compensate for looking old. I hate being the voice of sadness, but I can't help expressing how this feels. How surprised I am that I look in the mirror and see what is just the beginning. The decline. I am not comfortable in my skin, as I was for that one gorgeous year.

Thanks, Susan, but knowing it doesn't stop it from kicking the shit out of me. Because it really is. Sontag even acknowledges the dreaded number by name: "After thirty-five any mention of one’s age carries with it the reminder that one is probably closer to the end of one’s life than the beginning." People laud celebrities for looking amazing at 40 and 50, but of course they have the money and time to spend on looking perpetually 30 -- maximum. "Most of the women who successfully delay the appearance of age are rich, with unlimited leisure to devote to nurturing along nature’s gifts. Often they are actresses. (That is, highly paid professionals at doing what all women are taught to practice as amateurs.)"

"But although this system of inequality is operated by men, it could not work if women themselves did not acquiesce in it. Women reinforce it powerfully with their complacency, with their anguish, with their lies." But what's a girl to do? Even a girl that recognizes all the binaries and bullshit. I've read The Beauty Myth. To not buy into the anti-aging industry
is the real social threat: that women will first accept their aging, then admire it, and finally enjoy it. Wasting women's money is the calculable damage; but the damage this fraud does women through its legacy of the dread of aging is incalculable. (Wolf 113)
It's capitalism. It's a patriarchal set up; a possible excuse for the males who leave us for new models when we lose our fecundity -- if you believe the biological determinists. And yet: what's a girl to do, when she is no longer a girl (despite the embarrassingly erroneous suffix on her email address), and the world does not come easily knocking at her door, what can she do but anguish? Fuck me, I want a cigarette.

Simone Weil wrote something that speaks beautifully and simply to me: "To love truth means to endure the void and, as a result, to accept death. Truth is on the side of death." When I was 34, I tattoo'd Klimt's conception of Death on my arm, from shoulder to elbow. When my tattoo artist placed the stencil on my arm, he remarked on Death's gaze: "He's got your back." It's not dying I'm frightened of; I accept death as truth. For me, the fear is what's expressed by Alex in The Witches of Eastwick*: "Getting old. That scares me. I mean, it's a short life, isn't it? [...] I look in the mirror sometimes and I see everything falling apart. Fast." Live or die, but don't poison everything...**

Sontag's article was written when I was three. When I was eight, Susan Brownmiller's Femininity was published. In it, Brownmiller noted that we live
[...]in a culture where the chief criteria of feminine success are ephemeral youth and beauty, a woman's sense of failure is likely to begin at the moment she is percieved by others as no longer young and desirable. (165-66)
The Beauty Myth came out when I was 15. And here we still are, when I'm 35. The terrors of aging have made women react with horrors of their own, long before I was born. Lady Bathory's legend is of bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth, and today Joan Rivers has, though surgery, bought herself an inhuman mask. In the morning, when I see a face I don't want, I understand all of it.

*From the screenplay, found here. I don't know if this actually appears in the book.
**Anne Sexton, "Live"
In one of the alternate universes in Robert Anton Wilson's Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy, breasts are called "Brownmillers." Oh tee hee, Wilson.


Megan said...

Advertising exists only to make people feel bad about themselves. Ignore their snotty tag lines. What a bunch of hooey.

Panic said...

Hopefully I've made clear that logically, I know that. Doesn't help, though. Some of the programming is so effective.

Anonymous said...

Society sucks. This is why I would like to be a hermit, if it weren't for the fact that I'm pretty sure I'm even more incompetent at living in the woods than I am in society. So I have to deal. As a man, there are pressures on me, though none like I would experience were I a woman. The best I can do to approximate is take the self-consciousness I feel about my teeth and try to extend that to my entire body. This then brings back unpleasant memories of those Listerine commercials with the giant toothbrush guy, and I have to stop the thought experiment.

Anyway, I only know you through what you write here and on Twitter. I don't know what you look like, and I don't really care; all I know is that you write thoughtful, well-crafted blog posts, and your tweets are filled with the appropriate mixture of snarkcasm and photos of envy-inducing butter tarts. To me, that's who you are; you're not Tattoo Girl or Smoker Girl or Shortened Telomere Girl. The people who care about those things and judge you by those metrics are morons.

This is the burden we carry being rational people, a geas of cognitive dissonance created by what we know we, logically, should feel and what we actually feel as a result of our upbringing. I think that's why so many people retreat into ignorance and intolerance—they just can't handle the dissonance any more and take refuge in irrationality.

Panic said...

Shortened Telomere Girl
That's a complicated and oxymoronic kinda thing, ain't it! ;)

Autumn said...

A lovely meditation; thank you.

I'm trying to figure out what it IS about beauty--and the product industry that surrounds it--that is so pervasive as to permanently live in the minds of so many women who are well-versed in, say, "The Beauty Myth" and other pertinent feminist works. I think it's more than just the images we see everywhere (that's a part of it but I think that's also a dead end, and not the whole story)...but then, what is it, and what can we do with the ways in which we engage with the beauty myth?

Elixxir said...

I hear you on this one, obviously, I'm just surprised by how long it's taken you to get here. I started noticing the first signs of aging at 27 and the dread of the mirror was born. All this many years later and I'm no closer to making my peace with it. I think it was a quote from Jane Fonda who recently reversed her staunch anti-plastic surgery stance when she admitted she couldn't stand to be that shocked every time she saw herself any longer. Is it wrong that I'm grateful we at least have options? I wasn't looking forward to having to sacrifice virgins to bathe in their blood. :p

Panic said...

For myself and a lot of women I know, we realise that while an ideal world would let us off the hook, we don't live in that world. So we all have to make compromises between our feminist ideals and the patriarchal standards of beauty. Particularly (but certainly not only) if we are heterosexual. There are rewards in doing so. We know this. We play along, to some degree. When it gets harder to play, when the rewards diminish and the effort increases, it just gets harder and harder to reconsile. Just my thoughts.

Panic said...

I'm just surprised by how long it's taken you to get here.
I've always been a bit of a slow learner. :P
I was thinking of you, reading the Sontag piece. How you are always 29.