I was introduced to my first wrinkle the other week. Three inches across and about the width of a hair, it sits a few centimeters above my eyebrows. “There, see that?” said the dermatologist, a full-lipped brunette of indeterminate age. She held up a powerful mirror and pointed to my face with a nicely manicured fingernail. “There’s another starting right above it. Raise your eyebrows. See? And there’s another.” I was sort of surprised to see them. I was even more surprised by how much they scared me.
I’d often felt cursed by my baby face: Enormous forehead, big eyes, chubby cheeks. Bartenders and convenience store merchants regularly carded me for cigarettes and alcohol. While working as a background actress in L.A. in the mid-’90s, I was regularly cast as a teenager on productions such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “E.R.” On one show, a three-camera sitcom starring LL Cool J, the show’s makeup artist went so far as to paint a cluster of red and yellow pimples on my face to give me added adolescent authenticity. I was 22.
The people — particularly women — I most admired professionally and personally tended to be in their late 30s and older. They had a wisdom, sensuality and knowingness that I desperately wanted to emulate, and, by God, crow’s-feet only added to the effect. Texture on the face equals texture of the soul, or so the thinking went. But maybe not for me.
To add insult to injury, I’d always prided myself on being immune to the siren calls of get-slim-quick schemes and expensive serums. I spent the majority of my 20s writing and editing for women’s magazines adept at creating and stoking female insecurities and helping advertisers monetize them. I considered myself hip to these magazines’ tricks and, therefore, resistant to their charms. In my early-to-mid-30s, fed up by the superficiality of such offerings (and disgusted by the role I had played in promoting them), I started a women’s Web site that was devoted, in part, to dismantling the celebrity-beauty-industrial complex. We found, and published, unretouched magazine covers to underscore the impossibility of images marketed to women. We mocked and pooh-poohed plastic surgery and other painful, expensive aesthetic “enhancements.” “Ten Moves to a Flatter Belly” and “Secrets of the Stars: How to Get Glowing Celebrity Skin” were not part of our repertoire. (Those headlines are made up. Old habits die hard.) The media outlets, beauty companies and fashion designers we railed against went on the defensive. My readers, after a lifetime of being condescended and marketed to, cheered.
But something happened on the way to female enlightenment: I hit my late 30s. Hair began to appear in places it never had before. I acquired a belly, and the flesh on my arms and calves wasn’t as taut and toned. These were unsettling developments but also easily remedied: All it took to tame them were expensive tweezers and a little (well, a lot) more discipline with regards to diet and physical activity. The changes in my face, however, were another matter. A downturned mouth. Thinner lips. Now the wrinkles. “Wow. You’re really looking older,” says the voice in my head as I peer into the bathroom mirror. Then another, this one louder and more judgmental: “Who are you that you care?”
Who am I indeed. The fact that I can be so profoundly unsettled by the appearance of a few wrinkles on my forehead doesn’t say much of anything good about my sense of self as a whole. In the same way that I’m sort of horrified at the increasingly unrecognizable face that stares back at me in the mirror, I’m equally unsettled that I’m horrified at all.
Put simply, my sudden aging anxiety undermines not only much of what I believed about myself, but what I was taught. That there are more important things in life than physical beauty. That people, particularly women, are much more than their hip-to-waist ratios. My mother, whose beauty regimen consisted of soap, water and a little bit of Oil of Olay, never placed any sort of premium on physical attractiveness or ideas of conventional, Western beauty — her own or her daughters’ — for which I’m extremely grateful. But I’m not so sure that the message took.
It isn’t that I have nostalgia for being younger: Despite my slimmer figure and fuller lips, I hated my teens. My 20s, full of professional and personal minefields, weren’t much better. But the future looked bright: I had a pretty clear vision of what I would look like, literally and figuratively, in my 30s: Me, but better. My 40s are another matter. I don’t know what to expect. Perhaps this is the crux of the issue. Maybe my sudden self-doubt over my appearance is less about appearing physically diminished and more a reflection of my fear about moving into a stage of life that I don’t yet comprehend and certainly can’t predict.
Twenty years ago, feminist writer and activist Naomi Wolf published “The Beauty Myth,” a deeply felt and reported polemic on how standards of female attractiveness are used against women. (This past May, in honor of the book’s anniversary, Wolf wrote an essay for The Washington Post on the “Aging Myth,” which pushed back on the idea that women feel worse about themselves as they grow older.) Five years ago, Nora Ephron published the bestselling “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” a collection of essays about love, loss and aging. I reread both recently. Where Wolf’s book is academic and angry, Ephron’s is intimate and amusing. Both have a lot to say on the subject I’m suddenly so concerned about, much of it smart. Unfortunately, neither have helped me come to terms with my anxieties about appearing old. I just don’t see the beauty or humor in it. It feels, and looks, like ugly stuff.
I’m going back to the dermatologist at the end of the month. She’ll remove a mole from my leg, a skin tag from my shoulder blade, and maybe, just maybe, pump my face full of botulism toxin to paralyze the muscles in my forehead and smooth out the wrinkle (or two) above my brow. There are more pressing issues in the world with which to concern myself, I know, and things on which my disposable income is better spent. (The $400 price tag is a major factor in whether I’ll go through with it.) I also fear that my worrying about wrinkles is opening a Pandora’s box that I’ll never be able to shut, that five or 10 years from now I’ll have altered my features into the generic “Marcia Cross satanic face” that my friend Lizzie sees all over the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
But I don’t know if I can grow old gracefully or know what “gracefully” even means any more. The first step, I guess, is admitting I have a problem.