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What Whales Have Taught Me About Aging

Blurring the generational lines at the cosmetic counter and beyond

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

With age comes wisdom. Also, a Medicare card.

Credit: Adobe Stock

“What’s the big deal? I filled out your AARP paperwork for you,” my husband Marc says. He’s being practical, trying to fix things the way guys like to do, while I’d rather talk about my feelings. I’m sure there are gender studies explaining why we have differing reactions to aging, but I don’t care. It’s my 65th birthday and I’ll cry if I want to.

My mother used to say it must be awful to be beautiful because as you age, you have to watch it dwindle away. Luckily, she let me know I didn’t have that problem, so I had to develop a personality instead. An anxious, mired-in-paralyzing-self-doubt personality, but still, it’s mine.

Mom had an unusual view on womanly allure. She told me, “I don’t feel I’m being honest unless I look my worst.”

An Ageless Generation

Despite her sage advice, I still care about looking my best, which is why last month I went to the beauty counter in Bloomingdale’s to replace a dried-up $24 Lancôme eyeliner. The next thing I knew, a salesgirl, who didn’t look a day over 12, had me trapped on a stool under a goose neck lamp so blinding I thought I’d wandered into a police interrogation cell. I no longer needed that new eyeliner, I needed new eyes.

“Let’s try a little BB crème,” she chirped, spackling me with a tube from some makeup line aptly named “Urban Decay.” She squinted at the results.

We're the ageless generation. 60 is the new 40. Silver is the new blonde. Old is the new sexy.

“You’ve got a little texture going on, let’s dab a little CC crème too.” Texture, for those of you who are 64 and under, is beauty counter-speak for skin that feels like sandpaper left over from your husband’s wood-carving project.

“Are we working our way through the alphabet? Just give me the ZZ crème and I’ll be on my way.”

She stared me down. “Clients with mature skin love this product, ma’am.”

A double whammy. Not only was she age-shaming me, she’d “ma’amed” me to drive home the dagger. She’d sized me up accurately as a sucker for any product labeled “anti-aging.” I needed and detested her in equal measure.

I wish I didn’t care. Many women my age swear they don’t. They say things like, “Age is an attitude, not a demographic.” If only the chiropractor could adjust mine.

After my beauty counter embarrassment, I developed a disturbing new addiction to age-related reading matter. I learned from the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, that 84% of women over 40 claim they don’t define themselves by age, which inspired me to start subscribing to several upbeat, post-50 newsletters.

A few of my favorites include Not Dead Yet Style, Chic At Any Age and Modern Cemetery. So maybe I made up that last one. But what all these publications have in common is that they talk about “generational blurring.” We’re the ageless generation. 60 is the new 40. Silver is the new blonde. Old is the new sexy.

We Are The Perennials

So you can imagine how heartened I was to read that someone has finally coined a new name for us: The Perennials. Perennials are plants that keep on blooming. They endure. They don’t have a shelf life. Perennials are people who stay curious. They’re creative, confident risk takers. I’m a risk taker myself. Just last week, I took a walk on the wild side when I went out for dinner on a Saturday night without even making a reservation first.


You know who are also perennials? Killer whales. I saw an article in Smithsonian magazine (which I no longer think is a publication for older people) with the headline, “After Menopause, Killer Whale Moms Become Pod Leaders.”

Like humans, orcas are one of very few species whose females experience long, post-reproductive lives. They stop bearing offspring in their 40s but live well into their 90s, taking on new roles as wise survival guides. It’s incredibly inspiring. One of my many regrets is that despite six years of sleepaway camp (which is 18 in lanyard-weaving years) I never learned to swim better than the dog paddle. Still, I’m embracing the orca as my new spirit animal.

Recently, I was thumbing through People magazine and marveled at all the human icons of graceful aging there are to emulate. Gloria Steinem. RBG. Jane Fonda. Jane is 80 and looks amazing. I fantasize about visiting her cosmetic surgeon and saying, “I’ll have what Jane’s having.”

Except what if I wind up with a perpetually surprised expression because I can’t close my eyelids?  Urban Decay doesn’t sell an eye crème for that. Or I end up like that socialite who started out just wanting to look a bit feline, like her pet leopard? Google “The Bride of Wildenstein.” Those photos should come with a trigger warning.

As comedian Brett Butler says, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up looking like a Komodo dragon in Chanel accessories. That’s why I’ve decided to live with my lumps, bumps and “texture,” none of which my husband seems to notice anyway, and if I prevent him from getting cataract surgery, never will.

The Perks of Aging

And in all honesty (which implies that up till now I’ve been lying), I do realize how lucky I am. I’m living a life full of creature comforts, I’m paid to do work I love and my marriage is strong, especially because Marc has learned to look the other way when I drop big bucks at Bloomingdale’s.

He’s the most thoughtful guy I know, doing things like surprising me recently with tickets to a James Taylor concert. It was great fun right up until we heard a vendor shouting, “Ice cold beer here!” and Marc turned all glum and said, “Back in my day they were whispering ‘Acid, grass, mesc’ in front of the Fillmore East.” These days, our recreational drug of choice is Lipitor.

We’re both using that phrase “in my day” entirely too often. I worry it’s a sign of creeping senescence. But the whales have taught me to embrace the idea that old age is a privilege, and that aging definitely has it perks.

Consider this: I may not remember any of the plots from the fourteen seasons of Midsomer Murders we binge-watched two summers ago, but that just means I get to watch them and be surprised all over again.

That series is a true perennial.

Photograph of Liane Kupferberg Carter
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a New York-based essayist and author of the memoir, “Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism.” Read More
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