Old Enough to Know Better

Part 2 of 2 on the theme of aging.

In my first post on aging, I wrote about coming to a place of comfort, in the run-up to my birthday, with the fact of my growing older. Everything I said is true, but there’s another side to that story, which I would also like to share. At my birthday party, a new friend asked how old I was turning. She was surprised and told me that I don’t look 29 – that she had thought I might be in my early 20s. My immediate, and un-thought-through reaction was to hug her and exclaim “you’re my favourite person at the party!” Even before I’d pulled back from the hug, my response gave me the heebie-jeebies. If I’m feeling great about being 29, why don’t I want to look 29?

At the end of April I went to Afrika Burn, a five-day gathering in South Africa’s Karoo desert, and participated in Critical Tits, a topless parade that’s a regular feature at the event’s older American cousin, Burning Man. Much discussion of body-baring ensued, and one friend concluded that if she could plant her (implicitly confident) 33-year-old mind into her (implicitly perkier) 23-year-old body, she would happily have stripped off. The comment was light-hearted, but it resonated with what I had written the previous week, and my formative thoughts for this post. The question of what my 39-year-old mind will be like has become an exciting one: I’m curious and optimistic about how I will change intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. It would be awesome to say that I’m equally enthusiastic about how the next decade will alter my body; unfortunately, it would be a big fat lie.

It’s not that I lie awake at night worrying about it, but being almost-30 means almost-30 years of exposure to advertising for “anti-aging” face creams and hair-dyes boasting their “grey coverage”. I may shout at the television about patriarchy and capitalism (and, believe me, I do), but I’m not impervious, and the idea that younger = more beautiful increasingly bubbles up from within. A few weeks ago, I’m ashamed to admit, I looked at every tagged photograph of myself on Facebook. Ostensibly, this was in order to decide, pre birthday haircut, what kind of fringe best suits me (asymmetrical, as it turns out), but as I travelled back in time through various albums I found myself preoccupied by thoughts like “God, my skin was so much better when I was 23!” and “look how young I looked! Shame I didn’t appreciate it at the time…”.

Neurotic though I may feel for such behaviour, it seems I’m not alone. “Facebook is making it easier for people to spend more time and energy criticizing their own bodies”: not the conclusion, as Jezebel suggests, of The Department of Things Most People Already Suspected, but Dr Harry Brandt of the Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Their recent survey suggests a correlation between time spent on Facebook and “toxic […] body comparisons and self-criticism”, noting in particular how the site makes it easy to track changes in one’s appearance over time. Perhaps, then, it’s not uncommon to pass an idle hour perusing photos of yourself and thinking about how much younger you looked when you were, you know, younger.

This pursuit is, of course, equally possible with photograph albums. Remember photograph albums, with prints and hand-written notes and peeling selophane? With the influence of nostaliga, hindsight, and my tendency towards Ludditism all duly acknowledged, I think of photograph albums as personal (or familial) archives, deeply connected with memory: as in remembering years, or at least months, gone by – not as in waking up hungover, and trawling through the previous night’s photos, already online, in an attempt to recall precisely how much you disgraced yourself. While the relative privacy and pause-for-thought afforded by analogue allowed my mum to put photos of herself she disliked at the back of a drawer, where they could be discovered and reconsidered years later, the twenty-first century’s incessant snap, post and tag routine has injected photography with immediacy and publicity, fuelling for many an awareness and anxiety about appearance that the Sheppard Pratt study labels a “’camera-ready’ mentality”.

Over the last decade, as digital photography became ubiquitous and social networking came of age, I’ve wondered whether the documentation of an event has come to hold equal or greater meaning than the experience of it, and I’m curious about how these phenomena affect one’s relationship with one’s own image as one grows older. A friend who works as a wedding photographer recently received a call from the mother-of-the-bride from a shoot she’d just done. The woman called because, having seen some friends’ shots from the wedding, she was very unhappy with how old she looked. Would it be possible, she asked, before the professional pictures were published, to Photoshop out her wrinkles? I found this request not only strikingly indicative of the de-valuing of older women, but also extraordinarily sad. It saddens me that signs of aging are something to be feared, ashamed of; to be, if possible, erased. It also strikes me as sadly pointless. Wedding photographs are, let’s face it, mostly interesting to the people who were at the wedding. And those people have seen your actual face.

This pursuit of post-production also suggests that increased savvy about media alteration of celebrity images doesn’t necessarily lead to greater self-acceptance among us plebs. If the average 45 year old is no longer naive enough to wonder why she doesn’t look as young as Julia Roberts,  she may nonetheless ask “why can’t I be airbrushed so that, in photos, I look as young as an airbrushed Julia Roberts?”. The answer is, no reason at all, for the requisite tricks are no longer the preserve of the trade: professional wedding photographers aside, I’ve known friends to Photoshop out lines around their eyes before adding images to Facebook.

We may know a lot about how the media works, but that doesn’t mean its veneration of young women, or relentless cattiness about aging, has no impact. The Ashley Judd “puffy face” debacle back in March was a spectacular illustration of what Hadley Freeman calls “the ridiculous double bind that female celebrities are in once they dare to live beyond their 30th birthday: either being accused of looking like hags or accused of having had plastic surgery because they are suspiciously un-hag-like”. For those who missed the shitstorm, the actress appeared on television with an allegedly “puffy face” and an insane amount of airtime, column inches and space in the blogosphere was taken up by people speculating as to whether she’d had “work done”. Judd’s response in the Daily Beast , well worth reading in its entirety, unapologetically calls the media out for this “blatantly gendered, ageist, and mean-spirited” content.

Explaining, almost as an aside, that her puffy face was caused by steroids, Judd also points out the absurdity of comparing 2012 images of her with those from her 1998 movie Double Jeopardy, and citing any difference as evidence that she has (as many tweets eloquently put it) “fucked up her face”. Extra! Extra! Woman’s face changes over course of 14 years! How is this even close to newsworthy? It is a source of comment only because of the profoundly ageist society we live in, and the deeply entrenched, irrefutable ways in which that ageism is gendered.

Judd asks how we can forge “strong female-to-female alliances to confront and change” the ways in which our bodies are subject to “brutal criticism […] a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation”. All of these things – becoming increasingly aware of my own aging, wanting to cultivate harmony between my emotional and physical maturity, musing on Facebook-fuelled “camera readiness” – have caused me to realise that I have, up until now, been much alive to the ways in which sexism intersects with, and manifests itself through, for example, racism, fatphobia, classism and transphobia, than how it intersects with ageism. I’ve actively trained myself not to say “thank you” when people note that I’m slim, because I don’t want to speak the lexicon that subjects fat bodies to “speculation, ridicule and invalidation”. Equally, I’m determined to un-learn that aging means losing attractiveness, sexiness, and value. I don’t want to feel pleased if someone says I look younger than I am, or insulted if someone says I look older, and I’m making a commitment right now to call myself out on this bullshit thinking. If you ask me today how old I’d like to look, I’ll answer 29 years and 28 days.