What does that phrase even mean?!
Not long ago I celebrated my 69th birthday. Shortly thereafter, a woman with whom I have only slight acquaintance (for reasons that will be totally apparent in just a moment) asked me when I was going to stop coloring my hair, allowing it to grow out to its natural white. Without engaging in the question of why this could possibly be any of her business, I retorted that I’d already covered this territory in a previous blog post, and if she really wanted to know the answer, she could read The Body I Inhabit. Since she never reads my blog, and wouldn’t be about to do so even if she really wanted my answer, I felt pretty certain this reply would shut down her prying. (I was wrong.)
What seemed most laughable, though, was that her question was triggered by the fact that I’d changed my hair color. After twenty years, I’d decided that the shade I’d been using was now too deep a color for my aging complexion. I’d updated it to a lighter shade of the same basic color. This was my first step in a planned transformation that would slowly permit my hair to transition to its genuine pure white. But as I disliked two-tone hair, roots a glaring shade different from the strands, I was going to take this action in phases.
Unfortunately, my evasion didn’t satisfy my officious friend, who lectured that I needed to “age gracefully”.
What does that phrase even mean, I now wondered? Aging is, in Western culture, a pretty despised condition; hence, the reason that I, once a young woman who’d used nothing more than lemon juice and chamomile to brighten my natural dark blonde, became a middle-aged woman who regularly dyed her hair to combat an onslaught of whitening strands. But though I’d originally begun coloring my hair because I felt it was almost expected in our youth-oriented society, the action slowly melded into my choice to do so because I enjoyed what I saw. The hair color that began and then continue to use for twenty years flattered my complexion as my natural shade had never done.
Was it only because my hair color was my most obvious attempt to disguise the rush of oncoming age, though, that this person felt comfortable in hectoring me? Or was it because she, just a few years older than I, had given up hair dye at about the age that I’d just reached? Was she resentful that I had not followed her lead? Did giving up a self-care routine equate with “aging gracefully”?
Shrugging at her comments, I launched into an irritable tirade. (Hey, she started it. If she didn’t want to listen to my remarks, then she shouldn’t have done so.)
“Well, I do facial exercises, too, to reduce the sagging. I whiten my teeth because years of coffee and tea have done their damage. I always used spot corrector on my freckles; now I slather it on my age spots, too. I use a depilatory every week on my facial hair because I don’t think female mustaches are attractive! There’s nothing I can do about my veiny hands, and I draw the line at cosmetic surgery, so I’m stuck with the rest of it. But I do these things because I want to feel comfortable with the image I see in the mirror: an aging woman who acknowledges that she’s no longer young but still enjoys putting some effort into her appearance. And that’s the crux of the matter—I enjoy it. It’s fun. When it becomes more trouble than it’s worth, I’ll quit. But in the meantime, I’ll color, correct, and fight.”
My outburst gained me raised eyebrows and put an end to the discussion. (Would that it had put an end to the relationship, too, but I couldn’t get that lucky.)
As I pointed out in that previous essay, all of my self-care routines are a form of self-love. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Every five minutes of facial exercise or tooth whitening gel, each gentle massage of dark spot correcting cream or depilatory, says to me that the body I inhabit, despite onrushing age, is worthy of my attention. I am worthy of my attention.
Never having been, even at my best, any more than moderately attractive, I always put effort into my appearance. Plain I may have been and was, but I saw no reason to be sloppy, as well.
Now, aging, I see no reason to take any less care of my appearance merely because I am growing old. Call it vanity; call it pride; call it just a refusal to acknowledge the inevitable. It doesn’t matter. Eat right, exercise, die anyway… I’ll go down fighting the appearance of age tooth, nail and claw, enjoying every minute of the brawl.