Today, I am sharing the words of guest contributor Amy who is exploring her sense of identity as she faces the changes to her body and appearance that comes with ageing. As with each of these posts exploring identity, this might be a something that you relate to or something you find challenging. We will be exploring different contributors' approaches to navigating their own understanding of identity with each of these posts.
Each guest piece will be shared with the intention of creating a safe space in which the contributor defines and uses labels that feel right to them. I encourage you to read Amy's story with an open heart and if you have an identity story to share, I would love to give it a home here. Drop me your idea via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"It started with a photo, of Kate holding up a sample of something marked “Anti-Aging Lip Treatment”, and her asking how this was an actual thing. At first I laughed.
Because it is ridiculous. The notion that we women must perpetually look 28 until the day we die or we’re worthless is such toxic madness that I can’t even speak in coherent sentences about it. As Kate said, “…aging is living and I owe my daughter more than feeding her into this industry of self-hatred.”
…but then I stopped laughing, because I’m pretty squarely the target market for this. I can see the appeal. Okay, okay, not for the lip cream. (Apparently it’s supposed to keep lipstick from bleeding away from your lips in little wrinkles? But, hah, lipstick isn’t really in my regular repertoire, so better luck next time, beauty industry?) But okay, look. If we’re being perfectly candid here? If there were a cream that actually tightened the part of my neck just under my chin that’s getting all droopy? I’d probably spend a stupid amount of money on it. In a heartbeat.
I grew up on the same tiny peninsula in the same tiny town that my family settled umpteen generations ago. I’m the first one, as far as I know, to have left it. So much of who I am is still there, on the ocean and granite.
Ours was a giant, interconnected family - I was related to half the town in one way or another. (Moores, Wallaces, MacLeans: yes; Alexanders, Percys: GOD FORBID.) (Just kidding.) (Kind of.) My mother was the oldest of 10, and I spent my childhood hanging around the matriarchs as they chatted and went about their daily chores. Women ruled the roost in our family, and the older they were, the more revered.
My great-grandmothers, my grandmothers, my aunts, my mother - they taught me who I was, and how to be. About working hard, and love, and what mattered in life. Craft, and how making is the key to a soul. They were the keepers, the teachers, the ones you turned to with problems. They were soft, and wrinkled, and laughed. They were so, so beautiful. Never once did they obsess over appearance - people looked how they looked, which was less important than how they acted.
They were soft, and wrinkled, and laughed. They were so, so beautiful.
It all sounds idyllic, written like that. But a small fishing village in the 20th century wasn’t a great place to be, on the whole. Each generation had a steadily-worse life than the one before; independent fishermen like my grandfather could no longer make it work. Lives got shorter: due to a lack of routine medical care, people died devastatingly early. My great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents’ generations survived well into their 90s and sometimes past 100. Three of my grandparents died before 80. By the time we got to my parents? My mother died at 40 and my father at 62.
So I studied hard, was exceedingly lucky, and got out.
…and now I find myself in an utterly different context than I grew up in. Here in upper-middle-class New England, people are… sleek. Well-fed. Coiffed. Appearance matters, here, on some unspoken-but-deeply-internalised level.
And so I live in two different worlds: My internal world, where my matriarchs are with me still. My outside world, where people really seem to believe that how we look matters and women looking older is to be avoided if possible.
How can I care so much about my appearance when it connects me to my past, and I’m just so grateful to be alive? How can I NOT care, when it affects so many of my outcomes?
Mostly, I’m able to keep myself rooted in that internal world. I’m so keenly grateful that I get to be alive. So much of my generation, and my parents’ generation, haven’t been so lucky.
I even love most of the ways I’m aging. I have wrinkles around my eyes; they remind me of my mother. The loss of elastin is making my cheekbones more prominent, which reminds me of my paternal grandmother Lois, and her mother before her. These women taught me to be strong, and ambitious, and I love looking more like them.
On the other hand, I now live somewhere it’s common to be creamed-and-massaged-and-toned-and-lifted. Your clothes, your level of health, these physical markers, are all part of the scene here. My placement in that scene — anyone’s placement, in any scene — affects so much of my life.
Am I visible, or invisible? Am I listened to at the doctor’s, or not? If something happens and I need to go back to the corporate world, will I be able to get a job? My appearance is intricately tied up in all of that: In order to be valued, one must first be acknowledged - and there’s this sickening invisibility cloak thrown over older women in my current place and time.
And so, here we are. While some changes in my appearance connect me with the women who mean so much to me, some are just jarring. I look in the mirror and no longer recognize who I see. (Where did this thing on my neck come from? Can I keep the cheekbones and the wrinkles around my eyes and my hands, but lose the neck thing? WHAT IS THE NECK THING, EVEN??)
…and then my brain goes ‘round. Why on earth would my neck upset me?! Does it only bother me because it’s not present in any of the (vastly few) images I see of older women? Does it give me a safe zone to indulge in a little bit of the “I must look young” culture, a way to connect with my neighbors and friends? When I photograph myself, I spend entirely too much time duplicating the careful poses that I see in the media. (Chin out, straight-on lighting.)
So this is where I am - living my fervent and internalized belief that we are all perfect, as we are… …while struggling with this recognition that I’d fork over a small fortune to avoid what’s happening to my neck.
Of course, I don’t need to settle this. We can all of us have contradictions within us, it’s part of what makes us human. But as I was writing these words, I stopped to wonder: Did Lois have a neck thing? Did my Great-Grams Wallace, Gowan, Thomas? Or my Aunt Terri?
Just now, I just looked over at the portrait of my Gram Grace that my uncle took for her on her 80th birthday. She has the same neck thing. I’d never noticed it before.
Maybe I'll be able to make peace with it, after all."