Friday, February 13, 2009
In Hell, Every Day Is Your Birthday
On Turning 40
Editor's Note: This essay was previously published in Redbook a few years ago.
Coco Chanel claimed that Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty. This says nothing of forty, an age which has yet to be defined, except by the hair dye companies, who quite understandably think forty is the best darned age of all. This leaves a large informational gap, one which I will attempt to fill in with the least amount of fractious and impossible-to-follow advice. (At forty, one does not need advice, one needs cash.)
I turned forty this year. I had no choice, having turned thirty-nine the previous year. There was no bravery involved, as some of the hardy congratulations I received implied. Nor was it particularly difficult; I just went to bed and the next day, Boom. It had happened without me. I felt shocked. Thirty-nine was an age I had instantly disliked but now felt myself longing for, like a lover I'd jilted, but now realized was perfect for me -- and he didn’t wait, has moved on to another town, to children and a wife somewhere else; I can’t get him back any more than I could (beat) turn back time. The very moment I turned forty I realized thirty-nine was infancy, heaven. This is a pattern I seem to be repeating since 1992. I vow to give it up, to start feeling good about the age I am because in five minutes? It is going to change again, and frankly I can’t sanction all the upset.
Advertising, although I am sure has the very best intentions, does not help. We can easily bring to mind those shiny ads with willowy actresses braying that life begins at forty, but for most of them plastic surgery began at twenty six and so they can afford to be glib. These are genetically mutant spokeswomen in white bikinis with access to constant photo retouching and trainers named Ghee and pharmaceutical grade cocaine; they are women who look nineteen at forty and who also are successful and toned and married to South American movie stars, so they cannot and must not be considered as part of the physical world the rest of us live in. After seeing a four page spread for a cosmetic ad in W, I mention this on the telephone to my best friend Dee, who agrees. And after a moment she adds that Michelle Pffiefer has had work done, and why don’t we just all admit it and move on.
Dee also turned forty this year, or as Bette Davis said so eloquently in All About Eve, “Four – oh.”. I confided that I was compiling notes on an article on forty, and Dee immediately said,
“You know what I miss?” Dee says. “Luster.”
At forty moisture is not an entitlement but a goal, we commiserate. Just moisture.
We have no love of knives, however. Dee and I have a pact that rather than become those woman who perpetually look like startled raccoon and who are constantly having facelifts and fillers and Botox and chemical peels, we would rather just hold hands and walk into the blades of a helicopter. We vow to age gracefully and not get cut, although we have no idea how this is actually done. We will have to wing it.
“I watched Kate Hudson on 20/20 last night.” Dee says. “And all I could do was stare at her skin. She still has luster.”
“She’s twenty-two,” I say.
“They all are,” Dee says briskly. “There are times when I look at a photo of myself.” she says, “and I think there might be luster and then I realize it’s the gloss of the photo.” She explains: “I didn’t got matte finish, I got glossy finish. And of course now I’ll always get glossy…. because I need the luster.”
We discuss the phenomenon of the Good Picture after 40. For example, there’s a recent picture of some friends and I, and it’s not that great of a picture of anyone else, in fact my son looks like a small Middle East terrorist, but it’s pretty good of me. So it’s up on the refrigerator. I look like I have luster. (Film overexposure is not a problem, it is your best friend, according to Dee. Blows your features into a white splay of smooth airbrushed luster.) We agree that instead of hair gloss we need body gloss. We’re mothers and busy people, we need to just dip our whole bodies in gloss. Like on The Jetsons; there should be a machine.
