Once upon a joyful night around a dinner table with three good friends and as many bottles of wine, my face scrunched into breathless laughter at someone’s blue joke. This moment, sentiment tells us, is pure happiness. Only something truly powerful could wrench me out of it. But as I blotted my eyes on the backs of my hands, I caught my reflection in my friend’s mirrored kitchen splashback and saw my cheeks and eyes creased in new and unflattering ways, and panic took over from joy. Instantly, the joke was forgotten, and my phone was in my hand, and a week later I was down $700 in pharmaceutical-grade skincare to make me look like a toddler again.
My mother used to use ageing like a threat. “Stop scowling,” she’d say. “You’re going to need Botox.” Now every time I lie back and wait for my dermatologist to fill her syringe, I remember this and fight the urge to scowl once more. Just a few units in my forehead and between my eyebrows, just to train my problem areas, just a couple of times a year.
From left, Julianne Moore, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gillian Anderson.Credit:
When I’m tuning out in front of a screen, the anomaly of a middle-aged woman will occasionally fill the frame. Not so long ago, actresses turned invisible at midnight on their 35th birthday, only called upon occasionally to play a decrepit, sexless figure to perfectly offset the twentysomething upgrade called Adam Sandler’s second wife. As we inch away from the gleefully cruel snark culture of the early-aughts, Hollywood has graciously allowed older women another moment in the spotlight.
“Gillian Anderson is still gorgeous.”
“I love that Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn’t ashamed of ageing.”
“I guess Julianne Moore is just going to be hot forever.”
Emma Thompson (right) has been praised for doing a nude scene in her 60s.Credit:AP
Notice the air of self-congratulatory surprise every time we feel anything other than revulsion at the sight of a woman existing past the age of 50. We talk about how bold they are to embrace their changing looks; how brave they are to even leave the house now that they can no longer convincingly play a teenager on screen.
I want to believe this is better than the alternative: candid photographs of a ship-launchingly gorgeous actress minding her own business, taken with a paparazzo’s ultra-zoom lens, published with a blinding yellow headline splashed across the cover of a supermarket tabloid to declare that she has let herself go. At least we’re no longer pretending that crow’s feet make the most beautiful women in the world unrecognisable, right?
But it’s the same misogyny under a new filter.
The voice that praises Emma Thompson’s bravery for doing a nude scene in her 60s is the same one that sneers at a Kardashian’s unnaturally taut cheeks in her 40s. We insist that women look a decade younger than the number on their driver’s licence, and scoff at them when they do so by going under the knife. We demand that they age gracefully, in a palatable way, with delicate laugh lines and just a wisp of silver at their temples, and punish them with contempt when they don’t. Any attempts to cling to their looks must be undetectable. Anything less is vapid indulgence.
Six years younger than my sister, I spent my adolescence desperate to catch up to her. I’d flush with misguided delight when older guys told me I looked 18; I’d skip out of bottle shops that didn’t card me for my vanilla-flavoured vodka. There was a brief window between my late teens and mid 20s when I enjoyed the perks of collagen and agency.
Nowadays, despite all of my achievements and my fixed address in the real world, despite being a flag-waving obnoxious feminist with a degree to prove it, despite knowing better, I’ve still wasted hours of my life following face-sculpting makeup tutorials, slathering on tretinoin and dotting on eye cream, washing silk pillowcases, dragging a frozen gua sha across my skin, and researching threadlift procedures at South Korean plastic surgery spas.
With one eye on the clock as the minute hand ticks around what’s left of my youth, I watch this play out with a knot of dread in my stomach. Will I age gracefully? Did my childish disregard for sunscreen doom me to a face lined and cracked like a kintsugi plate? If I’m 32 this year, exactly how many days do I have left until people start telling me I look good for my age?
I wonder how old I have to be before I get to just exist unbothered, unBotoxed, and finally, finally, worth more than my trading price in the currency of youth.
Genevieve Novak’s debut novel, No Hard Feelings, published by HarperCollins, is out now.
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