I don’t think I’m an exceptionally vain person, but I’m also not immune to wanting to look younger than I actually am. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of time leaving its tracks on my face. This happened most memorably a couple years ago when I was rushing between classes and was ambushed by the view in a bathroom mirror. Looking sidelong, I thought: oh my goodness, it’s my grandma!
Now, matters could be worse. Yes, it’s true that my dad’s mother got rather jowly late in life, not quite Nixon-esque but still quite noticable, and I see the contours of that future in my own chin. Yes, her eyelids sagged by the time she was in her eighties, and instead of getting them fixed, she held them in place with tape. (Why she never pursued surgery remains a mystery.)
But Grandma also remained vibrant and attractive well into her middle years. She adored being the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota. Virtually the only woman on the scene, she basked in the admiration of all those men. Incipient jowls apparently didn’t deter them. And conversely, she appreciated an attractive man well into her nineties, pretty much up to the point when she lost her marbles.
So yes, things could be a whole lot worse. And yet, when I read this passage in a Stephen McCauley novel a few days ago, I thought, whoa, he got it exactly right:
I was barely awake when the doorbell rang at eleven the next morning. I glanced in my bureau mirror on my way to the stairs, amazed at how increasingly unkind sleep was as I got older, as if someone came in every night to practice origami on my face while I slept.
(Stephen McCauley, The Man of the House, 140.)
McCauley is recounting the very particular woes of a gay man around 40 who’s single but would prefer to be paired. But even if you’re not hunting for a mate, that morning tracery can be merciless. My one really noticeable wrinkle is a line near my jaw where I know my chin gets squished against the pillow. I suppose I could sleep on my back, but then I’d never sleep, and that wouldn’t exactly enhance my looks, either.
This isn’t just vanity. It’s also not merely a slavish response to the beauty ideal, as a unidimensional feminist analysis might suggest. It’s partly a fear of mortality. It’s also anxiety – as McCauley’s anti-hero displays – that no one will want to have sex with you beyond a certain point of decrepitude.
Most interestingly, it’s a sense of alienation from oneself, as philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers has argued. In her book Gender in the Mirror, Meyers says when we look at our aging selves in the mirror, we no longer see our familiar, long-known selves. Our face appears as “not-self.” It’s no longer the image that is invested with and in our relationships. In this interpretation, the desire to look younger, be it through surgery, cosmetics, or merely the approving eyes of another, is an effort to recover what we perceive as our true selves.
Meyers presents this as a gendered phenomenon. It’s true that women’s social worth is still bound up with our appearance more than men’s. I think Meyers may also be right that women’s aging faces become a sort of proxy for everyone’s horror of mortality. This was likely one strike against Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign.
But that loss of the familiar self is not necessarily gendered. The face with origami folds – and the resulting sense of unfamiliarity – can be male just as easily as female.
In some ways, recognizing myself as my grandma was a moment of pure alienation and unfamiliarity. I literally saw someone other than myself in the mirror. But if I have to morph into someone else, I could do worse. When Grandma died, she was just a few days short of 103. So if I get her jowls, I’ll hope to inherit her robustness, too. Certainly I got my ornery streak partly from her. But I promise: If my eyelids start to sag, I will get them fixed.