Whenever someone on social media or in a glossy fashion magazine refers to the fine art of growing old gracefully, I remember a wedding I attended many years ago. I was sipping a cocktail before the ceremony when a man with a head like a grouper observed that I looked completely different since I’d had two kids. He fixed me with one fish eye stuck in the side of his head like a Picasso painting and told me that just a few years earlier I had been very hot indeed, but now? Utterly unremarkable. “You gained weight, sure, but that’s not all,” he gurgled. “Your face isn’t the same. Like I didn’t even recognize you.” His gills hissed and spat out seawater as he laughed, spattering my dress with little bits of seaweed and foam from the tides.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a laugh and a swift counterattack at my disposal. I looked for my usual defense mechanisms and they weren’t there. Maybe my verbal left jab had dried up and tumbled away like my tangled mess of straw hair was poised to do. Maybe my wit had seeped out of my body with the blood of childbirth, or maybe it got absorbed into the flab of my face, which I suddenly realized was just a giant, featureless ass cheek. Maybe my charms were hidden in the infinite folds of what I now recognized as a misshapen, bloated body; it was if someone had found a whale’s corpse rotting on the sand and tried to stuff it into a cute little cocktail dress.
Sure, I knew I’d gained a few pounds and my hair had turned frizzy after my second pregnancy, but I still felt pretty good about myself. Now I was living that nightmare where you’re in class and you look down and you’re not wearing any pants. The worst part of that dream isn’t that your bare butt feels all wrong on the wooden chair. It’s that everyone else knew all along. You were the last one to notice. You kept cluelessly acting like your usual self.
I sat down with my husband and my friends and waited for the wedding to begin. A man with the face of a mean animal walked up to the pulpit, another friend of the bride. He’d been ordained by the Universal Life Church so he could perform the ceremony, which he let us know as he scratched furiously behind one of his pointy ears with a gnarled claw. He told us the bride was running late, typical of her, nothing to worry about, and then he made a joke about how she was probably getting cold feet. The crowd tittered unappreciatively, but the angry animal’s bloodshot eyes narrowed as he lapped up his drink greedily, using both of his little raccoon hands. Then he dug in deeper.
He didn’t get to me until right before the bride entered. Thanks to the extended delay, he appeared to have worked through all of his prepared material, along with several strong drinks. Now he had to resort to heckling the wedding guests. He’d mentioned a few times by then that the bride was lovely and perfect and her husband wasn’t good enough for her by a long shot, which was probably why the crowd had gone completely silent, save for a gaggle of the bride’s most supportive friends, who were exchanging weary glances while doing their best imitation of a raucous laugh track, trying to signal that everything was fine, this was just a normal wedding, it was all in good fun. I was one of the ones laughing, a big, soft, stupid mom with a twisted head of flammable straw where her hair should go, trying to save the moment, trying to spackle over the awkwardness and turn this extra-dark episode of The Office back into the dreamy wedding that my friend wanted it to be.
Unfortunately, when you show an angry little animal with shit stuck in its butt hair that you can take a joke, sometimes you’re also showing him that you can take anything — a private excoriation, a public beatdown, an endless trickle of negs, a quiet, continuous undermining, a slow erosion of your confidence, a sudden jolt to your system strong enough to make all of your illusions cave in on themselves.
So the angry raccoon turned to the crowd and, with a weighty look that said Now this part is serious, explained that because the bride had settled for less than she deserved, soon she’d end up just like me, unrecognizable from before. Then the animal took a minute to explain that just a short time ago, I was exceptional, gorgeous, unnervingly so. He waved his little claws in the air as if to express, Wow, the power of that! But now? What happened? Who is this? “Once she was Mary Tyler Moore and now … she’s Rhoda.”
I smiled, lips closed. Rhoda is hot, my mind weakly offered. My friends and my husband looked at me with wide eyes like I might set something on fire. Later, my husband said he’d wanted to walk up to the front of the room and beat the raccoon to a bloody pulp in front of everyone, but he didn’t want to make that tragic event even more tragic.
But that’s what happened anyway. The bride entered, but somehow the comedy routine kept going and everything got even darker and more awkward until you could palpably feel the whole room full of humans telepathically agreeing to walk straight into the ocean together.
