Vanity, Self-pity, and Wallowing, oh my!

(So, this was written in a particularly down moment, in a mindset I don’t occupy for long — but the fact remains, I’m having a tough time with the aging thing.)

Lately when I look in the mirror all I see is “age spots” and lines, dark circles and sags, pastiness and doughy bulges… all capped by flat, mousey hair in one hell of a stupid cut (thanks to the most frequently recommended salon in town, an experience I won’t repeat).

I’ve become plain. I know this because I wasn’t, always, and the difference is something I can feel.

Recently I had lunch with a friend who confessed she’s having a hard time with turning 50. I didn’t realize she was hitting that milestone… at 47, I look easily ten years older than she. Not intending to hurt my feelings, she asked if my LinkedIn picture was taken many years ago, and, haha, if I thought my term on the school board accounted for the difference in my appearance between then and now. “Because I think of that picture, and then I saw you one day and how tired you looked, and I was wondering if it was really beating you up… but I guess we’re all just aging.” This is not a catty person. She was just talking without thinking – and I think I don’t seem like someone likely to be hurt, so maybe sometimes people don’t take the care they might otherwise.

It did hurt, though.

“I shouldn’t leave the house without makeup.” I always thought that was a ridiculous thing for a person to say about herself! But what an easy conviction to ridicule, when you’re young and pretty. Young and pretty people, take note. Those conditions are temporary. You too will grieve when they pass you by.

I know how my friend felt, looking at me, because I’d just had a similar experience with  another friendly acquaintance the previous weekend. It had been a few months since we’d seen each other, and we were chatting away. As the afternoon sun crossed her face, I suddenly thought, wow. I can see just what she’s going to look like as a nice old lady. You know how sometimes you look at a child and get a glimpse, through some little mannerism or expression, of what they’ll be like as a young adult? It was like that. I saw the thinning, speckled skin, the graying hair in a perpetually unflattering style (why do we have bangs? In my case it’s because my hair just breaks off, now), the thin lines not just around her eyes and mouth but beginning to appear, crepe-like, across her cheeks.

It was an unsettling moment… one I relive in the mirror, daily. Oh, vanity. (Did I say anything to her about it though? NO I DID NOT.)

So I guess I am vain, but I also have a hang-up about spending money on trying to look nicer when there are college tuitions and retirement to be saving for. I think of my friend Jane, a near-constant smoker who, though unemployed and without prospects, willingly forked over hundreds of dollars last week to have some kind of filler injected into her face to push out deep lines caused by three decades of sucking on Marlboro Reds. (No sense in just quitting fucking smoking, I guess.) She looks just the same as before, as far as I can tell. I think of many friends who spend regularly to maintain flattering and gorgeous (if somewhat improbable) hair colors. Looking good is worthwhile to them, and it shows. They are lovely.

I admit to feeling a little judgmental toward Janie, mostly because I don’t want to lose her to lung cancer. But I truly don’t begrudge anyone their salon expenses. So what holds me back? There’s a kind of Puritan superiority buried in this frugality, and it’s just as unbecoming as my mouse-brown hair. Are highlights in order, expense be damned? Because surgery is out of the question, as are injected fillers or neurotoxins.

Do makeovers really help a tedious midlife crisis, or am I better off just trying to come to terms with how I look now?

The most appropriate response to all this is “SHUT UP AND GET OVER YOURSELF BEFORE I SHOW YOU WHAT A REAL PROBLEM LOOKS LIKE.” I know that. I have friends who’ve lost their beautifully colored hair to chemotherapy and would trade that for mine any day.

It’s just that having someone say to (and about!) your face, essentially “you look really noticeably worse than you did five years ago”… well. It stings, maybe worse than those injections. Here’s hoping the effects are just as temporary.

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