I took a preemptive strike at staving off aging in my early forties by getting an upper eyelid blepharoplasty, commonly known as an “eye lift.” This is one of the cosmetic surgeries Renee Zellweger supposedly had according to the recent media frenzy, that made her “completely unrecognizable.” I was dating a younger man when I had the procedure and was very conscious of our age difference. Looking back at old pictures of myself from the vantage point of the 65-year old woman I am today, I shake my head in wonder. How was it that I could not see myself except through the critical eye of a culture that demanded I look forever twenty-five?
If I were to be totally honest, the only thing that probably saved me from going under the knife again – or having some sort of poison injected into my face – is that it was simply not in the budget. Eternal youth belonged to women of privilege who can afford to keep up the illusion. I wasn’t one of them. However, lack of funds didn’t stop me from closely scrutinizing my face, watching for signs of the inevitable. I was changing. Aging.
As fifty came and went, the lines in my face deepened. That’s when I learned the smile lines around my mouth that never caused me distress were actually called “marionette lines” by plastic surgeons. Great. From that point forward, I couldn’t look in the mirror without seeing Madame, that hideous caricature of an old woman created by Wayland Flowers, cackling back at me. Next to go was my finely chiseled jaw line which began to droop into – horror of horrors – jowls! The final insult to injury blossomed around sixty – the dreaded turkey waddle under my chin. Although I tried to laugh it off, calling it my “gobble,” I was horrified by the old woman who looked back at me from the mirror.
Fear and loathing of aging was my secret shame. As a young radical feminist I had raged against the beauty industry that set unattainable standards for women’s appearance. Did I mention I leaned toward the chubby side as well? Well into the third quarter of my life, I had to come to terms with my internalized ageism once and for all. I mean it’s not like I didn’t understand the cultural underpinnings of my discontent. But emotionally, I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago.
To make matters worse, a close friend – who is ten years my junior and always was “the pretty one” had a face-lift. For the first time in our 25 year friendship we had a conversation about a critical juncture in our lives where the personal meets the political that was completely disingenuous. Actually she was quite honest, admitting that she simply wanted to “buy herself a little more time.” Me? Not so much. After the obligatory compliments about how young and natural she looked, I hid my envy (yes, I admit I was envious) and shared that I’d decided to take a different path and embrace the aging process. She closed the loop on the lie by assuring me how beautifully I was aging and didn’t need “any work” done. We then changed the subject.
Then my life took a short detour on the way to sixty-five. I found a small hard lump under my jaw. A trip to the doctor revealed a tumor on my parotid gland. I needed surgery. The tricky part however is that major nerves in your face run through the parotid gland. Even if I was lucky and the tumor was benign, I ran the risk of full paralysis on the left side of my face. I scoured the Internet for photographs. It wasn’t a pretty sight. But even worse than the disfigurement were the disabilities that accompanied a severed facial nerve: incomplete closure of the effected eye, sweating and flushing of the face when eating, an inability to smile or close the lips, constant drooling, and worst of all to me, an inability to speak coherently. As it turned out, the tumor was benign and aside from a fine scar that runs along the side of my face, down my neck and loops around behind my ear, when the swelling subsided, I had the same face that I started with when they rolled me into the operating room.
I would have liked to have ended this blog by saying I had a feminist epiphany that forever “cured” me of my internalized ageism but that just simply isn’t true. It was the threat of severe disfigurement and disability that allowed me to look at my reflection with acceptance instead of loathing. However, the surgery also challenged myself to reevaluate the internalized ageism that colored my my self-image for over twenty-five years.
Feminist or not, I was not immune from the constant cultural messages that demand women appear young long after their youth has past. Multibillion dollar industries drive this message home to women every day. Entire marketing campaigns target middle-aged women with photos of slim, youthful women sitting at a candle lit table across from some silver haired fox gazing lovingly at her., “Sixty is the New Fifty,” the caption reads. No it’s not!” I yell back at the ad for – pick one – a miracle anti-aging serum, Botox shots, “Lifestyle Lifts” or some new youth defying cosmetic. Still the ad whispers back seductively, “but it could be, if you just bought our product, inject a few syringes of filler in those groves around your moth, had a little nip and tuck, trowel some of this plaster of Paris over your face. .
The point of remaining forever youthful is to to be attractive to men. No matter our intellectual prowess, no matter a lifetime of professional accomplishments, no matter of a life devoted to our children or our community, at the end of the day women are still judged by unattainable standards of beauty and in our culture beauty is defined by youth.
Having reminded myself myself once again that youth and beauty are false standards by which to measure a woman’s value, I’ve come to terms with my personal struggle with aging. When I think of my youth, I no longer yearn to be that fresh-faced girl I see in old photographs. Instead focusing on her beauty, I focus on her optimism and courage as she leads a “Take Back the Night March.” I see her nervous excitement as she gives her first presentation at a national feminist conference. I see her pride the first time her work was published in a feminist anthology. I see me. And behind this head of grey hair and this lined face I still have the same value I had when I committed myself to feminism all those years ago.