Dispatch #25: A Thinkle in Time
Too many words on aging
I was about twenty-seven years old when I noticed my first wrinkle. Those of you with darker skin, those of you who didn’t grow up in a sunny place, those of you who used a parasol all your life, might think this is too young to wither on the vine, but I am fair-skinned and freckled, and in Southern California, sans parasol (though I do wear sunscreen). The wrinkles come calling early for my kind.
Baby’s first wrinkle was between the eyes, created from furrowing my brow, which is the face I make whenever I’m speaking, or listening, or expressing concern, or thinking, or reading. So, basically, the face I’m making at least sixty to seventy percent of the time. I call it the thinking wrinkle, or, The Thinkle.
A Thinkle in Time is the name of my face’s memoir.
Many women complain about their “elevens,” named for the two parallel lines between the eyes. But my Thinkle is more like a lightning bolt as it crashes to earth and forks into a V. When this wrinkle arrived, wow, was I not ready for it. I felt so young! I wasn’t even thirty yet! It felt like no one else my age possessed such a wrinkle. I cursed my fair skin, my expressive face, my golden state. I wished the wrinkle away, even as I taught myself to accept it. I invited it in. I let it be part of me. It was a mark from my past existing in the present, like light from a distant star.
Sounds poetic, but it wasn’t easy.
This month I turned 42 and I laugh at how much I fretted over a single wrinkle. Now I have loads of wrinkles, and in ten years, in twenty years, in thirty, I’ll laugh at how I felt at 42. You call THAT wrinkly, I’ll think. Just wait, you youngster!
But, it must be said, I am wrinkled at 42—and I’m pretty sure I’m more wrinkled than most of my peers. I am! I’ve got the Thinkle, yes. But I’ve also got crow’s feet. Not only those, I have these slashing lines that cross my crow’s feet, time’s tic-tac-toe. I’ve got some tiny confetti wrinkles at the bridge of my nose, which come from scrunching up my face as I laugh. I’ve got the lines across my forehead. My eyelids are pleated and sagging. I have some hatch marks around my lips like a stern school marm in a movie. Don’t talk to me about my neck. I’m starting to get some long wrinkles from my jaw into my cheeks. I am vain about my cheeks, which are smooth and freckly and nicely pink most days. It’s going to be difficult to let go of these cheeks. But let go I will.
Why? Why not, you ask, don’t I just get Botox? At least for now. To help matters.
Ugh, Botox. Prepare for my diatribe.
It’s tricky. I dye my hair and spend a lot of money to get it cut and styled. I get my brows waxed. I wear make-up, not very much—or maybe not enough by some people’s standards—but I do wear it. I shave my legs, my underarms. In the past, I’ve purchased expensive creams (ahem, cremes) for my face. It’s all in the name of beauty.
Botox could be another beauty ritual in a long list of beauty rituals I participate in. For many, it’s exactly that.
Is it just me, or is Botox becoming more and more commonplace? In some circles, it’s become…expected.
[Pause here, to say, yes, I know, I know, I live in LA, an historically image-obsessed town. I don’t think this is an LA-specific phenomenon, however. I know women who aren’t in LA who rely on Botox.]
Well, Botox is not for me. Call it an arbitrary line, but I draw it at paying someone to inject needles with paralyzing toxins into my face in the name of beauty. I’d rather be seeing a friend, or drinking a coffee, or going on a walk, or cuddling with my children, or writing, or having an orgasm, or reading a book, or looking at my withered reflection in the mirror as it melts away, thinking, “Well, that’s me!”
I joke that the look I’m going for is Sexy Pioneer Woman.
Of course, Judith Butler taught me that I’m inside of culture like everyone else, that I can’t stand apart from it, and that, like everyone else, I’m wading in its impossible sexist standards, so of course I’d rather be someone who doesn’t “need” Botox. Culture tells us we all should be having orgasms instead of getting Botox—not because we’re rejecting the idea of an unlined face, but because we simply have an unlined face—and naturally. As Jessica DeFino writes in her newsletter, The Unpublishable, “Women are encouraged to participate in the system but also, to make it appear as if they aren’t participating in the system at all.”
So, yes, part of me would rather just be someone who doesn’t “need” Botox. But, look, I know I “need” Botox and I’m still not going to get it. Is that decision political? Sort of. It’s certainly emotional. And, also, in the end, it’s an aesthetic choice too.
I consider myself an authentic person who wants to move through the experiences of life open-eyed (saggy eyelids and all). Part of that, to me, is witnessing my face as it changes, as it ages. To respond to it, to feel it, to grieve what’s lost and to accept, even embrace, what’s in its place. I consider this an essential part of life: to be in one’s body, as it is, right now. The body is not static. I want to learn that lesson, as hard as it is. And I’m dragging this lesson through the world for everyone else to look at too.
This is my own personal line that I’m drawing; do what you want with your own face. I do, however, believe that a “personal” choice like Botox does reverberate in the culture. Individual actions, even if made under the duress of oppressive power structures, create meaning, expectation, and bolster said power structures. They have consequences.