Being able to enjoy a photograph of myself at all is I something that has come to me relatively late in life. At 15, I desperately wished I were petite. As a large-boned 5’8” teenager with breasts that required a bra, I felt monstrous, bovine. I wanted to be diminutive, I wanted to shop in the Petite section of Macy’s and wear size five shoes and have boys be able to pick me up and twirl me like a baton. My mental illness progressed. At 23, I ached to be Jennifer Beal in Flashdance , bony and wan and sultry as an alley cat. To this end, I skulked around in ripped tops and leg warmers, hoping against hope that an alien body transfer would somehow take place, a metamorphosis of the veneer. At 40, I now accept the fact that I am a voluptuous brunette with olive skin, I even prefer it this way. I like the fact that I have long legs, broad shoulders, and that when the sun hits my hair it looks like coffee. I would not trade selves with anyone, now. Too many variables. I would however like to go back in time and bitch slap myself, saying You’re fine! Be happy, for God’s sake.
Things have changed, mostly for the better. I no longer feel bad that I cannot do a pirouette or draw hands. I am able to sing in front of people, something I could not do at thirty. Having a child has also mellowed me, set straight my priorities. I don’t feel the need to run five miles a day in the heat, wear eyeliner or even shoes. This may be the beginning of the regression that often happens to the elderly; if so I welcome it. I will end up around four years of age, which seems just about right. My son and I will be four together, blowing bubbles while Rome burns, while others curl free weights and compete for the title of Miss California.
One tiny and admittedly disquieting phenomena is that suddenly, nearly everyone I deal with is younger than I am -- especially people in New York. I was recently interviewed for an author profile by a woman who sounded just exactly like Tinky Winky. And it’s not just New York, it’s hideously widespread. Young people are everywhere, they’re parachuting straight in from high schools in the sky. Having skipped second grade, I had grown accustomed to being younger than everyone else; now the reverse is true. When did that happen? I don’t mind children, what I mind are children in the bodies of adults. (Here I would suggest that if it is at all convenient, you may want to marry someone a few years older, as I did: No matter what happens, you will always be younger than someone, and they will often be in the same room with you.)
Forty equals knowledge, and knowledge equals power. I know the intricate rhythms of my own body, now. I know that a week before my period I need to take a hot Epson Salt bath with a fudgesickle in hand, and not answer the phone. I know that during this week, my clothes will feel significantly tighter -- I don’t take this as a sign from God that I am worthless. I know it will pass, and that my clothes will loosen within a week. I know most things will pass, that almost everything is just a moment in time. I realize the good moments are precious, I no longer try to sustain them into infinity and wreck what spontaneity has visited me. I am able to watch the tide come in and out without feeling somehow I can control it, or that it is there for me exclusively. A feeling of community flavors my life; I talk to waiters and women in supermarket lines and strange dogs. I am no longer so firmly locked into my own suspense-filled mini drama. I extend myself to others in ways I would not have dreamt of at thirty, when protecting my privacy seemed crucial, when all other adults loomed, somehow frightening and better than I. No one is better than I, I know now. Or everyone is. I’m not sure which.
I recently had a few spider veins on my face zapped with a hot needle of some sort. “Does this hurt?” the dermatologist asked pleasantly. “It doesn’t feel good,” I said. “But after childbirth…it’s a caress.” He laughed the laugh of someone who never has to worry about either. It was a happy, vague laugh. (Men needn't fret about spider veins or turning forty, they hardly need turn a hair at eighty - even then they can father children, they just can’t necessarily lift or recognize them. No one said life was fair.) Examining the multitudinous brochures in my dermatologist’s office, I see that there is also a new cosmetic procedure that severs the nerves around the eyes so that when you smile, you don’t smile all the way, thereby minimizing crow’s feet. I’m sorry but this feels like kicking God in the balls. I just can’t bring myself to do it, no matter how bad of a day I might currently be having, no matter how much luster I am losing at the speed of sound.
In the end, surely the salient benefit to turning forty is that one no longer has to tolerate bullshit in any form. This kicks in immediately. On the morning of my fortieth birthday a woman I had hitherto considered a friend telephoned and immediately said, “You’re over the hill, now!” I laughed gaily and hung up on her; the receiver made satisfying click as it hit the cradle. After forty, one must cleanse one’s life of anyone who suggests that moving past extreme youth is an error, a character flaw. One must deep-cleanse, and I do not mean pores.
Once more I reference Coco Chanel: “Elegance is refusal.”