This article is the first in a three-part series on aging. Stay tuned for additional posts on Wednesday and Friday!
[Image description: The black-and-white photograph shows the author’s dark eyes, glasses, and nose. She is a white woman, and her forehead is crinkled.]
About 20 years ago, someone told me that we all carry around a picture of ourselves in our heads, and that this picture persists long past the age at which the image originated. The image isn’t just visual. It also represents our outlook on life and our sense of how we encounter the world.
At the time of this conversation, I was 35 years old and a new mom. The image in my mind was that of my 20-year-old self. I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, 35 didn’t seem that far away from 20 – especially since I’d just given birth in the past year and life seemed very new again.
I’m now 55, my kid is now 20, and the image in my head is still that of my 20-year-old self. I think a lot about that now. How can I have a kid who is the same age as my own self-image?
Apparently, holding on to a much younger image of ourselves is not uncommon as we age. We tend to carry pictures of ourselves from critical periods of our lives, and they have enormous staying power. Something about certain eras of our lives still holds us in its grasp. When I was 20, I had just left college on the east coast and had moved 3,000 miles away to Berkeley. I was completely on my own, for the first time, in a new place. I was scared, elated, overwhelmed, determined, and hopeful. Everything was possible. The world was full of promise. Even those Oh my God, will I make it on my own? moments were intoxicating.
I understand why I’ve held onto that image of myself. Over the years, it’s acted as a power source. Like everyone else, I’ve had my easy times and my hard times. And in my hard times, that determined, hopeful self has always been there, telling me to fight, or to endure, or both.
I appreciate that younger self. I do. But because I carry that image with me, it acts as a filter for how I see my body now. Perhaps my spiritual tenacity has remained unchanged, but my body has aged. The image of that younger self has kept me from seeing what I really look like.
In fact, it has made me afraid to see what I look like.
So a couple of weeks ago, I made the (somewhat terrifying) decision to start clearing my sight and getting a grip on what 55 looks like. To start, I decided to take a photo of myself. I figured that a photo would give me greater distance than simply looking in the mirror. I’m usually pretty critical of photos of myself, but I thought, how bad could it be?
My first response was: Bad. Bad, bad, bad. Oh my God. Horribly bad. Pretend-it-never-happened bad.
I was in complete shock. I told myself that it was just a bad picture, that I don’t really look that way, and that I should just take another one. I vowed that no one would ever see it. And then I realized, with some chagrin, that everyone else already knew what I looked like.
So I had to look at myself. Hard. I had to see how different the image in the photo was from the one in my head.
I put the images side by side. To the left is the picture I carry in my mind: the hippie chick newly arrived in Berkeley. To the right is how I actually look now.
[Image description: The photograph on the left shows the author at 20. She has long brown hair that frames her face and is spread on her shoulders. She is looking away from the camera. The photograph on the right shows the author at 55, with her hair back and under a hat. She is wearing glasses and is looking downward. Both photos are in black and white.]
As I looked at the two photos together, I started having thoughts that, being a hippie chick from Berkeley, I’d believed I was very much above. I am almost embarrassed to share them, because they sound – and are – so retrograde. But since I’ve already shared the picture, I’ve got to come clean about my initial thoughts about the picture, too:
Look at the lines going from my nose around my mouth. Where the hell did those come from?
Look at the creases in my neck. Creases? Fucking creases? Are you kidding me?
Look at the discoloration over my top lip. It looks like I’ve got a mustache. That would be fine except that I don’t want a mustache. Try to ignore it. Oh my God, I can’t. It’s really there.
Look at the gray hair sticking out from under my hat. There are a lot more where those came from. In fact, I’ve got a whole stripe of gray on the right side. Good thing I thought to wear the hat.
I kept looking at my face in that picture. I kept trying to will away everything I didn’t like. I kept thinking that it was all some kind of cosmic mistake. And then, for a brief and unholy moment, I thought about cosmetic surgery.
More Radical Reads: Why the Words Stick in My Throat: Talking about Aging
Me! The all-natural girl who always told myself I’d love my lines and my gray because they were, you know, all natural!
I thought to myself, What have I come to? At that moment, it wasn’t clear whether the question was about my aging face or the fact that I disliked it so much.
The level of fear and loathing that I had for what the commercials call the visible signs of aging hit me like a truck. It wasn’t until that moment that I’d realized that those commercials – the ones I’d always jeered at and dismissed – had had such a powerful impact on me.
And then something amazing happened: The more I noticed all the lines and creases and discolorations and greyness, the more I began to like the picture. I’m not sure how it all came to pass. Perhaps, being an eminently practical person, I realized that I had to start dealing with this ridiculous thing called reality. That meant seeing what was there rather than trying to wish it away. So I kept looking.
More Radical Reads: Letting Down My (Gray) Hair
After awhile, I began to see more than all the things I feared. I saw someone who looks rather serious and intelligent and lovely. I saw someone who has experienced suffering and joy. I saw someone who works hard, and someone whose heart breaks easily, and someone who keeps putting the pieces back together so that she’s stronger in the broken places. I saw someone whom other people like and respect. And I began to realize that, if the photo were of someone else, I would want to get to know that person, too.
I started thinking about all the parts of my body I feared looking at. I was surprised at how much of my own skin I was afraid to see. I got up the courage to look. I kept on taking photos. It was excruciating and wonderful and liberating.
More about that in Wednesday’s post. For now, I’m just learning to love my own face.
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[Headline image: The photograph shows the author, a white middle-aged woman with graying brown hair and glasses. She is wearing a dress with a brown design, and art is visible on the walls behind her.]
This article first appeared on The Body is Not An Apology’s tumblr blog on July 15, 2013.