Afterward in the bathroom, the bride asked me if the wedding ceremony was really okay or if it was a complete disastrous nightmare like it very much seemed to be the vast majority of the time. As I drew random black lines around my hideous ass-cheek face to emphasize the tiny bug eyes that were hiding behind mountains of flesh, I told her the ceremony was extra super funny and great and fuck anyone who couldn’t take a joke.
And so we tumbled back out into the hallway, back to the vicious rabble chain-smoking on the stairs, back to the circles of dumbstruck relatives biting their tongues as the clock ticked down. We sank back into a lifetime of inviting jokes shaped like “fuck you”s, jokes that showed exactly how a petty woodland varmint or a man-size grouper can want you desperately while resenting and hating you for it, jokes that lay bare the core belief that no woman should have power for very long, jokes that suggest that when a man rips that power out of a woman’s hands, that man is a hero. But I already knew by then that the world was filthy with scrabbling predators and slow-moving bottom-feeders who would fluff me up only to cheer my rapid demise. It had happened before. The sad thing was that even if I got my swift verbal right hook back, my jabs wouldn’t land anymore. Only a hot girl can hurt your feelings. Everyone else is execrable.
On our way home, my husband told me that I was just as attractive as ever and those two guys were sad little assholes yanking at their flaccid dicks at night, all alone and furious. He said he mostly felt bad for the bride, a smart, lovable woman who’d surrounded herself with contemptuous brutes because they gave her the exact diet of praise and mocking that felt like home to her. That sounds like me, I said. Not anymore, he said. I’m gross, I said. Not to me, he said.
I still walked around feeling like an overstuffed armchair for years. I didn’t diet constantly or obsess about my Gilda Radner hair enough to fix it, but when I looked in the mirror I felt embarrassed for myself all over again. But I knew that it would be vain to make an effort. As a mother, I was supposed to have matured beyond vanity. I was supposed to accept my new supporting role in life, fading sweetly and softly into the background so that all of the men and some of the women — the young ones and the slightly older ones who’d stayed effortlessly hot — could have their good times without a rotund, inconvenient mom obstacle getting in their way.
So that’s the story I think of whenever people start comparing notes online about which women are aging gracefully and which women are trying way too hard, which is pathetic and unlovable (or at least it’s just not as good and pure as not caring at all and never, ever trying). I think about how growing old gracefully really means either disappearing or sticking around but always lying straight to people’s faces about the strength of your feelings and desires. Aging gracefully means proving, day in and day out, that you can take anything — a private excoriation, a public beatdown, an endless trickle of negs, a quiet, continuous undermining, a slow erosion of your confidence, a sudden jolt to your system strong enough to make all of your illusions cave in on themselves. Growing old gracefully means you eat it and smile through closed lips. You pretend you didn’t hear a word, didn’t see a thing, are utterly in the dark, a gorgeous, silent vessel still built to hold the most merciless man’s limited imagination.
You are not meant to cluelessly keep acting like your usual self. Instead, you should pretend that your power is running out, like a battery losing its charge. You should pretend that you’re always fine with whatever happens, it’s better this way, this is what’s natural for subhuman half-persons, we have to live in reality, we have to make more room for fishy heads to spray and claws to wave in the air, we have to let go, we have to give up, otherwise we’re sick, greedy whores who are trying desperately to be young again — and mostly failing dramatically.
But listen. You do it however you want to do it, and God bless, but I’m going to follow my most audacious and inappropriate whims wherever they lead. I’m not calibrating my movements to the chattering and growling of rancid beasts anymore. Today I feel more beautiful than I ever have before, and tomorrow I’ll feel even more beautiful because I know my own power now. My power is graceless as a seabird, volatile as the tides, defenseless as an empty beach. My power is buoyant and generous and fragile as blown glass. My power is tireless and ferocious and vain as the sun that burns your skin. Come a little closer and feel it for yourself. You’ll know I’m not pretending.
Heather Havrilesky writes the Ask Polly advice column for The Cut and is the author of the essay collection What If This Were Enough? She also maintains the Ask Polly newsletter and the Ask Molly newsletter, written by Polly’s evil twin.