Getting wrinkles is natural. Sagging skin is natural. Thinning hair is natural. Why do we fight so hard against the things that are just a natural part of life?
I was 22 when I stumbled across the blueprint for transforming myself from a young, semi-confident, recent college graduate into a gawky fifth grader. The article was called “How To Look 10 Years Younger” and it appeared in one of the countless magazines aimed at young, semi-confident women. When I did the math and realized I would look 12 years old if I followed the prescribed advice, I thought: Well, clearly this article isn’t intended for me. I’ll understand it better in 10 years. In the meantime, I’ll read the articles more explicitly geared toward me: the ones that tell me how much sexier I’ll be if I do more crunches and how much better I’ll feel about myself if I change my hair color.
In fact, the article was aimed at me when I was 22. Who reads these magazines, if not women in their 20s? Worse yet, this article is still aimed at me at 31, but now it’s built a better case against me. Now this article calls me into the bathroom, asks me to turn on the light, and tells me to take notice of those creases setting in around my eyes, the horizontal indentations on my forehead, the drooping skin on my stomach. “Do you see what’s happened over the last decade?” the voice of the women’s magazine asks. “Don’t you want to be 21 again?”
Cue the flashbacks of life in my early 20s: feeling like nobody would ever take me seriously, bloated from drinking too much beer, exhausted from trying to please everyone, dating a man with a giant tattoo on his arm of a guy getting feelings out of vending machine, lost trying to find my place in the world.
No, magazine editors, I do not want to be 21 again.
“Anti-aging” is my least favorite term in the English language. It may as well be anti-human. Anti-reality. Anti-the-normal-course-of-human-existence. I see the commercials touting the virtues of youth and I understand their appeal, but I still find them disturbing. My stomach churns when I see that overused image of the hands on a clock turning backwards.
When we were young, the advertisers told us over and over again that we were not enough and we could improve ourselves by wearing these clothes/using this beauty product/following this exercise routine/drinking this brand of low-calorie soda. Many of us listened. I used to walk through malls and flip through magazines with a startling sincerity, naïve in my inability to see that I was fine as-is, fine on my own, and I did not need this or that product to make me better. Now I have a greater awareness but still fall for many of the traps, still believe that my life would be improved if I could just lose those 10 pounds or hide those wrinkles on my forehead.
The older I get, the more I’m told that in order to be more attractive (and therefore more successful and more admired), I must be more youthful. I should take life lessons from Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and the other crop of beauties in their late teens and early 20s currently gracing magazine covers. I should get makeup advice from women who are still in high school or college. I should downplay the significance of wisdom that accompanies aging and instead recognize the importance of perpetually looking and acting like a 15-year-old girl.
Maybe it’s because I work at a retirement center. Maybe it’s because I’m with residents in their 80s and 90s every day. Maybe it’s because I witness the fragility of the end of life on a daily basis and I can assure you that if you make it that far, wrinkle cream will be the least of your worries.
Do you know what you’ll look like if you make it to your 80s or 90s? You’ll look like everyone else your age. You’ll have wrinkles and sunspots and your hair will get very thin. You might wear a wig. You might not. You might use a walker or a cane or a wheelchair to get around. You’ll probably wear glasses and you’ll likely have a hearing aid. You’ll look like someone who has a lived a full life, and you’ll be absolutely beautiful as a result.
Attention, magazine editors, marketers of beauty products, and society at large: We are humans. As such, we are part of a cycle. The cycle goes like this: birth, life, death. This is how it works for every person, everywhere. Birth, life, death. Sometimes death comes to those who are young, but mostly death comes to those who are old. Getting old is a natural part of life. Getting wrinkles is natural. Sagging skin is natural. Thinning hair is natural. Why do we fight so hard against the things that are just a natural part of life?
We live in an anti-aging society. We do not revere our elders, though they have decades of life experiences to draw from. We revere young girls and we put them in the spotlight and shower them with media attention and then act shocked when they can’t handle it and break down. We encourage 60-year-olds to look 50 and 50-year-olds to look 40 and 22-year-olds to look 12. We talk about the fountain of youth and we act like aging is wrong and we tell ourselves that we can stop death from happening if we pretend we’re not actually getting older.
We all get older. As someone who spends a lot of time with older people, let me tell you: They are stunningly beautiful. Not because they’ve covered up their wrinkles. Not because they’re wearing Spanx and their hair is highlighted. They’re beautiful because they’ve lived, and they have stories to tell.
If we’re lucky, we’ll be old, too. Maybe instead of hiding this, covering it up, and pretending it won’t happen, we could just accept it. Embrace it, even. Imagine it: a pro-aging society. One that says I’m getting older, you’re getting older, and we’re all getting wiser, more secure, less critical, more forgiving, more understanding, less superficial, and more experienced. If that’s not something to celebrate, I don’t know what is.
Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon whose articles, essays, and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem Magazine, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, Crack the Spine, Modern Love Rejects, Bartleby Snopes, and other publications. She holds a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University.