How to look in the mirror
The thing about talking about ageing is there’s always somebody older than you ready and waiting to tell you it could be worse.
Whenever the twinge of fear about looking or getting older comes along, there’ll be someone right behind you telling you you’ve nothing to worry about, that they’re much farther round the clock than you are. So your concerns feel cheap, like breaking your arm and feeling sad only to find a singing telegram at your front door from a man with no legs. It’s a competition.
But their version of Old Father Time hobbling toward me in a filthy shroud and brandishing a shillelagh doesn’t comfort me; I don’t feel younger. The numbers don’t bother me anyway – it’s the looking-glass. The camera never lies, no, but it can be persuaded to fudge the truth in post-production. The eyes, they’re regular churchgoing old truth tellers, and boy do they tell it loudly. There’s no getting away from what’s before my very eyes.
When did it begin, the gentle nudge into not looking my best? I remember a brief period in my mid-thirties when I felt invincible. All my clothes fit me and I was strong and lean (not rough and tough and dark and mean though – sorry Weather Girls) and my face was clear and bright. Sure I had a few wrinkles on the go – I’m an ex-smoker, after all – but it still seemed like there was hope. And there was a jawline, of course. It’s hard to believe it ever existed; it now feels mythical, the great unicorn of my late-thirties. But it was there. I have photos. I swear.
I look in the mirror and wonder where my old face went. My eyes – once so big, so blue! – have disappeared into my head. They look like two drawing pins on a pizza base. The lines across my forehead, which I’ve had the misfortune to own since I was a teenager, thanks to endless frowning, are deeper than the Earth’s core. My hair, while I’m grateful for its lustrous presence, is more salt than pepper and I refuse to dye it – I don’t want to look like I’ve been dipped in gravy.
I don’t care about looking young. I can’t look young; I’m almost 40. To a pensioner, sure, I’m young, but in the scheme of things, I’m not. I’m too old to be on the cover of We Love Pop, even if I had a no.1 single tomorrow – the ultimate dream, really – and most of Topman is now unavailable to me. You often find that people who want to look young, and have things like Botox or fillers or surgery, don’t actually look young. They look a version of young, sure, but it’s preservation – there’s no vibrant glow of youth. The face may be line-free and taut, but you can see the struggle going on behind the eyes. No truly young person ever looked like that. No, I don’t want to look young, I want to look good.
Why? Well, it’s simple: people are much nicer to you when you look good. Call it a shallow world and write me a million hand-wringing op-eds about why this is a bad thing and I will read them all and agree, but I don’t have it in me to shake up the system by being OK with looking like shit.
When it’s revealed to them, people tell me I don’t look my age. No seriously, they do. I don’t know what to do with the information. I think I’m supposed to be grateful I managed to keep my actual age a secret. I’ve whinged about the reaction to my actual age many times before, but the fact is I find another person’s inability to carbon-date me scant comfort as my arthritic knees buckle under me yet again. However, a compliment is a compliment so instead of throwing them out of a window or setting myself on fire, I smile, like I’ve been handed a lollipop by a dentist even though I know, next time I visit, he’s going to take all my teeth out.
I was no beauty as a child, freckly and bony and toothy, and it certainly took me a long time to grow into my face. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I started to feel good. I am absolutely livid, foaming with bitterness, that the brief period of looking great is over. I blinked. Turns out I don’t have a magic picture in the attic after all.
The main thing I miss about looking younger, and generally better, is being admired by others. When I was younger, of course, I’d be mortified to see anyone checking me out, even if they themselves were absolutely smoking hot. I had that luxury of youth, you see, that dull virginal, prudish sheen we eventually shed. I didn’t realise then, as I do now, that one day they stop looking. And you miss them when they do.
Sure, I still get the odd glance; I’m not Quasimodo. But the hot ones don’t look any more. I’m invisible, a regular Mr Cellophane. When I catch a brute checking me out on the Tube – and even that occurrence is dwindling into dodo territory – I still feel indignant. But I know that when even they stop looking, as they will, I’ll feel even worse.
And, yes, I have a boyfriend who tells me I’m handsome pretty much every day, and I’m not interested in hooking up with someone who checks me out on public transport, but there’s something about the validation of strangers, from someone who doesn’t have to appreciate you at all if they don’t want, that makes you feel even hotter.
I read a lot of interviews with celebrities where they claim they “can’t wait to be old” or “love getting older”, like they’re in a Stockholm syndrome situation with their wrinkles.
There’s always the old cliché that once you sail past 50, you can do whatever you want. Hollywood Wives star Candice Bergen, no doubt yawning and twisting a napkin in her lap at being asked about her age yet again, once said: “People can get crazier as they get older. I can just be weird whenever I want, and there’s the freedom of not caring what people think.”
The reality is that non-Hollywood people can’t be weird whenever they want, unless they want be sectioned. And not caring what people think? Yes, you do. You do. And don’t tell me you “can’t wait to be old” when you have a cosmetic surgeon on speed dial and your face looks like it’s being held back with bungee rope.
So while I’m pleased for these uber-moisturised liars gliding around Beverly Hills like a packet of wet wipes on casters, they’re not my people. Where are the role models who rage against getting old, are furious that they’re no longer as young as they once were? Do I have only Adele, who, at 27 (!) has already made an entire album about feeling past it. Where are my poster boys and girls?
So I do what I can. I eat vegetables. I pile on the face cream and try not to match it in pounds. I go to the gym to be surrounded by heaps of other men my age on the treadmill, desperately outrunning an invisible, inevitable assailant. Red-cheeked gurning gods who are at most a “Face 5, Body 10” staving off the death-slide into irrelevance by flinging a kettle bell around. I can’t opt out of this club: my predilection for beer, and the sudden decision by my metabolism to go part-time and do an evening course, means I need more help than most.
But although I rage against the age, I have to accept it. I am 40 next week, and unless that elixir from Death Becomes Her hits the shelves pretty sharpish, there are no U-turns for my face.
Making the best of it, then, is key. Lighting is important. From now on, I’ll never enter a room that’s lit any brighter than a microwave oven gently blasting a jug of gravy.
Walking into strong winds may, with a bit of luck, push back some of the sagging, so I’ll endeavour only to holiday in places with a high hurricane count.
At parties, I will ask friends to hand over all contact lenses and spectacles before I walk into the room. Those with 20/20 vision must agree to put Vaseline over their eyeballs or stand across the room when talking to me. We can text, maybe.
Or, you know, I can find someone who’s ageing a whole lot worse than me and thank God I’m not them. Easy peasy: