I was nine years old when I read about facelifts for the first time in a Reader’s Digest “Big Book of Everything”. The accompanying photo was a gory close-up of the surgery in progress but there was also a before-and-after shot of Molly Parkin, who’d had a full facelift and admitted as much.
As far as I could tell she was an old lady in both photos. Plastic surgery, I decided right then and there, was utterly pointless. I had no truck with it.
“I don’t think I’ll ever dye my hair,” I breezed, airily, aged 27 with pale blonde waves floating around my head and not a silver strand in sight.
“Can you believe I got asked for ID buying beer? I’m a mother of three, including a teenager. It’s an utter outrage!” I huffed when I was 31.
“Botox? Urgh, no. I think that weird shiny plastic stretched-face look is just as bad as actually looking your age,” I continued, aged 35. “It’s probably more aging, in fact.”
Lip fillers, cheek fillers and shots of Botox in the temples or between the brows gradually became mainstream, no longer the preserve of the rich and famous. They were affordable and they were commonplace among my friends as we all hurtled towards 40. I saw it happening but I had no interest in the procedures.
I read How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which came out when I was 31, and silently agreed with her that “When we live in fear of aging, and pull painful and expensive tricks to hide it, it makes us look like losers. It makes us look like cowards. It makes us look scared”.
I’d never be like that, I thought. Not me. In much the same way that I’d already come to terms with my fine, fluffy baby hair (never holds a curl or a clip; no funky styles work for me, ever) and my big head (have to wear men’s sunhats; I always look moonfaced in group photos) I knew that I’d accept the face that nature gave me as I got older.
I’d accept my gradual descent into middle- and old age, accept the face that this journey gave me, and embrace whatever I looked like because by then, I’d be a middle- and then an old-aged lady, wouldn’t I? All that would be happening is that my face would match my inner self. I’d be honest.
I felt smugly proud of myself for this stance. What a feminist warrior I quietly was! No self-deception or artifice for me. I wouldn’t kid myself that I was younger than I was or attempt — expensively and painfully — to stay looking youthful for the male gaze. I didn’t gauge my worth by how many wolf-whistles I got in the street. Nor did I think that only young women look beautiful. Who’d be so shallow as to think that?!
Then, it was 2020. A global pandemic kept us all indoors at home doing meetings on computer screens which show us our own faces the whole time and, to add insult to injury, I turned forty.
Turns out, there’s a reason everyone panics about turning forty. Your face and body have pretty much had enough, by forty. They give up on you. “Ha!” screeched all the fine lines that had not been previously visible on my forehead. “We’re settling in now, because we are allowed. You’re middle-aged, so you can give up and so can we.” I suddenly noticed bits of me that I’d not even considered before.
My hands, for example. Constant sanitising with alcohol gel has turned them into withered grandma hands. And my neck! Who knew a whole neck could turn into crepe paper all at once? How long has it been like that? Maybe it’s been like that for ages and I hadn’t even noticed because I’d only seen my face in the car’s rearview mirror, not in the cruel glare of an upturned webcam which is how I see it daily now. Oh, woe. And hold on — do I have wrinkled skin on my legs? Who knew thighs aged?
My face, never the most naturally cheerful in repose, now looks actively angry all the time unless I remind it to turn upwards at the corners. My hooded little eyes look Bassett-hound sad. I’ve got pigment patches that have started having little parties with my freckles, all teaming up for a fun sun-damage party across my cheeks.
I don’t recognise myself. But suddenly, I recognise what my peers were afraid of all this time.
Because the thing is, you don’t get the face that matches the age of your inner self as you age. Of course you don’t. Inside, everyone’s 27 forever. I don’t feel forty, or middle-aged. So the face in the mirror is a shock, now. It’s a mature woman’s face and I am not a mature woman. The injustice of this bodily treachery is breathtaking to me.
Suddenly, I get what everyone was trying to escape when they all started signing up for exorbitant Botox pay-monthly schemes five years ago. They didn’t want this sudden dawning, this dark night of the aging soul. Could it be that I got it wrong? That they were prescient and I was deluded? That I was arrogant and they were sensible?
I’m still not sure. Much as I’d love to see my face ironed out into something resembling its younger self, I know that fillers and Botox wouldn’t actually make me look like a younger version of me. They’d make me look like an enhanced version of me. A version of me I’d bothered to spend money on, yes, but I wouldn’t look younger. Would I look better? Again — I’m still not sure.
Maybe in the future (like Caitlin Moran, who’s also shamefaced on this issue), I’ll get to the point where I want the cosmetic tweaks just to make me look less tired and angry. I can now feasibly see a day coming where it would be worth it just to not feel my mood sag to match my face’s appearance.
But I’m not there yet. I’ll hang in there a while longer on a wing and a prayer and some industrial-strength moisturising oils and unguents. And I’ve got silver in my blonde hair now, but I’ll definitely wait til other people can see it before I do anything about that.
What I am already there with, though, is a hefty dose of self-admonishment and a reminder to check my privilege. I’m embarrassed now by my previous lofty arrogance. Even though I didn’t say anything out loud (oh, how glad I am it was never my soapbox of choice), I still feel shamed by the naivete of an internal attitude which — let’s face it — was borne entirely of the complacency of having a young-looking face.
And I had a young-looking face because I was still quite young. What did I know of the aging process and how it might feel?! Nothing. I assumed it wouldn’t touch me because it hadn’t.
So for now, chastened, I’ll just pack up the secret judgment. I’ll accept that this judgment was anything but feminist, in reality. Maybe age has given me some wisdom after all.