Today I changed my Facebook profile picture to a recent photo and it’s the bravest thing I’ve done all month. At the age of 33, I’m attempting to accept what I look like right now, rather than clinging on to an image taken five years ago. I feel like I’ve aged a lot in the last year and lately my own reflection causes me to recoil in shock. I no longer look in real life how I look inside my head. Apparently there’s a name for this: ‘midlife mirror angst’. Catchy.
In the reflection that greets me, my teeth appear smaller, my nose more gnarled like an arthritic knuckle and my eyes lack sparkle, perhaps because they’re now so far back in my head that any sparkle gets lost finding its way out. The corners of my mouth, stained from years of hormone spots, drag my neutral face into one of misery. Logically I know that no one else is monitoring these changes, definitely not on the minute level of detail I am. I also know no one else would describe me this way, but all the good bits – the bits people might say I’m lucky to have – don’t register. Something happened when I hit 33; my brain disowned my face.
I am tired of going through the same motions of shock and disappointment every morning as I stare into the small square mirror of my bronzer. I spend so much mental energy thinking about my aging face that I’ve decided to deal with it. It would be too sad to go through life not enjoying the body I live in. The decision to start with my attitude rather than with my actual face is easy. Mainly because I have an image of me as an old lady and in it I’m wafting around some kind of artist studio dressed in layers of floaty muslin, just generally being very chilled and complete with who I am. Botox, fillers and anxiety don’t fit that fantasy. I believe I’ll be ok with being 'old old'. I’ve just got to be ok with getting there.
I should add a caveat that I have no issues with Botox, plastic surgery or women with the fine motor skills to perfect sculpting makeup and cat eyeliner. If there’s something that will physically make me look better, bring it on. But like hunting for an S.O. because you hate being single, I know arriving at Botox from a place of desperation is a silly move – I will expect far too much from it. Also I’ve always loved dressing up, dyeing my hair and doing my makeup. I want that process to continue to be fun; like double art on a Friday rather than painting a scuffed wall to get your housing deposit back.
"You need to mourn the loss." I’m talking to psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Jay Watts, whose work looks at how our identities shape our mental health. No one has ever taken my moans seriously before. The rules of friendship have programmed friends to respond with "Nooooo, you’re still hot". I’m not allowed to openly admit to any disappointment over my aging face, let alone grieve the younger one. "It is a loss and you are allowed to treat it as one." These words give me the confidence to actually state what I have lost. Obviously I no longer have bouncy cheeks and skin that can hide a hangover, but how does this actually affect my life? Well, I am no longer appreciated just for existing. I can’t help feel a loss when I walk into a packed room and... nothing. No one looks up, no one’s gaze follows me across the room. The reaction I create is, well, ambivalence.
I hate to say it, but this feminist misses the validation of a building site. Gosh, I secretly loved those unsolicited, massively sexist catcalls. They made me feel alive. All I had to do for attention back then was to grow my hair long and be, well, 22.
“It would be horrid and bitter to resent the young ones for being looked at like that” my brilliant friend Keren tells me off. “You had it once, and now they have it, and that’s ok.” I’m chatting to her on the advice of Dr. Jay, who says talking to friends and admitting your feelings can be very freeing. “You probably won’t agree with their critique of themselves and it might make you realise that you’re being unfair on yourself.” I admit to Keren I’m sad because I no longer feel – dare I say it – sexy. We reminisce about what we once had and how we used to be received when we walked into a room full of people. Acknowledging the loss out loud is healing; who knew I needed this kind of closure with my younger face?
It doesn’t help that my boyfriend and I are definitely going a bit Richard and Judy. He still gets free coffees in Pret and eyed up by 20-year-old surfers. What Susan Sontag said 40 years ago still stands: “It is the social convention that aging enhances a man but progressively destroys a woman.” Stepping out into a world which still finds my sexual partner hot while I disappear next to him is hard – no wonder my brain doesn’t want to accept my new face. As Sontag continues: “For most women, aging means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification.” I admit, I’m scared that people will look at me and my boyfriend as we get older and think, ‘Why is he still with her?’
In the book How to Age, Anne Karpf also talks about mourning: “Although it might seem paradoxical, mourning is an essential part of aging with gusto, because it helps say goodbye to some features of life freeing you to welcome in new ones.” I think about everything I am now that I wasn’t three years ago, the age I felt I ‘lost it’. With every enlarged pore that appears I am more empathetic than ever, I feel wiser and, wonderfully, age has made me more selfish, in that I now do more of what I enjoy. I’m definitely a more interesting dinner party guest, too. Acknowledging that the young are beguiling and mesmerising because they can’t help but be, helps me. It is not my role to be young and beautiful (unless you’re 55 and looking at me, soz), and accepting that takes the pressure off. Wouldn’t everyone, myself included, benefit if I invested my mental energy in being an awesome girlfriend and a fun friend rather than fretting about no longer being sexy? Even I can see that my friends who accept their age are having far more fun than those sporting Invisaligns at 38.
Dr. Jay also advises spending time in more diverse groups and suggests visiting my local lido. I start to realise how young the places I hang out in are. In all the offices I’ve worked in, women over 40 are suspiciously absent. Perhaps that’s part of what’s causing me such distress – I’m getting nearer to the age women disappear, at least from the world I inhabit. No wonder I’m shocked when I look in the mirror – I’m one of the oldest people I see every day. Dr. Jay asks that in the lido I take time to look at the different bodies with a unifying eye – appreciation not critique. I’d be so sad to hear that any of these women are shocked and disappointed when they look in the mirror and I swear to put on my own appreciation goggles next time I pull out my compact.
I think about what I’d tell my 23-year-old self, because it’s not as if she didn’t fret about her looks: "Enjoy those accidental abs, you don’t need foundation yet, put the Wonderbra away – small boobs are great."
Fuck, it sinks in; I could go through my whole life only appreciating what I had 10 years too late. How sad would that be? That’s what leads me to change my profile picture to one taken last week. A small step I know, but one that moves me closer to being present in my body and face today. After all, it’s only going to be 33 once.