We are taught that youth is power, potential, the natural resource we are all born with, and if we don’t do everything we can to turn it into capital, then we are failing ourselves
At the age of 26, I find myself looking in the mirror a lot, appraising myself in different lightings and at various angles. I do not feel beautiful, or even pretty, but I feel very strongly that I am in my prime, though possibly a little past my peak.
My skin is supple and dewy. My breasts are full. I find myself thinking things like: I am sumptuously young. Languorously female. I never think this in a purring, indulgent sort of way, gazing at myself, pouting. Rather, I reflect on myself with the air of a woman in a Francine Van Hove painting: a woman in waiting, though not sure what for. I am wistful and wonder how much longer I have left before it all goes irrevocably to pot.
I don’t know why I fear ageing so much, why I am so attached to preserving certain looks. But I have an inkling that society has a lot to answer for. Culturally, collectively, I wonder if we are not all filled with a similar level of dread at this, and by “we”, I mean women. According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, for example, 92 per cent of all cosmetic procedures last year were performed on women.
I have generalised anxiety disorder, which partly accounts for this; sometimes, I wake up in the night with a sense of doom about climate change, too. I know it is farcical to talk about ageing and climate change in the same sentence, but fear is intuitive, not logical, and my body responds to its own decline and the decline of the planet as if both are equally devastating, though of course, I know they are not. Yet, given the extent to which our culture worships youth, perhaps it is not so curious that I have come to dread the loss of it as one would dread a known cataclysm; as Oprah Winfrey said, our culture “is constantly trying to tell us that if we are not young, and we’re not glowing, and we’re not hot, that we don’t matter”.
I look at my body now and I feel this acute sense of loss about what my body no longer is and, more pertinently, what it will one day no longer be. I drink three litres of water each day as if drinking water will save me. I moisturise morning, noon and night. For breakfast each morning I eat a punnet of blueberries, treating the word “antioxidant” like an anti-ageing incantation.
I wish I could smile at my wrinkles and think of all the times I have laughed, but instead, I think of all the times I haven’t, months on end of not really doing anything at all, unable to shake the feeling that with every passing day I become more and more haggard. I suspect this form of worrying is specific to women: after all, I have never heard a woman described as a “silver fox”.
If I feel this way at 26, I worry I’ll feel worse a decade from now, that I will look back and resent myself for not having done more now. For a while, overcome with worry, I obsessively took selfies and posted them online. I preferred to think of it more as self-documentation than as simple selfie-taking: a way of bearing witness to myself. I “documented” myself like a dying species: a woman in decline. I wanted to impress myself upon others, to be seen, acknowledged, noticed. I suppose I thought that it was a way to hold on to myself, an attempt to stop my body from slipping away from me, although even as I took them I imagined myself one day looking back on them, smiling wistfully at what no longer was, and so it really brought me no comfort at all.
I am sure it would be a great relief to just breathe out and let myself go, to smile on as my breasts sag in blissful resignation and my hair starts to thin. I saw the future me on FaceApp and it wasn’t so bad. Actually, I am sort of strangely comforted by the parts of myself that are already past their prime; I feel less dread when I feel I have less to lose. Last night, brushing my teeth before bed, I stared at myself in the mirror. When I leant over the sink, my breasts were pendulous, distended, and I took a strange comfort in it, the sense that maybe there was nothing to mourn as far as my breasts were concerned after all. My buttocks, too, are pitted with cellulite, and I tend to derive a strange sort of comfort from this as well. I can reckon with the reality of it. It is the things that have not yet happened, the things that still look OK, that worry me.
I have felt this way for a long time. I remember being about 17 and lying on the sofa at my boyfriend’s house, my legs draped across his lap. As he blew smoke rings up at the chandeliers, I announced that I was going to get big pink bows tattooed on the backs of my thighs, also maybe seam lines. Don’t, he warned. Your legs are sexy as they are, you’ll ruin them. At such damning words, I locked myself in the toilet and took deep breaths at the thought of how easy it might be to ruin myself. I almost wanted to get the tattoos just to pre-empt the inevitable ruin: pristine legs felt like a real responsibility, an invitation for things to go wrong.
I know that I feel this way because I have anxiety and this is the form that it takes, but it’s not just that: living under late capitalism, there is everywhere the insidious insinuation that we must market ourselves, brand ourselves, mine ourselves until we are exhausted. We are taught that youth is power, potential, the natural resource we are all born with, and if we are not turning it into energy, into capital, then we are failing ourselves. I can’t bear it. I wish we could all just hold hands and unravel together; let ourselves get fat and saggy and bald, cackling all the while, but I am not hopeful.
Some people preach that daily exercise and healthy eating are the key to living longer lives, but recently, a 107-year-old woman dropped some serious knowledge about how she reached her impressive age.