It’s my birthday today. I’m 36.
I love my birthday. I tend to impose a lot of rules on myself in my day-to-day life and I lift all of them at once on my birthday. It’s the best. So regardless of anything else that happens – dinners, parties, presents – I know that at the very least, I can have carbs for all three meals if I want. Or I can have a wine or two, even if it’s a Tuesday. Or I can watch television during the day. Somebody stop me.
Recently I’ve been trying to be more open about my age. I’ve never been hugely coy about it, but I’ve definitely been going out of my way to say it out loud more and more.
I have two motivations for this:
- It’s a bit like Dumbledore encouraging people to use Voldemort’s real name – saying it out loud takes the fear away. (Which admittedly, is a reference that probably dates me quite accurately with my having to say my actual age at all); and
- I’m increasingly aware that it is apparently not okay that I am ageing, and facing up to this reality at every incidental opportunity helps me keep my sanity in a world that seems to insist that I remain youthful at all costs.
Let me give you an example.
At the beginning of 2015, my family and I moved to Auckland and we lived there for three years. One of the most striking things I noticed when we moved back to Melbourne, was how many of my local shops and businesses had been replaced by pseudo-medical skin care clinics.
I say pseudo-medical because in my research I looked at a few websites and one of them had a picture of a staff member wearing a lab coat (the definition of science and medicine), paired with some super cute open-toe high heels (not at all science-y – or hygienic – as it happens).
You know the ones I mean, they have white sterile walls, impossibly beautiful front-of-house staff and passive aggressive shop window advertising that makes you feel inadequate and like shit, basically.
For me, this is a terrifying trend.
When I was younger there were already so many expectations on me with regards to the minimum-level of effort I had to put into my appearance: wear clothes (legal requirement, no actual objections here), said clothes should be nice and preferably gender normative (murkier), cleanse, exfoliate, tone, moisturise and make up face, cut, file and polish nails, wash, cut, dye and style hair, remove other offensive hair (where offence is caused solely by natural growth location), tan said hairless skin… the list seemed endless. It was then, and continues to be now, completely overwhelming and takes a financial toll that I have never really been comfortable enduring.
And just when I felt mildly comfortable with my tenuous grasp on meeting all of these requirements, I find I can’t swing a cat without hitting one of these skin care clinics and feeling like I’ve fallen behind, yet again.
I know these places have always existed, my concern is the terrifying normalisation of them. They are in your local Westfield – in multiple quantities. They’re in your neighbourhood strip of shops, in between the dentist and the milk bar. And it is this very relocation of them from the high streets of Toorak and South Yarra, into the mainstream that sends the message that this is what everyone is doing now. It’s not enough to pull the hairs out of your legs with boiling hot strips of wax. You’re meant to be blasting them out from the roots with lasers. It’s not enough to fill your enlarged pores with Spakfilla/make up, you’re meant to be shrinking them away with a patented combination of skin needling and chemical peels.
The presence in our actual lives of these and other services is then underscored by the relentless touting of them in the media (social and otherwise), as well as the very limited representation of women that seem to embrace the natural ageing process. All put together, it’s a powerful subconscious message and a toxic cocktail for anyone trying to live their life with any semblance of self-esteem.
Because all these things that we do, from the simple, to the pseudo-medical, to the actual-medical are aimed at the same objective: stop/slow/disguise/deny the process of ageing. Some of them are actually even marketed in those exact words. Which seems ridiculous to me because WE ALL AGE. It is possibly one of the only truly universal human conditions. Ageing is an actual thing that happens, and it’s nobody’s fault. Can we just say that again? Ageing is not your fault. It’s the way we are designed. I can’t work out at what point we let it become a thing for which we felt the need to apologise.
It got me to thinking about what life would be like for my three-year-old daughter when she grows up and what her list of self-maintenance expectations might look like.
And then I thought, screw her: this is actually a problem for me, right now. In the present.
Because the thing is, although I am aware of the collective effect of all these sub-conscious messages, I’m not immune.
I try to imagine how ridiculous it would be if I saw monkeys in the wild daily disguising their grey patches of fur with sticky leaves or some other such garbage, I use this approach to contextualise the unnecessary complication of it, but to be honest, I’m only partly successful. Some of these ‘beauty’ requirements are so deeply ingrained in me that I’ve given up any hope of ever getting them out of my system so I just carry on with them, to save myself the heartache not only of doing the required beauty maintenance, but of having to berate myself in the process.
So what I do hope for my daughter, is that she grows up to either be better at managing (read: ignoring) these expectations than me, or that she grows up to be one of these people who genuinely enjoy these processes. And I know that these people exist. I know plenty of people personally who get a lot of joy out of the process of self-care and out of finding a way to feel comfortable in their skin. Literally. It just took me until very recently to realise that I am not one of them and that’s okay.
Which brings me back to my birthday. I’ve always loved my birthday but it’s really only this year that I’ve worked out why. I love my birthday because it’s the one opportunity I get to celebrate the ageing process. It’s the one day in 365 when the world congratulates me for ageing, rather than tut-tut-tutting at me for it. My birthday is a day when I call a ceasefire on the warfare between my human-ness (who absolutely ages) and my brain (who is conditioned to be in denial). It is a celebration of an alternative view: that it’s okay to embrace your age. It’s my birthday, I’m 36, and I’m not sorry.
(Also I really like the presents.)
PS In the words of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, although more-widely publicized by Baz Luhrmann: wear sunscreen. Obviously, I am not railing against those things we do that stop us from dying prematurely. K?