I’m a woman who will soon be 30. I am terrified of watching my physical beauty deteriorate over the next decade.
I’m conventionally attractive. I don’t believe that being pretty translates to any tangible social power, but I do get positive attention from people, which I enjoy. I love being gazed at. I don’t mean street harassment or anything like that, but the way that people (of all genders) get these dreamy, enraptured looks on their faces when they see me. I think beauty has some magical quality to it, and it makes me feel alive. When I look at myself, too, I sometimes get the same sensation as when I behold an emotionally stirring work of art—shimmering, crackling, breathless. There truly is nothing like a beautiful face.
And so, the prospect of losing this—and I know I will lose it, everyone does—fills me with such crushing dread. I take care of myself as best I can in terms of a healthy lifestyle and sunscreen, but I know that every day that goes by, I am aging, and ultimately powerless to stop it. (I don’t have much faith in the ability of cosmetic procedures to keep my face looking exactly the way it does now, so that “option” is of little comfort). It’s like I’ve been given this precious gift with the stipulation that it will be yanked away from me before my life is even halfway over. I don’t know how to cope with this. I have these horrible moments now in which I see older women around me and feel a visceral sense of disgust and pity—obviously a projection of my own fears.
The prospect of looking older is sometimes so intolerable that I sometimes plan ways to commit suicide in the future. Because I realize this sounds/is crazy, I looked into a treatment program for Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I was told, however, that I don’t qualify because I don’t currently hate my appearance. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, but neither diagnosed me with anything, they essentially said that “most women have these concerns” and I’ll probably “age well anyway.” The psychiatrist offered to prescribe a sleeping pill if the thoughts kept me awake at night. The therapist suggested that I read feminist literature. My mother told me I must have things pretty good if I can spend so much time fixating on my future face.
Do you have any advice?
I wish you’d attached a photograph, so I could gaze upon the emotionally stirring work of art that is your head. I don’t know how else to conjure the emotion that’s required of me at this moment. What are you going to lose, exactly, when you get older? Even when I picture you as Giselle, I remain unmoved. The enraptured gazes, the crackling, shimmering whatever… It’s so hard to imagine. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
You say there’s truly nothing like a beautiful face. That statement makes me imagine a giant plate of delicious nachos, a good book, and a cold beer. It makes me think about dogs with weird personalities, and funny children. It makes me think about the sound of rain on the roof when you’re taking a nap in the afternoon. Pretty faces can go fuck themselves, compared to peanut butter cups.
If none of that makes sense to you, then let me just say this: Your priorities are going to change drastically. Even if you keep living in this bizarre airless room where you gaze at yourself all day like the evil queen in Snow White (there’s a reason they make fairy tales with big, important lessons about vanity), you’re still going to mature over the next decade and find that all of this pretty face bullshit just doesn’t have the weight that it once did, not even to you.
In the meantime, though, you really need to find something else to occupy your mind. You don’t sound stupid, but you do sound extremely bored, and very depressed. The world is so much more engaging and incredible than you’re making it seem. What’s kept you in this two-dimensional realm of the mirror? Who trapped you there? What’s at stake? Are you lonely? Do you feel like you’re running out of time to find love? There’s something else to this picture that you’re not addressing, and without knowing more I can’t tell you that much. You should definitely find a therapist who’s interested in delving into this question with you, who seems determined to dig through all of the dimensions of what your experiencing.
Mostly, I have to tell you that time doesn’t run out as fast as you think. Most women I know looked like they were 29 for about a decade, honestly. And yes, things change in your 40s, but mostly, if you’re living right, you just want more time to do stuff. Even when you start to have to make adjustments to the tired-looking woman in the mirror, you find ways to love that person, too. The hideous old face you imagine now isn’t yours. The face that is yours might disappoint you sometimes, but it won’t be as devastating as you think.
You need to listen to that Alanis Morissette album, the one where she thanks India and proclaims that she’ll be good even if she gains ten pounds. Alanis is just the ticket for you right now. She’ll make you see how poisonous your superiority complex is. You may hate the old, ugly person you think you’ll become because you’re not sure what else you have to offer, besides your face. You should dedicate yourself to becoming someone whom you’ll feel proud of, without or without the shimmering and the crackling. Haven’t you ever met anyone who wasn’t conventionally attractive, but who was incredibly charismatic and enviable? If not, you really need to get out more. Instead of gazing at your own heart-stopping face, you should throw out your mirror and dedicate yourself to something that feeds your soul and makes you feel even more alive than, I don’t know, admiring your own image? It’s a bad habit. And apparently it makes you feel powerless, because you’re getting off on something you feel you’re about to lose.
Here’s the truth, and you’re just going to have to trust me on this: You’re not nearly as old or as beautiful as you think you are. And even if you are the most ravishing woman alive, I’d advise you to imagine, instead, that you are very young and very plain. Then walk out into the world, and be a regular person among the other regular people, with your whole life ahead of you. You’ll be surprised at how good that feels.
You pity the old ladies. What you don’t know is that they pity you even more. They know what a burden you’re carrying around, and they know how bad it makes you feel, to think of losing this thing that’s actually a crutch that keeps you from maturing and connecting with the real world.
