Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins
Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins

A friend snapped this photo of me last month at an event in Cambridge, New York at the home of writer Jon Katz and his wife, artist Maria Wulf.

Confession: seeing it the first time gave me a little jolt. I think many of us carry around an idea of how we look in our mind’s eye which may or may not have anything to do with our actual appearance. I think I have a reasonably true mental self-image, but it’s maybe a tad less wrinkled and grey than that woman in the photo.

I am actually growing more comfortable with the idea of ageing. I am not Botoxified (not holding anything against folks who are), I don’t have any kind of implants, I have not had things removed from my person (except once where there was some concern about a malignancy), and some time ago I made the decision to allow my hair to grey naturally, as the color I had used for the better part of a decade to maintain the super dark brown hair I’ve had all my life was starting to damage it. The result was that I looked, well, older than I did without fake color.

And I’m getting spots.

I once investigated what it would take to remove the spots (you know the ones I mean—the little brown splotchy things that start showing up sometime in your 40s). You need a chemical peel, my doctor explained, where your entire face essentially turns bright red for a couple of weeks and melts off, but ostensibly the effects of age and sun disappear and you’re left with skin as smooth as a baby’s butt.

I’ve known two people who had a chemical peel. Each of them came down with a horrible case of shingles afterwards. One of them suffered so much damage that she ended up for months undergoing expensive repair treatments in a faraway city.

I know: the sample size is way too small to be statistically significant. (At least, I think that is what I remember from my statistics class in grad school eons ago.) Still, no thanks. I will take the brown spots. They are a monument to all those hours I clocked doing fun stuff outside with my boy during his growing up years. (Yes, I used sunscreen.) For an even better celebration of wrinkles, take a look at this Huff Post article about art photography made using centenarians as subjects. I love the idea of wrinkles as art-worthy.

I went to NYC in 2010 to sit for the amazing young photographer Matthew Murphy for my headshots which I needed for my classical ballet curriculum vitae; the makeup artist who worked on me that day quipped, “Love the granite!” This was in reference to my hair, and it was a new one on me. I love it, too, actually. (Granite = timeless and classic; thank you, Alex Michaels.) It definitely suggests age, though, no way around it. Even if you are not all that old. (Anybody whose hair is really dark knows exactly what I mean; the first grey hair you sprout sticks out like a sore thumb. My dad plucked mine from my head on my high school graduation day while I stood in the sun in my cap and gown, waiting for him to snap my picture. So be it.)

The upshot is, I am okay with my grey hair, and my brown splotches, and my wrinkles. We’re all going there, Botox or not, chemical peel or not, like it or not.

This peace with ageing is huge for me. I grew up in a world where appearance is everything, where you work mainly naked in a roomful of mirrors, as I like to say, where you are under constant scrutiny by a very few people who are looking at how you are put together and how you move and who have the power to decide your future, and where you learn to scrutinize yourself even more. Ballet is unforgiving, although I will say that over the last couple of decades it has granted admission to body types and physical attributes that in a bygone era would have been passed over as imperfect in some important way. It’s the evolution of the species, we hope.

This is not a commentary about the self-image of young girls, or advertising, or unimaginable standards of beauty, or retouched photography that glorifies the perfect female body. I will leave that discussion to others. This is more about longevity and the vessel that we carry with us into our aged lives. I won’t champion any kind of philosophy that says, it’s okay to eat what you want and be obese as some kind of antithesis to skinny girl American pop culture. It’s not okay, your frame was not designed to sustain it. You will march through your years with all kinds of physical problems that are tied directly to weight. Your personal vessel will not serve you well, and it may in fact simply give up long before it’s due. I’ve got science to back me up on that.

It’s not only that I want to live for a very long time, I want to feel good on the journey. I feel much older than my years, though, thanks in no small part to more than a decade of trying to model a perfect fifth position for my students every day of the week (long past the time where I could reasonably do that), and several years spent running more than twenty-five miles weekly on a badly compromised foot, because the euphoria I felt from that seemed worth it. All this concerns me, more than a little.

I feel lucky beyond measure to embark on a new life with an incredible man, an amazing companion, and I am ecstatic that we see well past each other’s wrinkles. I just want us both to be around for some time to come, to enjoy the ride together.

I think it is possible for most of us to age gracefully, as they say. I nod to my own mom, who has held up quite well, now into her 70s. I wanted to post a photo of her with her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, at the school’s 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago. I could not obtain a copy of it but if you are of a mind, follow the link. When you open it, look in the sidebar on the right; scroll down to the box that says “Alumni Reunion Class Photos.” Clicking on the box opens a slide show; you’ll see mom in the first two pictures, front and center. She’s in the yellow shirt and she is totally rockin’ a plaid mini-skirt.

She’s also totally rockin’ her wrinkles.

6 thoughts on “My Ageing Dilemma

  1. What a fun *and funny), intelligent, thoughtful piece about the march of time. I laugh sometimes at the memory of being a teenager and wanting wrinkles so I could look like my fav old blues guitarists… full of wisdom and experience and street cred. I guess over the years I’ve earned those I have the real way.

    Well done. I hope and trust your piece gets a wide audience!

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