Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Face in the Mirror and the Origami of Time

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

I don’t think I’m an exceptionally vain person, but I’m also not immune to wanting to look younger than I actually am. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of time leaving its tracks on my face. This happened most memorably a couple years ago when I was rushing between classes and was ambushed by the view in a bathroom mirror. Looking sidelong, I thought: oh my goodness, it’s my grandma!

Now, matters could be worse. Yes, it’s true that my dad’s mother got rather jowly late in life, not quite Nixon-esque but still quite noticable, and I see the contours of that future in my own chin. Yes, her eyelids sagged by the time she was in her eighties, and instead of getting them fixed, she held them in place with tape. (Why she never pursued surgery remains a mystery.)

But Grandma also remained vibrant and attractive well into her middle years. She adored being the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota. Virtually the only woman on the scene, she basked in the admiration of all those men. Incipient jowls apparently didn’t deter them. And conversely, she appreciated an attractive man well into her nineties, pretty much up to the point when she lost her marbles.

So yes, things could be a whole lot worse. And yet, when I read this passage in a Stephen McCauley novel a few days ago, I thought, whoa, he got it exactly right:
I was barely awake when the doorbell rang at eleven the next morning. I glanced in my bureau mirror on my way to the stairs, amazed at how increasingly unkind sleep was as I got older, as if someone came in every night to practice origami on my face while I slept.
(Stephen McCauley, The Man of the House, 140.)
McCauley is recounting the very particular woes of a gay man around 40 who’s single but would prefer to be paired. But even if you’re not hunting for a mate, that morning tracery can be merciless. My one really noticeable wrinkle is a line near my jaw where I know my chin gets squished against the pillow. I suppose I could sleep on my back, but then I’d never sleep, and that wouldn’t exactly enhance my looks, either.

This isn't just vanity. It's also not merely a slavish response to the beauty ideal, as a unidimensional feminist analysis might suggest. It's partly a fear of mortality. It's also anxiety - as McCauley's anti-hero displays - that no one will want to have sex with you beyond a certain point of decrepitude.

Most interestingly, it's a sense of alienation from oneself, as philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers has argued. In her book Gender in the Mirror, Meyers says when we look at our aging selves in the mirror, we no longer see our familiar, long-known selves. Our face appears as "not-self." It's no longer the image that is invested with and in our relationships. In this interpretation, the desire to look younger, be it through surgery, cosmetics, or merely the approving eyes of another, is an effort to recover what we perceive as our true selves.

Meyers presents this as a gendered phenomenon. It's true that women's social worth is still bound up with our appearance more than men's. I think Meyers may also be right that women's aging faces become a sort of proxy for everyone's horror of mortality. This was likely one strike against Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign.

But that loss of the familiar self is not necessarily gendered. The face with origami folds - and the resulting sense of unfamiliarity - can be male just as easily as female.

In some ways, recognizing myself as my grandma was a moment of pure alienation and unfamiliarity. I literally saw someone other than myself in the mirror. But if I have to morph into someone else, I could do worse. When Grandma died, she was just a few days short of 103. So if I get her jowls, I’ll hope to inherit her robustness, too. Certainly I got my ornery streak partly from her. But I promise: If my eyelids start to sag, I will get them fixed.


Smirking Cat said...

I agree that beyond vanity, seeing signs of aging on ourselves is startling, a reminder of time past, and of course of a ticking clock for time remaining. Instead of stressing out about my attractiveness, though, I hope that I can be more worried about what I've done for those I love, and what I can still do. It will mean more to me to have people remember me that way, than "Hey,she had a great ass for an old lady." :)

Sungold said...

Absolutely, our inner qualities matter more - and instead of fading, they tend to intensify as we age.

The point I was hoping to get across, though, is that the public discourse so often reduces our qualms about our aging appearance to mere vanity - and portrays it as merely a "feminine" concern - but it's much more complex than that.

What I wish for myself is not to be remembered for my "great ass" (it never was perfect and I'm too lazy to do the work!) but to retain enough vitality that people will still see that spark of curiosity in me as I age. I know 80 year olds who still have it. They've been lucky with their health, *but* they've also cultivated engagement with the world and kept their minds sharp by *using* them.

Hesperis said...

Oh, wow, you have accurately described something I've been experiencing for several years and have shoved away because I couldn't find a way to explain it other than vanity. I'm fifty-six this year and in the last two years, my face and my whole body have utterly changed. It does hurt my vanity actually, but as you say, the experience is far deeper, having to do with both the past and the future. I DO have that feeling of lack of recognition. And why doesn't that make sense? There are physical changes from the twenties through the forties, especially if you're a woman who goes through pregnancies. But no change is like this one I'm having now. This body, this face, is not mine. It's not what I see when I imagine myself and it turns out that I must do that more than I realized, because those "mirror" moments can be such a shock. There is a feeling of alienation from myself that is unbalancing.

Also, the way the age shows reminds me, forcefully, of my mortality. For better and for worse.

Aging ain't for chickens.

Sungold said...

I'm glad this resonated with you. Actually, maybe I'm *not* glad; it'd be easier if this were a non-issue.

I'm still only in my mid-40s, and so for me it really is a matter of a glimpse here and there. I still look mostly like "myself." It helps that I didn't get much strong sun as a kid, growing up as I did in North Dakota and preferring to read a book in the shade rather than cultivating a tan. But I can also see how the process accelerates as we get into our fifties.

Yep, aging takes courage. The only thing tougher is the alternative - as I tell my dad every time he grouses about another birthday.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments!