If your biggest fear is getting older, the best thing that can happen to you is getting older. That's right! Like treating a fear of heights with exposure to heights, the universe will also desensitize you to a fear of aging by continuing to apply time + gravity. You will realize that getting older is not only NOT as terrible as you thought, but that it actually it confers untold advantages you couldn't have even imagined when you were busy running around doing cartwheels staying up all night wearing miniskirts.
It's nice to imagine that in a perfect world, you would be the young buck you were at 21, but with all the wisdom you'd have at age 40. The idea here is that you'd have learned a lot of life's important lessons, but have better judgment while still looking great in a miniskirt. But if you were physically 21 but intellectually/emotionally 40, you'd be too cynical and painfully attuned to the risk inherent in everything that you'd never stay up late eating bacon or lay out in the sun without SPF 9000. In other words, what's great about being 21 is not knowing any better so that you're dumb enough to have the kind of stupid fun you can still bounce back from. That can't — and shouldn't — last forever. Have we learned nothing from vampire movies?
That said, things do change when you get older. For women, chief among these concerns is "losing your looks." This fear could not be better demonstrated than in the latest installment of Ask Polly over at The Awl.
A woman who goes by Dorian (props to the Oscar Wilde ref) says she's about to turn 30, and, more or less, she is bat-shit flipping out over the fact that she knows her looks are gonna start to deteriorate. She is "conventionally attractive" and loves the "dreamy, enraptured looks" on the faces of those she passes on the street. She goes on to compete for the Samantha Brick award for self-esteem when she claims that even she is stirred by her own beauty.
And so, the prospect of losing this—and I know I will lose it, everyone does—fills me with such crushing dread. I take care of myself as best I can in terms of a healthy lifestyle and sunscreen, but I know that every day that goes by, I am aging, and ultimately powerless to stop it. (I don’t have much faith in the ability of cosmetic procedures to keep my face looking exactly the way it does now, so that “option” is of little comfort). It’s like I’ve been given this precious gift with the stipulation that it will be yanked away from me before my life is even halfway over. I don’t know how to cope with this. I have these horrible moments now in which I see older women around me and feel a visceral sense of disgust and pity—obviously a projection of my own fears.
Dear, dear Dorian. I will not resort to the easy tsk about worrying = frown lines. Obviously, we could make a lot of assumptions about where this advice-seeker has gone wrong — namely by being too caught up in her own appearance and the joy it brings her and others. But we would do better to remind ourselves of the double-edged sword beauty brings to those who posses it: great rewards, an often over-reliance on its door-opening magical powers to the exclusion of cultivating the self, an expiration date, being taken less seriously, etc.
But we don't even have to take at face value (har) that she's a knockout to be sympathetic. A woman's appearance is nothing if not currency. But it has a dark side, and it's never more pitch-black, bottom of the barrel, than when it causes the wearer to not even take herself seriously as having value beyond a stirring visage.
Which is why the advice giver's answer — courtesy of Heather Havrilesky, guardian soothsayer of the messy imperfections of life — is a beautiful thing to behold.
Your priorities are going to change drastically. Even if you keep living in this bizarre airless room where you gaze at yourself all day like the evil queen in Snow White (there's a reason they make fairy tales with big, important lessons about vanity), you're still going to mature over the next decade and find that all of this pretty face bullshit just doesn't have the weight that it once did, not even to you. … Mostly, I have to tell you that time doesn't run out as fast as you think. Most women I know looked like they were 29 for about a decade, honestly. And yes, things change in your 40s, but mostly, if you're living right, you just want more time to do stuff.
Amen. Also: she's so right about that mysterious 29 thing.
To build on her points, I'd like to add a few other observations about getting older:
It Happens So Slowly That You Don't Really Notice at All
It's not like you go to bed beautiful and wake up a hag. You grow old gradually and notice every once in a while. You're still you, just older. And while it may offer a momentary fascination or a ping of mortality, it is hardly cause for copious weeping or even fleeting depression. You're a human. You're still alive. No one lives forever.
Sometimes the Thing You Notice About Aging Is Oddly Comforting
Even when these moments come — I can't get drunk like I used to; What's that popping sound in my hip every time I stand up? Must use more moisturizer — rather than feel bad, I actually feel good, good that I am alive and this age and still totally healthy, in spite of how much I wasted my youth, or rather, got wasted while young. Think about it: Your body says fuck you to gravity most days of its existence. Pretty amazing.
Yes, There's Regret, But Not Like You Think
Once I remember talking with a friend when we were in our late 20s, and she remarked casually that she wished she'd worn more cute clothes/risqué stuff when she was younger and had a "better body," and I agreed reflexively, like, yeah, of course, who doesn't. But then I realized that in order to have done that, I would have had to have been a completely different person. I have never really been the type of person to dress provocatively at any age.
This is the 21/40 paradox I stated earlier: You think you'd do it differently if you could go back, but it took doing all the stuff you did in the intervening years to be who you are now. What crazy person would trade that for a slightly higher set of boobs? And if you so happen now be the sort of person who wants to wear a miniskirt, wear a fucking miniskirt and shut the fuck up about it!
The Thing You Really Notice is How Little You Care
Sorry, I know it's a bumper sticker at this point, but the hands-down, best motherfucking juice that comes from being older is how much better you know yourself, and what's more, you like this person you've gotten to know, even when you accept her worst flaws. This is more liberating than all the fresh-faced ignorant bliss in the world.
You Will Marvel More at What You Have, Not What You Don't
I've said this before and I will say it again: If you are doing shit you care about, shit you feel good about, shit that is even in the tiniest way a step toward doing a thing that matters to you, that makes the world better, you better, someone else better, life better, your headspace better, you will not obsess about being older. It's usually when there's nothing else going on in your life that you don't like what you see in the mirror, and the thing is, that can happen at ANY AGE, thus, the phenomenon of the beautiful 20-something who can't stop thinking about what happens when her looks bail, instead of thinking how lucky she is to be able to write complete sentences while also being drop-dead gorge. Trying to appreciate where you are right now is the big triumph of life. Knowing that wherever you are right now is where you are, and looking for the best thing in that, with an eye on how to keep it going toward wherever you want to be, is the point.
Your Looks Never Actually Bail
If so, where do they go? In the crawl space at your last apartment? Is there a dumpster in the sky where all the young, beautiful faces go, like some weirder, more mutant version of the movie Face Off? Duh, you always look like you! Because you are you! And you are an evolving thing, a thing that ages!
So if you are young and terrified and reading this right now, I say, please, enjoy the shit out of what you've got, and spend the rest of your time building an exquisite bridge to the next phase of your life, so that you can enjoy the shit out of that, too. That is the secret to sheer magnetism, no matter how old you are. Why else can we not stop drooling over Helen Mirren?