At the gym a few weeks back, I was chatting about my body with a dancer who very much likes to stand around in the buff and is very proud of the many things her body can do. We were talking about injuries and getting older because goddamned if I don’t keep hurting myself for no good reason and this woman is a decade older and her body is a workhorse.
“Can I just interrupt for a minute to ask how old you are?” said a woman standing nearby.
“Wow. I never would’ve guessed. You have a really amazing body.”
Wait, what? Because 47-year-old women don’t have amazing bodies? How are 47-year-old women supposed to look? Or 38-year-old women? Or 29-year-olds?
Don’t answer that. It’s a trick question. There is seriously no way to respond to that question without revealing your own biases.
Every day I look in the mirror, I think, huh, so this is what 38 looks like. I look at pictures of myself at 18, remembering how much I hated my body and how old I thought I looked and realize, shit, I was young. In ten years, I know I’ll feel the same way. I only look old when I’m doing really shitty mentally and I think that’s true of most people. You look on the outside how you feel on the inside and if you feel 47 is awesome, then your appearance matches that. This dancer has some of the most positive energy of anyone I’ve met and has no plans on stopping anytime soon. She put me in my place regarding aging and injuries. It’s all in your mind.
When I was on Kur this summer, I walked in on a discussion among the other mothers there. Women whose lives were weighing on them pretty heavily and it showed. There was a 41-year-old grandmother there who looked ancient. A 25-year-old who could’ve passed for 40 if she’d wanted. Women who didn’t smile yet whose laugh lines had added years to their faces. Nothing ages you faster than having a kid — and I’m not just talking about the sleepless nights. Anyway, they were discussing the magic foods required to keep them looking young. Flax seeds, said one. Blueberries, said another.
And then I walked in. What do you do to look so young, they asked. They’d seen me running nearly every day. Knew that I ate only vegetarian foods. They already knew I didn’t smoke or drink and so the question felt totally false. Besides, I thought I looked ancient. I’d been bathing in the ocean, had left my make-up at home along with any pants that didn’t have an elastic waist band.
Botox, I laughed. Spritz away the pain, ha ha ha.
They didn’t laugh. They didn’t get it. Most of us don’t.
To quote some silly old rapper from the 80s, age ain’t nothing but a number. And yet.
One of the things I’ve learned since living in Germany is that there are cultural differences in what those numbers mean. In Germany, the average person doesn’t marry until he/she is 31, compared to the US’s mean of 26/27 (which is heavily influenced upward by the coasts — in my Midwestern hometown, everyone was married by 22). The same time I had my daughter, one of my brother’s co-workers had become a granddad at the age of 40. Even my sister’s super slutty best friend got married before she turned 30. There are expectations of the ages at which we do things. And alongside those expectations for actions are expectations for looks.
At 30, you have to hang up your mini-skirt according to Elle USA. By 40, you’d might as well bust out the moomoo (not Miu Miu). When we compare the looks on old episodes of two of my favorite tv shows, Golden Girls and Designing Women, there was a definite desire for women to “look their age,” which after 30 seemed to mean wearing below-the-knee skirts in pastel colors and ugly blouses. But here in Germany, I’ve seen some gray-hairs rocking leather S&M style dresses.
As I’m staring down 40, I’m thinking long and hard about what that’s going to mean for me. Do I look an idiot when I wear a leather jacket (or maybe more importantly, do I embarrass Diva when I do so)? Should I just pack on a couple of pounds instead, embrace the gray hair?
Honestly, I’d prefer looking like Betty White than Wolfgang Joop when I got older. But really, are these the only options? I saw Laura Dern in Wild last week and realized she and I are almost the same age. For most of my life, I’d thought Laura Dern was in her 40s — she always seemed to play older women, or maybe it was her long hair that made her appear older than, say, Naomi Watts — and now that she’s there, all I can think is, wow, 42 can look pretty good. And yet I don’t want to be compared to her, looks-wise. But when I see the 20-year-olds these days, I cringe. They’re babies. Help! What’s a middle-aged woman to do? Just what sort of acting should I be doing to represent my age?