Earlier this month, we profiled Nina Collins, founder of the Facebook group What Would Virginia Woolf Do? and author of a new book by the same name. We eagerly read the book and found ourselves laughing out loud, cringing through parts we didn’t want to be true, and thinking, This book is exactly what I needed! What follows is an excerpt from the book, which you can buy right now.
If you’ve ever sat by the bed of an ancient dying person, it’s staggering to ponder the growth and disintegration of the body from birth to death. As we age, we literally shrink and shrivel up, and frankly, the process is often not so pretty. Aging is indisputably cruel in certain ways, and the changes to our appearance, while superficial, are dramatic. More than halfway along this trajectory, I’m plenty aware of the changes in my own looks and the waning of my physical beauty. My breasts sag, and one of them has a permanent divot from a surgical breast biopsy I had in my 30s (benign, knock on wood). Oddly, luckily, I’m not yet gray, but of course that will come, and my hair has become duller and thinner than it was for sure. My face, with new lines and changing contours, seems to be aging at a precipitous rate. And no matter how hard I exercise, my body has lost its tautness; soon the best word to describe my skin will be “slack.” This is all an unavoidable reality: Each of us will eventually, if we live long enough, come to resemble our mothers, and then our grandmothers, and then we will die.
Given that this is a natural progression, and one that we actually hope to experience as long as we can, I feel pressure to be a good role model to my daughters in this regard. I don’t complain to them about being old, or about my lines and scars or general feelings about my fading looks. I try to model strength and grace and pride in my appearance because that is what I hope for them at every stage throughout their lives. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not noticing what’s happening to me or having twinges of sadness about it. When I think about why I’m feeling this way, it really is about mortality and the realization that we’re all going in one direction. Recently I went to a neighborhood cocktail party full of people I’ve known casually for almost 20 years. I noticed age spots on more than one hand, and receding gums, and straw-like gray hair. It was disconcerting to me; I admit it. Fading looks point to fading life, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Recently I went to a neighborhood cocktail party full of people I’ve known casually for almost 20 years. I noticed age spots on more than one hand, and receding gums, and straw-like gray hair. It was disconcerting to me; I admit it. Fading looks point to fading life, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Women are not alone in facing the melancholy trio of beauty, aging, and death — men feel it, too — but for us, because of societal expectations and pressures, the changes in physical appearance that happen at midlife often come with feelings of panic, even for those of us who never seemed all that invested in our looks to begin with. This conundrum comes up all the time in the group. One day my friend Jan, a woman who has sworn her whole life by an ascetic facial regimen of Ivory soap and water, looked at herself in the harsh early-morning light of winter, and all of a sudden saw in the bathroom mirror droopy and asymmetrical eyelid folds and ever-so-slightly bumpy under-eye pooches. Her heart gripped in fear, she called me in a near-hysterical state, suddenly fixated on finding a “miracle” eye cream, no matter the cost. I totally relate to her crisis: The lines under my eyes are more like creases or indentations — I’m not sure how else to describe them. They look like I slept on a pillow full of rocks in the back of a truck for 10 hours. They started only under my right eye about two years ago, but now are under both, and these aren’t bags; they are funky patterned lines and I have no good goddamn idea what to do about them. Probably nothing will make a whit of difference, but I’ll surely continue to slather a range of high- and low-end products on my face in the eternal hope that something will slow down the ravages of time. Do I feel panicky? No. Distraught? Only if I think about it too much.
Let’s face it: We can be ambivalent, we can alternate between acceptance, resignation, and fight, but the bottom line is that how we look matters to most of us in one way or another. If beauty weren’t a huge issue, we wouldn’t be spending nearly $150 billion a year on anti- aging products and treatments in the United States alone, according to industry analysis by Zion Market Research, or getting our faces coated in acid, injected with botulin and derma-fillers, and even getting sliced, stretched, and stitched back together again.
Of course, physical beauty is defined by different cultures and different eras in different ways. In the United States right now there’s a premium on the beauty of extreme youth — especially for women. The whole idea that men just get better-looking as they age, while women get ugly, is definitely embedded in our cultural subconscious. When did you last hear of a woman over 40 being described as “more distinguished”? A few years ago, New York magazine published a telling infographic on the relative ages of cinema’s leading men and their female love interests. In Dark Shadows we saw Johnny Depp (48) paired with Bella Heathcote (24); Flight’s Denzel Washington (57) was paired with Kelly Reilly (35). At the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, Meryl Streep, one of the great exceptions to the aging-out-of-being-a-leading-lady rule, said that when she was in her 30s, she didn’t think that she’d have much of a career after 40 and the roles she saw mature actresses being offered were mainly hags and witches. Writer and actress Annabelle Gurwitch, in her book I See You Made an Effort, describes the erasure this way: “I’m 52, which is actually 82 in actress years,” adding, “Being a woman over 50 in Hollywood, I could commit any crime with impunity, because I’m completely invisible.”
The whole idea that men just get better-looking as they age, while women get ugly, is definitely embedded in our cultural subconscious. When did you last hear of a woman over 40 being described as “more distinguished”?
Flip through the pages of any American fashion or beauty magazine and you may feel a twinge of alienation or insecurity. Once I hit a certain age, the editorial models looked like they were playing dress-up in some very wealthy middle-aged woman’s closet. What teen buys a $2,000 blazer or purse? The beauty and skin-care ads are even more jarring. In the UK, Helen Mirren (who is in her early 70s) is a spokesperson for L’Oréal’s anti-aging products, which she agreed to do only on the condition that her image would not be retouched (bravo her!). In the United States, the same products are represented by Julianne Moore (who is in her mid-50s), whose freckles and lines have been airbrushed into an unblemished white oblivion. There’s also what I think of as the “three-crow’s-feet rule:” Check out any picture of a celebrity spokesmodel of a “certain age” (which could be as low as 30-something). She’s allowed three little smile lines around the eyes, and the rest of her face and neck is digitally sandblasted. Granted, even a heavily retouched Moore is far more relatable than the baby-faced models barely out of adolescence who are generally used to promote skin care and cosmetics. There’s such a disconnect between the ideal audience — grown women with buying power — and the way the models look in the pages or in TV ads.
So, we’re dealing with the inescapable reality of our changing looks, and balancing that against cultural pressure to either try to stay young-looking or age “gracefully” and accept turning into wallpaper. There are definitely bigger problems in the world (climate change! opioid addiction!), but still, our beauty and sense of attractiveness are things we think about, grapple with, and have to make personal choices around. On the one hand, we’re lucky that women today have so many choices about how to approach this thorny spot. But ultimately, however we may want to mollify ourselves or not, the hard, cold reality was nicely summarized by Annette Bening, who said, “I don’t really have a choice. I’m getting older.”
Excerpted from What Would Virginia Woolf Do?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology. Copyright © 2018 by Nina Collins. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.