Dear Lily June,
The other day, I got into an argument with a co-worker. There is a TV in the main office, always switched to some morning or news show (depending on the time of day), and on one of those shows was an aging celebrity. It doesn’t matter who, because, in this aspect, he was interchangeable with many in the American celebrity set: He had clearly had some plastic surgery done to appear younger than he was. That’s actually an understatement, Lily June: At almost seventy, his facial cheeks had all the perk of a newborn baby’s ironed butt.
I found myself disappointed, asking incredulously, “Is that really X?!” to which a co-worker sighed sincerely, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of money as you age?” At this, I looked her over.
She is a woman in her late-forties, early fifties, whose face reminds me frequently of own mother’s. Her curly hair weaves around her face like silver ribbons tucked here and there into a bird’s auburn nest. A woman with a caustic wit, her face is nonetheless also lined by pain: She lost her eldest son when he was only twenty-one, and his car slid the wrong way on ice. That winter melted everywhere but in the depths of her eyes. She keeps him alive by telling stories of him to whomever she meets, and in that love, and in the continued strength of her laughter, and in her soul’s and hair’s refusal to submit, I think she is a stunning beauty.
I told her that I relish the wrinkles I’m sporting, the newfound hairs that are springing up wiry and white, telling her I look forward to aging naturally. Because I’m only in my thirties, she dismissed me, saying, “You only think that’s what you want. Wait, and you’ll see.” I wondered why she was trying so hard to convince me to be dissatisfied with the way Nature will change me.
I remembered the words of my own mother who would always tell me when I wouldn’t dutifully march in front of her camera lens at picture time,
“If you don’t like a photograph of yourself, wait five years.”
Of course, that advice has often proven right. In the ravages of time, and the wasteland my waist has become, sometimes I have looked back at the photos of the skeletal teen I once was and wished for that bony body back. Or at photos of me in my twenties and thought what I imagined then was flabby and saggy looks really, to me now, just curvy.
But lately, in cleaning out our apartment’s closet for the move, I have looked deeper into the shots of my sixteen-year-old self who I once kept inside my mind as the scale by which to judge who I’ve become at thirty, and I was surprised to see this: She looks so gawky to me.
She stands, her arms thrown over her waist or chest, trying to hide what little meat there was to that body. She is a tangle of awkward right angles, all elbows and knee bones. She looks like she’s trying so hard to look happy, but I remember how self-conscious she was. Even in size-zero jeans (that have become, thank you very much, sometimes as high as size fifteen), she looks so scared that people will judge her, thinks she takes up too much space, and so she tucks her arms into pockets to try and fold up like a piece of paper containing some secret she can’t bear anyone else to read.
At thirty-one, I am larger. I laugh (and cry) harder though my body is everywhere else softer, and I bounce and jiggle more. I would be an absolute liar to say that the reflection I see in the mirror is the ideal version of me I wish I were. And yet, that me–that reflection–that body is the only me there is. To disapprove of her because her laughter will eventually spread lines across her skin like fireworks over a night sky? What a sad way to age, the definition of which really means to just “keep on living.”
My co-worker continued to protest that one day I would really understand what it meant to long for the beauty of youth, and I continued to fire lines like Yeats’ at her,
“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in [me], / And loved the sorrows of [my] changing face…”
How truly beautiful you might be, Lily, if you can do us both one better, and instead of waiting for someone to love your aging face, you embrace it yourself, seeing not just sorrows in its changes, but all the joys and experiences of a lifetime that brought you the visage you see.
I am still trying to learn how to love myself like that, so I can confidently model, if not an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini, an attitude sexier than any of its synthetic fibers. I aim to become, for you (and for me), an absolute Goddess of Reality, and to keep in mind, in the meantime, these lines from David Foster Wallace on vanity,
“Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
- Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043070