When Madonna showed her drastically changed faced at the Grammys, many were shocked and appalled. They laughed, they gasped, they were horrified. And then there were those who applauded her face. In the New York Times, novelist Jennifer Weiner chose to see Madonna’s transformation as subversive, as yet another evolution of Madonna, world famous shapeshifting performance artist. “If beauty is a construct,” Weiner writes, “Madonna’s the one who put its scaffolding on display.”
I find this a fun interpretation of Madonna’s current face; I will always enjoy analyzing Madonna as an artist who insists that her body be the text. But I think the aforementioned Jessica DeFino’s reading of Madonna’s face is the more nuanced and realistic one. First, echoing Weiner, DeFino writes: “People are upset by Madonna’s new face, I think, because it exposes this labor.” By “this labor,” DeFino means the daily work of looking young and beautiful—while trying to make such labor invisible.
However, DeFino doesn’t applaud Madonna, or call her plastic surgery art, or claim it’s subversive. And she argues that it’s okay to critique Madonna’s face.
She goes on to argue:
It is not sexist to call attention to the ways in which prominent women are compelled to manipulate their faces — particularly when those women have a track record of influencing popular culture, particularly when the process of mechanical manipulation defies the physical limits of the human body and the financial limits of the majority of the population and comes with a laundry list of potential risks. What’s sexist is furthering the already-impossible appearance ideals that women are disproportionately expected to emulate (or else suffer the social, financial, political, and psychological consequences of non-compliance). What’s sexist is discouraging people from discussing it by co-opting the language of gender discrimination.
(I urge you to read the whole essay.)
The thing about Madonna, and so many women who get a ton of “work” done is that it doesn’t make anyone look younger. It makes them look rich. Plastic surgery, when you get a lot of it, signifies not youth, but affluence. And, anyway, Madonna’s work—which is so drastic she resembles one of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram self-portraits—is less insidious to me precisely because it’s out in the open. It’s so extreme that it could be read as performance art, as Weiner read it.
I consider a minimally invasive treatment like Botox (and, I guess, fillers) more harmful to culture and women because it’s practically invisible, and the more we see unlined faces, the more they’re regarded as typical. A wrinkled face becomes the exception, the anomaly, the malady, the disease, the moral failing.
And there’s this: Have you ever stopped to consider why some wrinkles on a woman’s face are more acceptable than others? Anyone who does a touch of Botox gets rid of their Thinkle. But they often leave their crow’s feet untouched.
Let that sink in: We’re allowed to have wrinkles that come from smiling, but not the wrinkles that come from thinking.
I’m frankly tired of seeing women my age (and older) with curated wrinkles. There are a few lines by the eyes but the forehead is baby smooth. These same women, I assume, would not want Madonna’s face. That, oh no, not that. That’s gone too far.
But the curated wrinkle, when iterated enough by a group of regular people (the non-famous, the non-Madonnas) creates an unreasonable expectation for all of us. We begin to believe that the face should age in a delightful, “pretty” way, that the forehead should remain smooth well into middle age.
(Fast forward to a fair-skinned girl in her late twenties finding a wrinkle on her forehead and thinking, “What is wrong with me?”)
My friend said that she looked around the room at a PTA meeting and saw rows of gleaming, taut foreheads. It was as if those foreheads were saying: No worrying to see here! Never mind the endless pandemic and a season of scary illnesses, no paid parental leave, a real life Airborne Toxic Event in Ohio, rising sea levels, the deaths from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the havoc and terror that is climate change. Nope! Not here! We are untouched. We are serene. We are smiling!!!
I guess I want a less managed face. And maybe, just maybe, that less-managed face, the face that is forever moving toward death, even as it’s vibrantly alive, is one you must actively engage with, struggle with and against. Maybe it is political.
Here are some stories—
My daughter, who is seven, always asks me, of celebrities, of people she sees on the street: “Does she take Botox? How about her?” She also asks me: “Why don’t you take Botox?” I try to explain. She finds my wrinkles, like my moles, like the cellulite on my ass, revolting. Okay fine. Fair. But even as she is repulsed by me, she is also witnessing me accepting myself, even loving, myself. That’s not nothing.
I say to her, “I’m the subject, not the object. Be the subject, in your life, not the object!”
And she gets annoyed and says: “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MOM? TALK NORMAL!”
My youngest, who is now three-and-a-half says, “I love your face. It’s a cute face,” and he kisses it. He grabs at the slack neck skin I sometimes wish away and sighs with happiness.
I look at the skin of my children and I sigh at its perfection. And I think: I had that once. And there is nothing—nothing—that will give it back.
Anyway, I’ve decided that I don’t like how Botox looks, not when there is just no possible way you wouldn’t have a wrinkle there or there or there. It renders one gleaming and smooth, it gives one an uncanny valley face.
In grad school I had a friend who dated older men. He was into, as he said, “the aesthetics of aging.”
Maybe I’m into the aesthetics of aging too.
