self/reflection

I Am a Prisoner of My Own Vanity

Self/Reflection is a week of stories on the Cut about how we feel, versus how we look.

I am not a beautiful woman. I am what you would call pretty but not a knockout, with agreeably symmetrical features, good hair (extensions), and decent skin. And I have always been too insecure to believe that my looks ever accrued me much, but now that they’re slowly fading, I can see the folly of that line of thinking. Good looks will take you far in this world, and like many women who’ve derived a portion of their identity from their appearance, I find aging to be a particularly diabolical development. I always knew on some level that time comes for us all, but I didn’t much care to recognize the notion that it would circle back for me some day.

Now, at 54, I rarely look in the mirror without thinking about how that reflection has changed. It’s the same face I’ve always had, but more tired, less elastic, vaguely less feminine. And I refuse — in a way that really can’t be healthy — to accept it.

To that end, this is the year I started doing yoga, taking hair vitamins, mixing Collagen Peptide in with my morning coffee, and putting four separate products on my face before makeup. The year that I stopped wearing as much black because it washes you out, and started, the very instant my roots grew in, rushing to the hairdresser to get them covered up. Ten years ago, I couldn’t be bothered to fix my gray, but today my very well-being seems to depend on it.

Back then, I did a quick swipe of mascara on my way out the door every morning and called it good enough. Now, my a.m. beauty routine is so lengthy and multidimensional that it’s fortunate that I’m a full-time writer who doesn’t have to get to an office. And I do it every morning, even if I’m just going to be home working all day. I won’t even go out to walk my dogs without applying fresh lipstick.

It’s clear, I’m a prisoner of my vanity in a way I wasn’t ten years ago. And while I’m not proud of this, I’m also not ashamed. Our culture places such a premium on attractiveness that I feel I can be forgiven for trying to preserve what I have left of mine. Still, I sometimes wish I was more like my friend Deborah Copaken, a writer and mother of three who has admirably few fucks to give about her changing appearance: She wears no makeup, doesn’t dye her gray streak, wears whatever’s comfortable, and says that “there’s this interesting kind of inverse relationship: The less attractive I get, the more confident I am in the way I dress and look.”

My own stance is weird and contradictory and certainly not very feminist: Like my friend, I do care less what the world thinks of me in general and have found this a great gift of age. But in this one respect I am consumed. Back when I was younger, I’d feel sorry for elderly women I’d see on the street wearing too much poorly applied makeup: clumsily rouged cheeks, too bright lipstick, and vivid blue eye shadow that looked like it was brushed on by a child. Now that I have firsthand knowledge that beauty fades, I can see that they were all simply attempting, poignantly, to draw themselves back in. And boy, can I relate.

I read recently somewhere that women experience a spike in serotonin when they’re grooming, and this makes perfect sense to me. When I was younger, maintenance was a chore. Now I find myself enjoying the transformation that takes place in front of the mirror, the youth and grace I am still able to tease out, even though the returns are diminishing. I now fully expect to become one of those old ladies I used to pity, and younger women who don’t yet truly know what’s ahead of them will pity me. I’m weirdly okay with this.

Meanwhile, I will endure the unglamorous inch-long hairs that now sprout from my chin seemingly overnight, the upper arms that all the chaturangas in the world aren’t going to tone, and whatever indignity comes next. Because I have no choice in the matter, and because getting older is vastly superior to the alternative. I’ll endure it. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.

I Am a Prisoner of My Own Vanity