The last time I was ID’d when buying alcohol, I was 32 years old. This may not sound too bad, except before I’d had the chance to respond, the cashier looked up and said, “Actually, it’s alright – I just hadn’t seen your face.”
I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, other than that I didn’t look under 18, which ought to have been fine, since I wasn’t. But, of course, I went home and scrutinised my obviously-not-underage face. “You ought to be pleased,” said my partner, “it must mean your body looks younger than your head.” I told him this wasn’t helping.
I don’t want to be the kind of person who worries about looking old, not least because that’s the kind of thing old people do. I’ve got enough to worry about, body-image wise: the tops of my thighs, my uneven smile, acne scars and a midriff I can’t even bear to touch. I had always assumed that, by the time I was bothered about crow’s feet and a saggy neck, I’d have stopped noticing the rest.
I imagined there being a finite amount of body-image worry a person could have. You were allocated it at birth and, once it was used up, you were no longer capable of giving a toss. I even fantasised that, having suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout my teens and twenties, I’d have “used up” my worry faster than everyone else. Soon I’d be safely on the side of not caring. Now, at 41, I’m starting to fear this might never happen.
Unfortunately, there are studies that support such a view. In an interview with The Observer’s Eva Wiseman, Nichola Rumsey, professor of appearance research at the University of West England, has described how “appearance-related anxieties persist well into later adulthood”:
“At an age where most healthcare professionals focus on controlling pain and body functionality, many patients feel the way they look is as much of a concern, but isn't a legitimate topic of conversation. It can cause substantial distress to look in the mirror and see an ageing body […] yet in the UK we can be very dismissive of what is often construed as vanity.”
Time only moves one way yet, as women, we are groomed to spend our entire lives paddling furiously in the opposite direction, with diets and creams, syringes and scalpels
It’s not as though the basics of old age – increasing ill health, pain, reduced mobility, loss of friends and impending mortality – aren’t bad enough. I’d always imagined an older me who’d look back on photos of younger me and curse her for thinking she looked terrible when, actually, she looked perfectly fine. It turns out I’m as critical of 21-year-old me as I was 20 years ago. I expected to feel guilty for having worried so much. What I didn’t expect was to feel guilty for having “allowed” myself to age at all.
It’s not as though any of us has a choice. Even for those for whom time and money are no object, the options are either to look like an old person or to look like an old person with frozen, peeled, stretched-back skin. Short of being able to capture one’s soul (whatever that is) and transplant it wholesale into a fresh, young, unworn body, there’s nothing we can do about it.
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Time only moves one way yet, as women, we are groomed to spend our entire lives paddling furiously in the opposite direction, with diets and creams, syringes and scalpels. You’d think, with all the effort we make, we could at least stay in one place, even if improvement were out of the question. But no.
In an era that worships choice and freedom of self-expression, it’s difficult to counter the belief that how we look ought to match how we feel inside. And yet we’re not that kind of jigsaw puzzle. The older I get, the more I feel I am watching my “real” self part company with an outer shell, even though, in truth, I remain a whole person, body and mind as one.
Perhaps it’s about time I asked who or what I don’t want to look like. What part of looking older isn’t me? What is it about older women that I feel would be a misrepresentation of myself? Their experience, their strength, their endurance? Do I fear being treated with the disdain with which I’ve treated them?
Sometimes, it seems the most difficult place to challenge ageism and misogyny is inside your own head. Instead of weeping over the next wrinkle, I need to confront my own prejudices. That, and celebrate the fact that no one’s ever going to try to stop me buying wine again.
It's #BodyHonestly week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing our bodies, and how we feel about them.