Why Is Looking Your Age Such A Bad Thing?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
A few weeks after I graduated college, back in the late '90s, I visited a zoo in Rhode Island. I walked up to the ticket kiosk, clutching my car keys in my hand, looked at the price list and said: “One child ticket, please.” The woman in the booth took my $6 and handed me a ticket. I was 22 and had just passed for under 12.
It was hardly the first time I’d been mistaken as younger than my actual age — although I was only just beginning to appreciate it. No 12-year-old on the cusp of puberty wants to be told they barely look 8, nor does a freckle-faced 17-year-old enjoy being mistaken for a pre-teen. And so it went for me — just a smidge over five-feet tall with a very small, young-looking face, I was routinely greeted with remarks about how my age couldn’t possibly be the number I claimed.
Of course, time has passed. I’ve stayed just over five feet tall, I hit 30, and then 40. And despite exercising a ton, hopping on the sunscreen bandwagon somewhere in my college years, and trying out nearly every skin cream on the market, I no longer get such comments. It’s not that my face has changed that dramatically. The wheels haven't fallen off the bus, so much as the bus has started to make local stops. I actually have lines and the beginnings of hollows on my face. The truth is: I am 41, and while I think that I look good, I also think that I look 41. And I feel sort of crappy about that.
I’m not the only one looking in the mirror and feeling confused. When I talk about it with friends and colleagues in my age group, women almost uniformly say that they feel a pressure to look “good for my age.” I don't think it's just about being thirsty for compliments, either, but then again, when the admiring remarks stop coming, it begs the question: Have I changed or has everyone else?

I am 41, and while I think that I look good, I also think that I look 41. And I feel sort of crappy about that.

No doubt, there’s a general feeling that the 40 of today sure as hell need not feel or look like the 40 of previous generations, when the hair was uniformly chopped primly above the chin, the skin showing signs of all of those years, the cigarettes, the lack of sunscreen, the dearth of Sephora. I actually think that a sliver of the whole "30 is the new 20, 40 is the new 30..." idea is supposed to make people feel better, in fact. And it's not like people are any more excited to turn 30, either — what with all the "happy 27-again birthday to me!" jokes I see amongst people heading into their 30s. It’s a way to whisk away any incipient decay, to make it perfectly fine to be whatever age you are — since who the heck actually looks whatever age they are? Plus, as women age today, they continue to have a strong presence and voice, certainly compared with previous generations where they faded into the background, says Josie Howard, MD, a psychiatrist and psycho-dermatologist in San Francisco.
It’s a demographic fact too: “We are adjusting to longer life spans, later marriage, and children — translating into an expansion of youth and shrinkage of 'old age,'” says Nancy Etcoff, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical school, as well as author of the book Survival of the Prettiest. And there’s also just plain old uncertainly about what “middle age” even means anymore, says Etcoff — other than being associated with a crisis of identity.
“The need to look ‘younger than our years’ has become a cultural norm over the past few decades,” says Vivian Diller, PhD, a New York City psychotherapist, former model, and author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change. “In part, this is a result of routine use of digital alteration in magazines, TV and movies, making physical perfection actually appear possible. Add to that the wide accessibility of plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures and we've created an everyday ideal image (or norm) that once was only possible for the rich and famous.”

“While taking care of yourself is healthy, the line of self-care keeps advancing, and it’s left us with this dangerous line to walk since it comes with this pressure to chase the latest procedure and cream.”

Josie Howard, MD
So,what if you actually just look, I don’t know, your age? With visible evidence of the passage of time on your face? Have you somehow failed? Missed the boat? There’s a sense of how we are expected to age, within the context of today’s health and wellness (and Botox and lasers) vibe. “The expectations have changed, says Dr. Howard. “While taking care of yourself is healthy, the line of self-care keeps advancing, and it’s left us with this dangerous line to walk since it comes with this pressure to chase the latest procedure and cream.” It’s almost as if not doing something is just a missed opportunity — as if you just don’t care.
This is especially true given that the stigma around having had extra help in the form of a needle has gone away, notes Jennifer Moses, spokesperson for the cosmetic enhancement review site RealSelf.com, with increased conversation about it all leading to more acceptance. And women are availing themselves of the procedures more than ever, and at earlier and earlier ages. It’s not uncommon for 20-somethings to start getting Botox as a way to “prevent” the formation of wrinkles in the first place. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2015, 64% of plastic surgeons saw an increase in young people (under age 30) getting aesthetic procedures like Botox. And use of fillers went up almost 33% from 2010 to 2015 in 20- to 29-year-olds; the same age group had more than 100,000 Botox treatments. 30- to 39-year-olds were even busier rushing to the medi-spa: In 2015, there were 270,054 fillers and 1.2 million Botox sessions.
It's all too easy to start overanalysing your face. “When we see celebrities AND those women in our neighbourhood or in our Facebook feed modifying how they look and seeming to be extremely happy with themselves, it can make us feel like we should be doing something more to take care of ourselves or reduce the impact that age might have on us," says Ariane Machin, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in women’s issues in Raleigh, North Carolina. “This becomes especially complicated around age 40 as hormones start to get all wacky and we develop new challenges in managing our body size and shape — when we didn’t have to put much effort in the past. We then judge ourselves for this increased effort and we may become frustrated and unhappy with how we are trending as we age.”
But what if you manage to ignore all this? Or what if you have made a decision to opt out? To stick with just moisturiser, SPF, and a smile? In a sense, not working your ass off to look younger can almost be seen an act of defiance, of rebellion. “Particularly for women who can afford otherwise, the choice to appear authentic and age without altering one’s appearance can be viewed as courageous,” says Dr. Diller. It’s the kind of thing that generates the backhanded insult/compliment of ‘brave,’ especially when a woman of some celebrity allows a photo of herself with obvious wrinkles on a book jacket or magazine cover.

No amount of matcha powder can match the power of the needle or scalpel. The craziest part, of course, is that it’s all supposed to look totally natural.

I’d also argue that in some circles, walking around with an increasingly etched face telegraphs that maybe you’re not really taking care of yourself: that you haven’t absorbed the other message about superfoods, Pilates or green juices. Let’s not forget the fighting words of early cosmetic boss-lady Helena Rubinstein: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
“Aging well is increasingly viewed as the result of looking after oneself from the day we’re born until the end of life,” says Dr. Diller. As a result of all this, we often feel way younger than our chronological years. Still, no amount of matcha powder can match the power of the needle or scalpel. The craziest part, of course, is that it’s all supposed to look totally natural. "We don’t want to look like we had ‘too much’ plastic surgery or ‘too much’ of anything…so there is this pressure to look like we haven’t tried and that it just comes ‘naturally’. This kind of puts us in this box where we feel like we feel like we should embrace where we are going but also work on ourselves to conform to these unspoken but powerful pressures within our culture," says Dr. Machin. In other words: It's all a big mind-fuck.
So, here I am at 41. No longer sneaking in for child-prices (a good thing), not shocking any new acquaintances with my age, and with a bathroom counter that's groaning under the weight of so many lotions and potions. But I’m starting to focus on whether or not I feel good and if I look good not for my age, but for my very own face, since it’s 100% unlike any other. And while “40 may still be the new 30” as far as certain headlines and Hollywood go, I just want to look good for me.

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