The worst thing about being a feminist in my 40s is having the confidence to say 40-something is a mindf***

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Sunlight shines sideways into my bathroom window, hitting my face from the right. Every day.

It did it again today, as it does, while I was getting ready to go see a movie with my husband, Ian. I looked in the mirror, as one does, and

I froze.

I leaned in, looked closer.

“Oh…,” I thought. “Oh, no.”

You’re a feminist, I thought then. This should not, cannot bother you. You are more than this. You are better than this.

Conditioning whispered, “Yes, but all those magazines…commercials…TV shows and movies you’ve been watching since you were in Velcro sneakers…they’ve taught you to believe…”

I turned my head right, then left.

If I could just get the light right. If the light hit it perfectly so and it disappeared, it wouldn’t really be there. (It can’t be there. It can’t! I, myself, am not ‘there.’ Am I?) Much like when one mirror doesn’t reflect what you hope to see in your hair, face, or outfit, you march to that other room to stand in front of that other mirror that consistently delivers the superior, and therefore accurate, reflection.

But I couldn’t get the light right enough.

It *was* there. Just enough of it that I could pull it taut.

If this is starting now, at 43

You will not consider plastic surgery. Not now, not at 53, and not at 58 or 65, feminist me commanded. You are not that person. Every mature woman you’ve ever admired has aged naturally, confidently [or have they, confidently?]. The only ones who disappointed you when it comes to this specific thing were those who eventually succumbed to insecurities that were undoubtedly driven by the cruel and ridiculous — and profitable — notion that women aren’t permitted to age. You will not allow that absurd conditioning to persuade you to have your flesh cut and stretched and stitched for vanity.

There had been other signs. Of “aging.” A gradually widening bit of gray in my hair. Fine lines finding new places to spread around my eyes.

But this was different.

This was my neck.

How old was Diane Keaton when she started wearing turtlenecks?

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“If it turns out that you begin to wear turtlenecks as often as I do, and you’re my age, and you’re not Cary Grant, you will run the risk of receiving a fair amount of criticism.” — Diane Keaton

But I wasn’t her age. Not even close.

I told myself it was fine. Exciting, even. It was change. Something new. Something I would get to see happen that those not lucky enough to live past 30 would never see in themselves. Life was all that mattered, and I was living it. Quite happily, even!

I heard Ian come up the stairs. He appeared in the doorway, and I left the bathroom mirror to stand in front of him.

“I’ll only ask you this once,” I said, “and then I’ll never ask again.”

He looked at me like I was about to accuse him of something. He said, cautiously, “Okay…?”

“Will you — ”

My lips started hyper-twitching. My eyes burned and watered.

“What?” he said. “What’s wrong?”

Through tears and a contorted mouth, I said in the pathetic, weak voice that struggles through crying, “Will you still find me attractive when I start looking old?”

This is so stupid, feminist me thought as he pulled me into a beautiful, genuine hug. Yes, okay, of course I want him to find me attractive, because we want our partners to be attracted to us. And because he does love me, isn’t this a non-issue?

Probably, socialized me reasoned. But…well, hasn’t everything you’ve ever learned from almost everything you’ve ever read or seen prepared you for your forties? This is when men in their forties married to women in their forties start to leer at women in their 20s, when gray in a woman’s hair and lines on her face are the physical evidence of her period of irrelevance. And not when it comes to men — although, yes, that too; however, a “good” feminist doesn’t care what men think, isn’t that right? — but in general.

Was this the start of my irrelevance?

“You don’t look old,” he said, stepping away, looking at me. Not to assess, but to make eye contact.

“Maybe not so much right now.” My lips spasmed and twitched. “But it’s starting,” burning eyes again, “and it’s only going to get worse.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” He smiled, playful. “As long as you can overlook all the affairs I’ll be having.”

Somewhat recently, articles about or essays by women in their forties and older have done their best to help similar-aged women deal with not being under 30.

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They rang true the year I turned forty. It was my first year, so I thought, “Woah. I’m, like, a legit adult.”

But now, headlines read —

Women feel most confident at 40” … and I stress over how to to wear what I like without being perceived by others as someone “trying to look young.”

“20 Reasons I’m Happy to be in My Forties” provides the kind of upbeat, positive thinking I genuinely believed would be my own, but I’m finding that although I certainly don’t spend most days worrying what others think of me and am actually capable of seeing age marks on my face as “evidence of lifelines; joy’s, sorrows, and a life fully lived with all its spectrum of experiences,” there are also days when I call bullshit on all that. Blah blah experience, blah blah joy and sorrow. I’m looking undeniably OLDER, and not in the “Yay, I’m 16 and look 21!” way. A certain old is BAD for a woman, ammiright advertisers? Movies? Magazines? Employers? Everyday sexists?

It disappoints me, even disgusts me, that I’m bothered by aesthetic aging. However.

This is what I have been raised — not by any parent, but in this society — to accept as true:

  1. A woman’s greatest asset is her appearance. It is where her true (perceived) value lives. (We women like to pretend we don’t believe that, but we’ll post pictures of our bodies to tell people our bodies are beautiful in any shape while simultaneously demanding people stop insisting on focusing on our bodies.)
  2. Beauty=youth. REDBOOK: “How to Look Younger than Your Age.” BESTLIFE: “40 Ways to Look Younger After 40.” ALLURE: “25 Easy Ways to Look Younger Now.” PREVENTION: “18 Little Ways to Look Younger on a Budget.” READER’S DIGEST: “How to Look Younger: 10 Secrets Even Your Best Friend Doesn’t Know.” Etc. ad nauseam.

That kind of lifelong training is hard to fight. My moments of deeper clarity (None of this matters!) are poked at by reflexive stabs of horror that the irreversible has arrived. Only a foot in the door, but the kind of foot that blocks the door from closing no matter how hard or how many times you try to slam it shut.

Ian and I saw our movie (Annihilation — should have waited until it came out on demand), and when we got home, he did his thing on his iPad and I did mine. Mine involved happening upon this video about Isabella Rossellini’s return to Lancôme after the company let her go at 42 because she was “ too old to represent women’s dreams” to be young.

The timing for my seeing this could not have been more perfect.

It’s encouraging to see women helping move the perception of women and the duration of our perceived relevance in a more reasonable direction.

So, now we can age.

But we should probably still try to do it prettily.

Written by

Author, THE AGE OF THE CHILD & others. Former adjunct prof & journo. Co-host, ChildfreeGirls series:

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