I know you’re just being honest. I don’t want to give you shit for that. I just think you need to get a bad haircut and eat a big piece of cherry pie and join the rest of us. When you do, you’ll see the truth at last: Life is beautiful. Pretty faces are a dime a dozen.
I’m in my early 40s; an aspiring writer and graphic designer; have been in a relationship for over ten years with my ‘fiance'; desperately desiring a child and feeling like I’ve run out of time.
I put the word fiance in quotes because we’ve been affianced for almost ten years now, with no prospect of actually getting married because he’s been there twice and is ‘done with that shit.’ I’ve been married once before too, and while I respect his decision, I kind of feel unhappy that it’s his decision and not ours.
I’ve waited all this time for him to come around to having a child with me, but he’s always put it off (he already has one [with a previous partner] and he’s not ready for that responsibility again; one of us was in the middle of jobs; we were renting; we owned a place of our own but it was an apartment, not a house), and now it feels like my biological clock struck midnight a long time ago and neither of us noticed. Because now he says he’s ready to think of having another kid. Yet many times these past years, whenever I’ve brought up my wanting a baby, he’s pointed at my cat and my parrot and made Old Crazy Cat Lady jokes. I never found them funny.
I left my steady job last year to go back to graduate school—I’m pursuing a degree in graphic design. We talked about this before I made the move because it was a drastic career change for me (I was middle manager in a major retail chain); he had promised to support me/us while I did this. It seemed only fair to me since he had quit his job four years ago while he tried to ‘find’ himself. During those two years, I bore the brunt of our household expenses, insurance, etc. (The little savings income he had went to child support.) Even after two years of soul searching, it doesn’t look like he has any idea of what his driving passion is. I, however, know what I want to do, finally, and wanted to go for it. We moved to a cheaper city near my university last year. He had told me he had interviews lined up; when we got here, I found out two of those interviews were for part time jobs (and things he was vastly overqualified for) because, ‘I figured I’d need some time to get used to corporate slavery again, babe.’ In the meantime, our bills weren’t getting paid. So I begged and pleaded with my old boss to let me back as a part-time remote worker to supplement what he was making. I had to give away my bird because she had a fungal condition and I couldn’t afford the vet anymore. And this means that on top of being a graduate student, I’m working practically full-time because I constantly take on freelance gigs.
He’s extremely handsome and well-built. Women swarm him wherever we go (he used to be offered modeling gigs when we were younger). I’m kind of average-looking-okay, and I have put on some weight in the past years. Also I was a blonde when we met, but I’ve gone back to my natural deep brown hair now. Which means he frequently makes —even in public—jokes about me pulling a ‘switcheroo.’
He has no faith in my creative aspirations. I try to remind myself that he uprooted and moved to a new place for me. Which is totally a big deal. However, he keeps harping on the fact that he did this (which diminishes the sacrifice, am I wrong in thinking this?); but also he will make disparaging remarks about my projects and compare my achievements with others (“so-and-so won this award, how come you didn’t? aren’t you good enough?”).
I know I’ve made him sound like a nightmare. But we have many sweet moments too. My last birthday he organized a surprise trip to Peru as I’ve always wanted to visit there (my favorite grandmother came from Lima). And I have to admit we have the best sex ever. Really. And after all this time we’re both super attracted to each other. There’s no denying that.
My friends and family almost universally hate him. One of my sisters cancelled her Christmas trip to see our parents at the last minute because she found out he was going too (he usually doesn’t attend any family events). Two of my closest grad school friends are constantly pressuring me to leave. So much so that I’ve distanced myself from both. I love them dearly and I understand they want what’s good for me, but it also feels patronizing that they’re professing to know better than I do what’s the right thing for me. I feel the same way about my sisters.
This is the longest relationship I’ve ever had. I feel like he’s a good person, but maybe not good for me at this point in my life. But at the same time, maybe that moment, where our lives click together is just around the corner. I’ve invested so much here, given up so much of what I wanted to be with him, that I can’t help but wait for that mutual moment to arrive.
Am I being impatient? Am I being wrongheaded? What can I do?
Maybe Knows What to Do But Not How to Do It
All these years together, waiting to get married and have a baby, and now he wants to have a kid and you’re wondering if you should break up?
Your friends and sisters are constantly pressuring you to leave your husband? You know that’s because you spend most of your time together telling them he’s a total nightmare, right? And when they agree with you, and support you in your efforts to move on, you distance yourself from them?
You are an equal partner in the crazy life you’ve created. You’ve kept your husband around so that you will always have a scapegoat. (You work your ass off! You had to give your bird away! You just can’t stop having great sex!) It really sounds to me like you’re actively choosing to be locked into a long-term jail with this guy, and when other people try to help you out of that jail, you give them the heave-ho.
Are you asking if you should break up with him? Here’s my answer: If he doesn’t support your dreams, belittles you, and makes you pay for everything, then yes, you should break up with him.
Because I don’t think this picture improves magically. It just gets worse and worse. But when you finally do break up with him, try to make sure that you haven’t alienated every last friend you’ve ever had, because you’re really going to need them to help you pull through this major addiction you have to a very good-looking, very condescending, very lazy man’s contempt.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Dan Cook. Cat photo by “Heather.”