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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A reflection on beauty, aging and looking like Grandma


This essay originally appeared in the Vineyard Gazette.

The other day, standing in front of the mirror and wondering what I’ll look like in 10 years, I thought of my grandmothers. What did they look like at my age?

Old. Wrinkled. Pretty, both of them, in different ways, but definitely old. They looked old when they were really old, in their 80s, but they looked old for a good 20 years before that. My mother’s mother was dainty and fair, with fine skin, which she powdered and rouged. Her skin looked like someone had taken delicate rice paper, wadded it into a tight ball, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to smooth out. My father’s mother had been born with darker skin; “the Indian” her sisters had called her. She was hardly a homebody — needing a much bigger stage, she saw herself as an adventuress, and she was, restlessly roaming the globe — but she made delicious pecan pie.

It’s a coincidence, I used to think, studying her deeply creviced face as she chopped the whole nuts into tiny pieces: she looks just like one. Like a pecan.

If this trend — that is, of me getting older — continues, I realized as I looked in the mirror, I am going to look just like my grandmothers, one or both of them, in about five minutes.

Fighting Aging

Unless I do something about it.  Which I might. I just might.

It seems like only yesterday that I was railing against Botox, shocked that anyone would inject a substance whose real name was ‘botulinum toxin’ into their faces, shocked that women would give up the opportunity to raise their eyebrows. But I’ve read that Botox is more subtly applied now, and doesn’t freeze your forehead into a big blank slab, and I think, well, maybe.

And ‘fillers’ sound intriguing. I wouldn’t have my lips done, though they seem to be getting thinner by the minute, with those little vertical wrinkles right above that run into them. Every time I put on lipstick, some of the lipstick finds its way into these little wrinkles. I think fuller lips might prevent that. But I haven’t seen a woman yet whose plumped-up lips didn’t look swollen and rubbery and fake, that didn’t make me think of those edible wax lips they used to sell at the candy store.

And yet! I’ve read that ‘fillers’ are very helpful for ‘drooping upper eyelids.’ That’s good. I could use that. My upper eyelids are two saggy flaps now, soon to be held up only by my eyelashes. Sometimes I worry that my flaps will start impairing my vision. If they do, maybe I can get my medical insurance to pay for the treatment.

Treatments. That’s another thing. Once you get started, you have to keep doing it, every six months or so. I don’t do anything that regularly, including going to the dentist. I’d end up putting it off until my eyelids had collapsed again, and everyone would know, depending on when they ran into me, that I was either way overdue or just returned from another treatment.

“I saw Jenny the other day,” someone would say. “Which one?” someone else would say. “The Before one, or the After one? Ha ha ha!”

And I can’t see my way clear to a facelift, even if I had the $20,000 lying around to do it. I used to feel that way on principle: how could you take a knife to your face? But it’s not principle anymore. Now it’s just fear. I look at photographs of movie stars my age, the ones with bad facelifts, and I think, that’s tragic. She was so exquisite, and now she looks like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. I think, how did she, with all the money in the world, with surely the finest plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, end up looking like this?

There’s no schadenfreude in it; I just feel bad for them. They have to look at their scary new faces every time they pass a mirror. They must spend half their day crying, and making up excuses not to go out. And I know this is how my facelift would go — wildly expensive, and botched. There I’d be, with those freaky slanted eyes and a mouth stretched into a perpetual creepy grin, like the Joker.

But, you know, never say never.

Freedom from Judgment

I have to say, I resent having to think about any of this. I’m not really the type. I came of age in the 70s, when it really did seem as if women were not going to be judged, and judge themselves, on their looks. In retrospect, this period was a mere blip, an aberration, but for awhile there, a lot of us really did think that. Those of you who are too young to remember will just have to believe me.

Unlike the older sisters of our friends, we didn’t wear makeup, or stuff our bras with Kleenex, or bother with hair rollers. The cheerleaders at school still did those things, but the rest of us, nothing if not full of ourselves, didn’t want to be cheerleaders anyhow. No way! Let the cheerleaders spend their free periods in the girls’ room, smothering their pores in Cover Girl foundation and piling on cakey mascara and smearing Dippity Do in their hair. We were too smug and busy for that, toiling on the literary magazine and the school newspaper, and making earnest posters for Earth Day, and reading Marilyn French, and pooh-poohing the prom.

We were just as ridiculous in our own way, of course, in our earnest braids and bib overalls and flannel shirts and mountain-climbing boots, trying to look like…what? Farmers? Girl lumberjacks? But it was, I have to say, a kind of freedom. I think we felt our faces were OK as they were. And for me, at least, this feeling lasted a very long time. Too long, I’m sure. I didn’t start wearing lipstick with any regularity until I was 40 or so, and then only because more than a few salesclerks had said, “How can I help you, sir?” when I walked into their stores.

Envious of Grandmothers

So I feel new to the whole concern about aging, and a little petulant about it. I’m still getting used to having to think about my personal appearance, and now, boom, I have to deal with this aging thing.

I envy my grandmothers, who looked old back in the day when there wasn’t much to do about it. You got old, you looked old. You had your hair set at the beauty parlor once a week; you dabbed on some rouge and a little Chanel No. 5 before you went out. And when you went out, all the other old ladies at Schrafft’s looked like old ladies too, so you had company.

And if you were feeling sad about looking old, you could cheer yourself up by going to Altman’s and buying yourself a new hat. And you’d look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Not bad, for an old lady.”

By Jenny Allen
Jenny Allen is a writer and monologist. Her essays and articles have appeared for years in many magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, Vogue, Esquire, More, Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping. Recent essays appear in “Disquiet, Please!” a new anthology of humor pieces from The New Yorker, and in In The Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 (Simon & Schuster). Her collection of essays, Would Everybody Please Stop? : Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas (Sarah Crichton Books at Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was published in June.

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