The Age of Woman

Nora Ephron signs a copy of her new book,
Nora Ephron signs a copy of her new book, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," for Patricia Fitzgerald of Reston at the D.C. Community Jewish Center yesterday. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

In her new book on getting older, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," 65-year-old Nora Ephron details the things she does to keep herself from aging. She diets, has a trainer and a treadmill. She has her hair professionally styled twice a week and a filler called Restylane injected into her chin. She's had fat shot into her lips once and Botox in her forehead twice. She cabs across Manhattan to have the hairs on her upper lip yanked out. She paid more than $20,000 to have her teeth completely overhauled.

Every six weeks, she has her hair cut (this takes an hour and costs $125), and has it dyed and highlighted (this takes three hours and costs $300). If you figure she leaves a juicy tip, this comes to 35 hours and $4,420 a year spent treading water just to stay in place.

These revelations make us wonder: When does it end? Is there some point in our lives -- and we're talking to other women, of course; men, you can go read Shales's TV previews -- when we get to abandon this exhausting doggypaddle and sink into a dignified old age? Could we perhaps form a committee and decide on an age when we get to give up? How does everyone feel about 78?

Recently, Ephron -- who's been on a diet since college -- decided to permit herself to eat more bread. She also decided she's no longer going to force herself into size 8 clothes.

"I just decided to become a 10," she says this week, eating salad in the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown during the first leg of her book tour. (Her book is No. 1 for hardcover nonfiction on the New York Times Best Sellers list.) "If I'm a 10, I won't see this roll around my waist because my clothes will be larger."

This, presumably, is something of an epiphany, akin to leaving a no-good lover or realizing that despite one's attempts at culinary sophistication, one thinks caviar tastes like sweaty feet. But the epiphany feels empty. Does it take the wisdom of 65 years just to accept that one has moved up a size?

* * *

She's let herself go. Back when people said that sort of thing, that phrase always sounded suspicious and accusatory , as if the she in question were a witch, as if her lack of lipstick threatened to upset the order of polite society. ( Why is she allowed to do that? Does she know something we don't? )

Maybe it was fear of letting oneself go that kept certain women wearing girdles long after the younger generation had abandoned that fashion. To let oneself go was to jiggle. To let oneself go was to step out of the house without one's face on. Society isn't as strict about certain rules these days as it used to be (witness boxer shorts in public), but the tyranny of youth makes things hard in different ways. Because we can make ourselves look younger, now we are obligated to do it, just to keep ourselves looking like everyone else our age, all of whom look 10 years younger than they would have 50 years ago.

The thing is, it's not just the post-menopausal women who are engaged in what Ephron calls "maintenance." For those in their twenties and thirties, applying eye cream and acid peels -- and obsessively studying their pores in magnifying mirrors as Charlotte of "Sex and the City" used to do -- is akin to teenagers taking calcium to prevent osteoporosis in old age. It's preventative. The maintenance mind-set is a pervasive approach of frequent tuneups and occasional overhauls. It starts early, with those little-girl diets. There are women who move from treating their adolesecent acne straight into treating their adult acne. It never lets up.

Ephron remarks that since 40 is the new 30 and 6 is the new 16, "no one knows which direction it's going in." But we all know what direction it's going in. It's going toward a notion we have of some golden, un-self-conscious perfection, that age when tautness and plumpness coexist, when absolutely nothing (not even makeup) is needed to make one beautiful -- that age no one appreciates till it's over.

(What happens, by the way, when the women moving downward and the girls moving upward collide? Is there some sort of explosion that shatters the principles of linear time?)

Ephron says she'd do plastic surgery if she had the sort of face that could survive it, but she finds the "plumping" approach better for her features. In a talk at the D.C. Community Jewish Center yesterday, the author and filmmaker, who became famous for the novel "Heartburn" and the movie "When Harry Met Sally" said she wrote the essays in "I Feel Bad About My Neck" as an honest antidote to books with titles like "The Joy of Menopause." Aging is hard, she said. One's neck gets all wrinkly. She advised audience members never to "let anyone ever take a picture of you who is not at least a foot above you." She described how she fearfully squints in the mirror. She complained about her elbows and "that thing that happens right on top of your knees."

It was funny, and the audience of mostly post-menopausal women got it, but in print these quotes look starker and sadder. There's something so self-denying about it all, about all that body shame and all those years avoiding bread. There must be some point in our lives when we become one with our age spots, some point when we take the bravest step of all and buy several pairs of pants with elastic waists.


We think despairingly of over-the-hill Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," with her army of beauty experts preparing for her "comeback." They study her skin. They swaddle her head. (God knows why -- some 1950 solution to sagging skin.) Her eyebrows are so theatrically arched they're almost at her hairline. She watches movies of her younger self.

Is it still considered jealousy when the object of one's jealousy is oneself?

Or is it not a matter of getting one's youth back at all? Maybe it's that after a certain number of years, we don't recognize ourselves anymore. We just want to see that old familiar self in the mirror without squinting.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company