It’s interesting that Botox doesn’t make someone look younger. Not really, not for long. Somehow, some way, age shows. Is it the hollow? The sag? The demeanor? The mantle of time upon one’s visage? A face that has resisted what can’t be resisted feels sad to me.
That’s why I believe (or, ha, must force myself to believe, so I can keep being excited to have a face as I age) that wrinkles are going to come into style. Not for long, obviously, as our culture values youth above all. But I foresee a moment when someone beautiful and powerful will allow herself to wrinkle, and it’ll be seen as a mark of independence, of confidence. (And not just a curation of wrinkles, but the death slide of wrinkles that, if we’re lucky, is coming for us all.)
Here are some wrinkled faces I love:
Steve Kerr’s mom, Ann Kerr.
Georgia O’Keefe, obviously:
Toni Morrison—I may have more wrinkles than Toni M. has in this photo, but wow, how majestic is she:
This week I met up with an old friend and I saw how much older she looked than the teenage girl she used to be. It was a comfort to me, that she’d let her face age. She was still recognizable, yet different, and she had this terrific face for me to look at and negotiate. I loved looking at her. I was so happy to look at her.
Okay, but Edan, don’t be naive! This isn’t only about aesthetics!
Another challenging element of aging is coming to terms with the power I’m giving up. Some of the ease that I felt, moving through the world as a younger woman: it’s going away, floating beyond my reach, and I, I, I’m not ready—I’m trying to be, but I’m not—and before I know it, oh, oh—it’ll be gone. It’s hard to even accept that I had/have that privilege at all, that it was, indeed, a power I wielded. How gross. And to acknowledge the ways that I, in my youth, might have dismissed an older person—an older woman; to know for sure that many will see me as irrelevant because I myself have done it without thinking: I’ve considered older women irrelevant in this way. To see one’s own misogyny plainly. What a bitter pill to swallow.
(I wrote the above in second person and then changed it to first because I want to be transparent, and I’m not trying to make you complicit.)
This piece by Jessica Grose: “The House Between Babe and Crone” gets at the wider implications of aging in the workplace and beyond. She writes:
My other wish is that we recognize that there’s only so far we can go as individuals toward embracing our aging selves, or our “inner hag,” as the psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie suggests. Though it’s important for us to find power and confidence in aging, all the personal growth in the world won’t prevent society’s cocktail of sexism and ageism from affecting us if we have to make a living. As we get inundated with a barrage of “new year, new you” content, it’s essential that we recognize there’s only so far self-actualization can take us.
Let me repeat this: “all the personal growth in the world won’t prevent society’s cocktail of sexism and ageism from affecting us if we have to make a living.” This was a chilling slap, a reminder that aging is a privilege for those who are “allowed” to do so, without giving something up professionally or personally. In this piece, Grose talks about young women having to put up with sexual advances and/or not being taken seriously in the workplace, only to age out of that role and into one where they’re rejected for…being old. That starts as early as age 45. Oof.
While this particular issue isn’t relevant to my work life, I have been thinking about how Time’s Mouth will be my first book I’m publishing in my forties. I wonder: as I age, what will the publicity opportunities look like? How will I feel about getting new author photos as I get older? Sure, I’m ready to step into my power and wisdom as a more experienced author, with multiple books and the gnarled brow to show it. But that requires some kind of knighting from the literary world, doesn’t it?
I’ve thought about it in teaching, too. This year is the first year where I feel too old to rely on my cute, comedic style of teaching: do a jig, drop some F-bombs, be accessible, have fun, dig into texts. I’m worried that style of teaching doesn’t translate, or in a decade it won’t. Is there an expiration date on such a thing?
I don’t have any answers, I guess, only questions.
About five years ago, Patrick and I went to a concert. We had a joint we wanted to smoke beforehand, and so we came up to some people smoking cigarettes, and asked them for a light. We shared our joint with them, and then one of them, a woman in her early twenties, said, “You guys are such cool old people.”
Um, excuse me?
And a final story—
Last weekend, Patrick and I went to dinner and then to a bar next door. I wore a black jumpsuit, ankle boots, and big blue hoop earrings. Patrick was in a button down and a tweed blazer. It was our first time drinking inside a bar since COVID and I was exhilarated by it all: the dim lighting, the fancy drinks, the single people chatting each other up, the tattooed bartenders, the partially-peeled lemons balding at their prep station.
This cute gay guy needed a drinks menu and we got to talking. He told us he was 32. He wanted to guess our occupations. He guessed I was an art gallery owner and that Patrick was an agent. I laughed so hard, delighted that he thought I was an art gallery owner: like a protagonist (a villain?) in a bad Rom Com! How great!
The guy kept telling us we were hot. He said, “You’re beautiful! Go home and fuck all night!” We were laughing.
I think he was sincere. Maybe? Perhaps he was being condescending. Us middle-aged people in a bar, how precious.
He was definitely drunk.
Whatever. We were beautiful. We should fuck all night.
Anyway—How’s your face?