I am 31 years old when my 27 year old co-worker says to me,
“I swear, you just do not look like you are over thirty.”
At the time of this conversation I was pregnant and two years into my residency, pale from living inside a hospital, gaunt and greasy from cafeteria food. If anyone, looked their age I certainly did.
Yet I would have said the same thing four years prior, feeling sure that reaching your third decade meant immediately becoming arthritic and shriveled, breasts drooping to your ankles. I too was surprised, I remember turning 30 and unexpectedly I still looked a lot like I did when I was a youthful 29.
. . .
I am 16 years old, when after spending the first part of my teen years dripping with baby oil and baking in the sun (whenever we saw the sun in Ohio) I’m told I must spend the rest of them slathered in sunscreen. I wonder how I can still mange to get a tan, but I heed the warnings, not of cancer, but of wrinkles, or worse, sun spots.
I am 35, I have a daughter in preschool. Everyday we marvel about how big she is getting. “Soon you will be 4,” we say and giggle.
I am 14 and hear my grandmother say to my mother, “it’s really time to start dying your hair” (early gray runs in the family), soon after she did. Prior to that moment I had never noticed a gray hair on her head.
. . .
One of the gifts of childhood is that you always find your own mother beautiful. Or perhaps I should put it, one of the gifts of motherhood is that your child always finds you beautiful.
. . .
Yet somewhere along the way we start to doubt. We look around for reassurance and instead find impossible images of endless youth crammed into every nook and cranny of our lives.
Of course if the Beauty Industry let us think that we were actually beautiful they would quickly put themselves out of business. Instead they set the unachievable before us and we become their perpetual consumers. Make up, hair dye then micro-derm abrasion or Botox and finally we can go under the knife risking sedation and infection, spending our savings to get a lift and tuck.
And after all this do we feel any better about how we look?
To be clear I am not against all things cosmetic. There is power in beauty and it can be a joy to look our best, to primp or wear a new dress. But it should be “our best”. Not a made up ever evasive youthful version of ourselves or worse of someone else.
Beauty is God given, it need not be a burden of time, money or energy. If it is, we are doing something wrong.
When I was younger I always assumed I would go to whatever extent to look as much like a Barbie Doll as humanly possible. If I put on an extra pound I swore I’d be at the gym working it off and would give up eating pie entirely. The way I looked felt more important than almost anything else. I couldn’t imagine having any intrinsic value if my appearance wasn’t all that it could be. Still today when I feel sad I could just as easily describe it as feeling ugly.
Now twenty years later those dreaded fine lines are starting to appear around my eyes, my hair is going gray, I have acne scars (and new acne at the same time), and every now and then I pluck a wiry whisker from my chin. I no longer own a tube of mascara or lipstick (though I do wax my eyebrows and use hair gel). All my fears about being a little soft or saggy don’t matter any more. In letting go of an impossible standard I’ve embraced a reality, that we are all beautiful expressions of God’s love for the world. And that doesn’t change if we are 85 or 35.
Portraits by Courtney.