I have a theory – largely untested – that everyone is mentally “stuck” at a certain age: the one that best reflects their outlook. Mine is 17. At my core, I see myself as youthful, enthusiastic and not yet tainted by the bitterness of experience. I’m optimistic and forward-looking. A woman in my prime.
But increasingly, the face and form I see reflected back in the mirror are none of those things. At first I blame harsh lighting for my transformation. Then I realise it’s natural light coming in from the skylight, not the gentle artificial light of a boutique store change room. There is, quite simply, nowhere to hide.
Accidental encounters with our semi-naked bodies and unadorned faces can be enough to send us down a black hole
Kids, don’t believe anyone who tells you age is just a number. Because when you reach your senior years, you will understand it is anything but just a number. It’s thickening and thinning in all the wrong places, it’s horrible old toenails and brittle teeth. It’s furrows and jowls that don’t belong to you but to some unrecognisable future version of you that you never actually expected to meet.
Age is just a number. Until it’s not.
Working from home has made the descent into decrepitude harder to avoid. With time on our hands, we may accidentally linger – half dressed – in front of the full-length mirror instead of throwing on our work clothes and racing out the door. Accidental encounters with our semi-naked bodies and unadorned faces can be enough to send us down a black hole of despair.
In desperation, I contact a beautician friend of mine. She lists the potions available to me and their chemical composition: some snake oil, others with proven results. All hideously expensive. I tell her to put together a package. Eye-wateringly expensive, but she tells me that active tear ducts are a good thing at any age. Any pain my credit card feels is over in an instant. I totter out of the salon, clutching the equivalent of next month’s mortgage to my disastrously dehydrated chest.
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Full of enthusiasm, I put aside some time – morning and night – for my new beauty regime. I cleanse, pat, smooth and moisturise. After three days, I think I detect a new glow. Or maybe it’s the oily vitamin C serum that I administer with a dropper into the palm of one hand, smooth into the palm of the other and apply liberally to face, neck and newly hydrated chest. Then – after letting the bottle slip from my oily grasp – to bathroom floor.
I drop commando-style to the slate floor and try – and fail – to suck up the serum using the tiny dropper, so I can squeeze it back into the miraculously unbroken bottle. I can now attest that not only is C serum the most expensive floor cleaner you’ll ever use, it’s also the least effective. As I rest my cheek in the pool of C serum on the bathroom floor in a vain attempt to absorb what’s left of my expensive investment, I contemplate my options.
If I can’t stop the ageing process, I can ignore it completely
If I was living in a jungle, I tell myself, I’d be the happiest, most clueless animal of them all. I wouldn’t even be able to see my reflection clearly in the water hole. My shortsightedness – another age-related flaw – would be an asset (unless of course I was being stalked by a predator, but right now that seems like the lesser of two evils).
I think I’m on to something. If I can’t stop the ageing process, I can ignore it completely. I can avoid looking at mirrors and stop wearing my glasses. But first, I must look at my reflection long enough to pat dry my oily cheeks and wipe away the fluff and stray whisps of dental floss gathered thereon.
Studying my flawed visage in closeup for what I think will be the last time, I see the scar on my top lip from the time, as a very small girl, I tripped in the dark. I remember how it bled and bled while I curled up in my mother’s arms by the fire.
I turn my head slightly for a closer look and feel the familiar twinge in my neck. It takes me back to a trip along a country road a decade ago and the sound of the impact when the car I was driving was T-boned at high speed and sent – speeding and out of my control – into a field full of trees. My neck was broken in two places but my survival was a matter of incredible luck – a couple of milliseconds either way. That I lived long enough to see my children grow up is little short of a miracle.
I gaze at my face and see it for what it is: the evidence of a life well-lived, a canvas that is no longer blank, its brushstrokes a reflection of every bit of my brilliant, mundane, wonderful life. Age isn’t just a number; it’s a tally of the sunsets we’ve witnessed, the paths we’ve trodden and the times we’ve shared with the people we love. It’s watching our children grow to adulthood and getting to know the grandchildren we wouldn’t otherwise have met.
Older age isn’t just a number. It’s a privilege. And so is the freedom that comes with it, including the freedom to spend the inheritance of those children and grandchildren on overpriced placebo potions. So I’ll continue to cleanse, pat, smooth and moisturise. Out of respect for the offspring, it’s the least I can do.