In three weeks I will be 36. This feels surreal in all the expected ways; i.e. closer to death, almost 40, nearly reproductively sterile. almost old enough for a regular mammogram. From this vantage point, 36 is a year of almosts and nearlys. 36 is hardly young by most standards, but not quite old either.
The truth is, 35 has been good to me. In fact, each year of life has been progressively better, a fact I am apt to repeat to 20-some-year-olds after describing the thick bristly paintbrush-like hairs that pop up around nipples and on chins sometime in a woman’s late twenties. The reason things get better as you get older has to do with self-acceptance and self-compassion. Whereas at 19 I was full of the kind of self-loathing that compelled me to slather my body in greasy tanning lotion that left my sheets covered in orange skid marks and my skin smelling like overripe flowers, at 35 my legs and face stay chalky and white as two lilies year-round.
It’s not that I’ve come to like my pasty complexion, but somewhere along the line I’ve learned to be less hard on myself-perhaps I also tired of the effort involved in trying to reverse all the things nature intended for me-and this has facilitated my not giving a fuck. And not giving a fuck feels pretty great. Feeling better about myself at 36 than I did at 19 is a pretty drastic reversal when you think about it, particularly given the fact that by almost any measure I looked better then than I do now.
One thing I am still struggling to embrace are the wrinkles. I guess it’s the same old struggle with my skin I’ve always had, only adjusted for age. In my late teens I did horrible things to my skin, such as driving across the city from one tanning salon to another so as to tan twice in one day. At one point, I remember a friend expressing shock at the depth of my tan in a dark movie theatre. Apart from tanning, my heritage is largely Northern European and Irish-two people that don’t fare well against that big glowing ball in the sky.
My fine lines are deepening. The skin on my forehead has developed a pachydermatous quality. Five crevasses span its surface like mud cracks in the desert. There are lines where there weren’t lines before. Eight short vertical lines extend downwards from my lower lip line. I can’t even figure out which expression would produce those lines. Some people call these lines ‘bar codes’ and some websites seem to suggest they are the result of smoking. I have never smoked, but I am from the generation who invented ‘duck face’. There is a mole on my right cheek that used to sit right up under my cheekbone and now rests closer to my jaw. It is my barometer for downwards droop. Things are drooping and creasing and drying up, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Except there are things I could do about it.
I look at my friend’s foreheads, those who have had Botox and fillers and microdermabrasion, and I’m envious. I’d like to say it looks fake or frozen-which of course it can-but at 35 and in conservative doses, these entry-level cosmetic procedures smooth out the elephant skin and the bar codes. If I had Botox on my forehead I wouldn’t have to keep contemplating bangs or wishing there was a reason to wear a tuque indoors. This shame about the aging process comes part and parcel with patriarchy, its devaluation of women, and its equation of youth with beauty and beauty with worth. There is a lot to be said about these things.
Also, don’t misunderstand. This is not a criticism of those who do decide to get Botox or plastic surgery or who decide to be proactive in ridding themselves of crow’s feet or sagging or bristly hair growth. A lot of ya’ll look really great and I’ll be the first to admit it. I also really believe that people are entitled to feel good about themselves and if Botox, collagen, filler, therapy, yoga, self-help books, expensive shoes, bubble baths, taking an excessive number of selfies and posting them on Instagram-if any of these things help you feel more okay, I say power to you. The thing is, I am utterly unconvinced that getting rid of my pachydermatous skin would produce any lasting change in my sense of self. If it’s anything like tanning or dying my hair or compulsively exercising, it is likely to feed my feelings of shame and self-doubt. I could find myself regressing even while I’m aging. Also, as a therapist, micro expression is incredibly important, both in reading others as well as in transmitting emotion, and critically empathy. I worry that Botox in particular would compromise my ability to help people.
I’m not writing off Botox forever. Who knows? I just may change my mind. I know myself too well to say anything definitive. As I approach the tender age of 36, I hope to continue the trend of feeling increasingly good on the inside. This as I try to embrace the smoker’s lines I never earned and the crow’s feet that I earned ten times over from years in Arizona without sunscreen or sunglasses. Maybe as I move forward from almost middle age to middle age, from nearly menopausal to actually menopausal, I will also eventually wake up no longer almost comfortable in my own skin, but rather totally comfortable in my own skin.