When I was in my early 20s, I ached for an older-looking face. That whole buccal fat removal thing? I would have died for it back then – I had soft, youthful cheeks and looked like a little baby cherub. In hindsight it was lovely, but man did I hate getting carded at clubs, bouncers scrutinising my driver’s licence like amateur FBI agents before finally, sceptically letting me into their establishments.
When I reached my late 20s I went from yearning for an older face to smug satisfaction every time someone exclaimed “you’re 28? But you don’t look a day over 21!” It made my heart sing to be mistaken for a uni student. When bouncers did their FBI analysis thing, I didn’t scowl, I beamed. Suddenly my cheruby face was a blessing not a curse, because while I was getting older, I didn’t look it – and that’s all that mattered, right?
I felt like I’d hit the jackpot – my face didn’t seem to age. Wizardry. Maybe my Brita filter contained the fountain of youth or something. Sure, I had some fine lines and pigmentation, but it was nothing a little Botox and a few good peels couldn’t keep in check.
Then in my 30s something shifted. Well, not really. What happened was that over the past 15-or-so years, my face had been ageing in tiny, subtle ways and I just hadn’t seen it happening. Then one day this year I looked in the mirror, and I saw it. I looked older. Noticeably in my 30s. Youthful elasticity? Don’t know her. Dark circles? Welcome to the family. Smile lines? Permanent residency.
A yucky, stone-in-my-stomach feeling hit me, like when you see a “where are they now” side-by-side of a celebrity you had a crush on as a teen, except now it’s been 20 years and they do not look like they could pass for 17 in a tv show about some kids who live in a rich Californian beach town.
That realisation that because they have aged, and you can see the ageing process all over them… that means that like it or not, you have too. It was this feeling, but instead of having it abruptly whenever those TikToks flew into my feed, it was every morning as I looked in the mirror, over and over.
I know this sounds totally vain, probably a little vapid, and seriously ageist. But I wasn’t actually upset about my face from an aesthetic POV. Digging a little deeper, this was about way more than a few wrinkles and some newfound jowls.
We spend decades of our lives with blinkers on about ageing. Our teens and our 20s are times of self-exploration and little else – what is time! It comes and it goes, but in this way where we feel like there’s so much of it ahead of us that a few wasted days and months don’t matter. Then, we get older and (morbid, I know) closer to death. This rude fact hits us smack in the jaw either via loss or via the physical realities of time passing.
We go from being teenagers waiting impatiently for these stupid years of school uniforms and rules to pass, and then there’s this good bit where it’s parties and travel and KFC hangovers and then suddenly, the years are blurring and it’s July already and we’re like whoa, can this slow down a little, thank you very much?
I think for me, the fact I was ageing slowly for so long was comforting in that latter period. Time was rushing by but at least I passed for a younger version of myself, so I felt confident acting like that younger version of myself. I was hovering in my 20s for way longer than I was meant to.
I’m not really at a point where I’ve found peace with my newly-aged face. I don’t like the changes, not because I feel ugly. Aesthetically, I like how the lines on our faces appear where we’ve felt emotion. It’s beautiful to me, I just wasn’t ready for it.
I don’t think I could ever have been ready for it, because it’s a reminder that time is passing. I’m not 17 anymore, I’m not 27 anymore, I’m 37 and when I look back, I don’t feel like 37 years of my life have gone by. That’s a scary and terrifying reality to confront – but I also know I have to look it dead in the eyes and accept it.
Because here’s the thing – you can’t stop ageing. You can push against it as much as you want, but controlling your appearance won’t actually fix the problem, because the fear isn’t about how you look, it’s about what it means.
The signs of ageing on my face scare me so much because they’re the only physical indicator that time is passing. No matter what I do. I can’t control it. I can’t hit pause. I can’t add in a few more years wherever I want to.
So what can I do? Embrace it. You might think that means blow my life up – change everything, move to Barbados, set up a surf shop and then move again to Paris, and then again to a remote island off the coast of Brazil and so on. No, I don’t think that’s the answer. I think it’s more like… acknowledging that while time passes fast, it also passes slowly… It’s the great hypocrite! And we don’t want to coast through all the years, but we also need to embrace the years where things are smooth and uneventful, and appreciate what exists within them.
For me, it’s about working out what makes my heart feel full, and following it. Shifting my perspective and seeing ageing as the cultivation of wisdom, the deepening of relationships and the solidification of what I know matters to me, what fulfils me.
It’s being brave enough to take action when part of my life is in a rut, while also refraining from jumping ship before something that’s got potential has time to grow. Most of all, it’s learning what this balancing act between movement and stillness looks like.
I can tell this is some life-long process I’ll screw up many times over, but this is where the real joy – the kind that isn’t fleeting and ego-driven and dependent on some FBI bouncer’s card analysis skills – comes from. When we look at precious time and cherish what’s been, then cherish what’s ahead – reframing our validity so it’s not exclusively for the youth season, but for every season.
It’s confronting to realise I’m getting older, but it’s also what will drive me to live fully and wholly and completely. So I’m leaning in.