Why Does 40 Have To Look (And Feel) Like The New 20?

by Jessica Buchanan
Originally Published: 
Robert Decelis Ltd / Getty Images

A sigh escapes my aging lips as I scroll through the continuous barrage of advertisements scattered across social media promising to rid my face of its unwanted wrinkles.

Grow 10x longer lashes! Beat yourself purple to get rid of unsightly cellulite! The before-and-after photos, in my humble opinion, do not warrant the money or time investment these regimens will likely require.

I take a good long look at myself in the mirror one night after a hot bath and sigh in wonder tinged with exasperation: Why does 40 feel like it has to be the new 20?

Just like most women in my stage of life, I am all too aware as my cheeks continue to travel south — both on my face and my rear end. I exercise, but I’m honest. I am middle-aged, and I will never get to have my 25-year-old anything back, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I am really just inherently lazy, but sometimes I wonder why — after massive triumphs and unforgettable heartbreaks, broken relationships and lost loved ones, insecurities conquered, resurfacing and then reconquered, babies born, massive life changes — haven’t I earned the right to look my age?

And what’s more, if I really sit with this, I come to the halting realization that half my life is over. And that is just if I’m really lucky. The flip side of that harsh reality is that hopefully there is still another half to be lived. Do I really want to spend the rest of those years worrying about how well I am aging, and if not, what I should be doing about it to make it stop?

Shouldn’t we be reveling and relaxing in what those last 20 years have enabled us to be? The strong and independent women we are, on the cusp of our 40s, admiring with appreciation and acceptance what is staring back at us in the mirror?

That feels so much better to me than being depressed about my bags and sags.

Back at the mirror, I scrutinize the crinkles around my eyes as they begin to crawl their way toward the bridge of my nose. I smile at my reflection and watch the rivets run deeper. Every once in a while, I am tempted to try something that will magically erase these memories from their permanently exposed surface, but to what end?

It’s all so perplexing. I don’t really think I want to take away the telltale marks of the life I have lived thus far. The crow’s feet planting themselves at the corners of my eyes declare to the world that I have laughed in that “life has been a ride” kind of way, and they are my proof, that while I have experienced heartbreaking moments of sadness, I have also experienced pockets of indescribable joy.

The circles below these eyes that have seen so much of the world offer a backdrop to those rivers, and I see them as two badges of honor — weaving well, stories of all-nighters studying, partying, adventuring, loving, and most recently, rocking sick babies as we both finally fall asleep, baby skin to wrinkled skin.

The lines on my face are a map of the places I have been, the starting point of youth, leading me past all the glorious lands I have been, bringing with them feelings of empowerment and independence. They are my becoming — my identification that ushers me in to the sisterhood of women who are, by the way, changing the world.

And like a scrapbook I page through day after crazy day, I see the changing tide of my life, flowing in and out of those creases, and there is wisdom and security and so much strength — all virtues I have earned, experiences I am proud of. These are the things that the smooth beauty of my 25-year-old face could never have known they would have the strength to withstand.

Sometimes I wonder if we use up the limited space in our weary minds and our overcommitted days worrying about all these signs of getting old when we should be using this time to celebrate, learn, and grow, connecting and becoming what we as aging women should be — wise.

We are the next generation of elders who in most other cultures are celebrated, revered, and admired. What will we have to offer the following flow of women who walk the sacred journey of womanhood as they stumble down life’s path? Will we leave them offerings of face creams and pictures of before-and-after eye bag removal to motivate them to “keep on keeping on” as they continue along this pilgrimage we have all been called to walk together? Or can we instead leave them letters full of honesty and love, reminding them that they are beautiful and strong, courageously profound, profoundly courageous, just as they are, wrinkles, sags, gray hair, and all?

We are living longer than we have ever lived before. What a gift it is to have so much time.

Lying in bed, nose to nose with my 3-year-old, she traces the lines around my eyes, and I am suddenly transported — a small child, hand wrapped in the dry rough skin of my own mother’s love. Sunburned and low-maintenance because she didn’t bother to know any better, her hair is a beautiful shade of snowy white, freckles and wrinkles adorn her glowing face. I remember following the path of those lines from her sea green eyes all the way down to that mouth full of beautifully crooked teeth. The lines were a labor of love, laughter, and tears that she wore proudly, like a shroud, across her aging face.

She left us five days after her 57th birthday, and not once did I ever hear her lament woefully about growing older. I see now, as I am approaching midlife, what a gift she gave me in accepting and embracing the time she had on this earth. I’m sure there were moments she looked in the mirror and thought to herself, Welp, my glory days are over! But she was never embarrassed. She never tried to change it. She never apologized.

But she’s not here for me to ask, so I guess I’ll never know.

Sometimes, I fantasize about sitting with her, talking to her about all of these things. What I wouldn’t give to run my hands over that beautiful face full of sadness, simultaneously proclaiming a life lived with joy. I can almost feel, with the fingertips of my memory, those crevices etched deeply in her face, brimming with wisdom and understanding. We would talk into the night about what it is to be an aging woman in a world demanding the impossible, the unnatural.

Growing older is a privilege. A privilege not abundant for everyone. Why do we walk around despairing and treating it as if it were a curse?

Meaningful and deep, these marks bear witness to the struggles that have been won, the love that has been made, and the life we have lived and continue living for as long as we are granted.

I turn away from the mirror and let my mind wander.

These wrinkles, they are mine, and I intend to keep them.

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