Every time I see my mom, she tells me, “Dye your hair. You look like an aging hippie.”
I’m 51, and while I fear I’m aging out of a lot of things—the ability to run miles and miles without getting injured, for one—I’m not aging out of looks. There’s a photograph of the writer Susan Sontag taken at 58. She’s lying back, holding her elbow up with her hand resting on her head. Sontag was known for her political theories, but also for the thick swath of gray hair right in front, while the rest was dark brown. In the photo, you can see the gray and also the loosening of the skin under her eyes. She looks strong and calm. The picture was taken by Annie Leibovitz, who was her lover.
My friend Allison is also 51. In high school she was on the soccer team and the dance drill team. She was fit and blond and had her pick of the boys. She’s still fit and blond, but on top of her monthly touch-ups at $120 each, she spends $300 and three hours every month to keep up with her roots. She’s single now and complains that pickings are slim.
"When I was young, I walked into a room and people noticed," she says. "Not anymore.”
I never walked into a room that way. If I wanted attention—and I did—I had to work a lot harder. I had to say something funny, so I got good at being a clown.
I was never pretty. My mom would disagree, but they had mirrors in high school. I saw my puffy cheeks, puffy body, and puffy hair. I wasn’t fat, but I felt bulky and spent way too much time switching out my jeans for different jeans before I left the house in the morning. They had mirrors in college too. When I could see I wasn’t one of the pretty girls, I opted out and went for ugly. I wore black-rimmed glasses way too big for my face. I wore men’s boxers, T-shirts, and suit vests. I was funny and young, so I could find men and women to sleep with, but beauty wasn’t my social capital.
My best friend in college, Meredith, another sunny blond, was invited to practically every fraternity formal. Once, without showering or putting on makeup, Meredith threw on a white flapper dress and went to a formal. I remember when one of her dates stopped us at a party. He said, “Mere, your friend is the wackiest girl in America.”
I wish looks didn’t matter to me then, when I pretended not to care. I wish looks didn’t matter to me now, when I know other things matter more. But they do.
Now I look older. On Mother’s Day, my wife, Vicky, and I went to dinner. Vicky is two months older than I am. We sat side-by-side in the booth, holding hands. We ordered a beer to share. The waiter came to our table with the beer and poured two glasses, then slid the glass with slightly more beer to me and said, “The mother gets more.”
Vicky laughed and said, “Oh, no, no, that’s crazy. We’re partners.”
The waiter made no indication that what he said might be offensive. He went on to explain that I looked more mature.
Vicky said, “It’s the hair.”
“No,” he said. “It’s the face.”
The first time this happened, we were probably 42. A woman, stumbling drunk at a food and wine festival, asked if Vicky was my daughter. I wanted to throw her mojito in her face. A few years later in Chile, our driver asked Vicky if she’d have a drink with him. She told him we were together, and he said he thought I was her mother.
I’ve been fielding these accusations for more than 10 years. Slowly, I’ve gotten used to them. It's true that Vicky looks deceivingly young. Her skin is lineless, and at 51, she has silky brown hair with very little gray. But I’ve also come to accept looking older, not just looking older than Vicky.
At my last high school reunion, the women looked older for sure, but our faces showed strength. We may have been saggy, but our bodies showed vulnerability and also capability; we’d climbed mountains; we’d given birth. I thought: Damn, we look hot.
Last week I met friends I'd biked across the country with 28 years ago. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and for the first 10 minutes, we went on and on about how we looked. I’ve witnessed this conversation in groups of women my whole life. Someone compliments. Someone self-deprecates. Lately these conversations are slightly different. There’s an undertone that sounds like a yearning for the past.
“How do you do it? You look gorgeous.”
“Spinning, five times a week.”
“Whatever I do, I can’t get rid of this muffin top.”
“Please, you look great.”
“Whatever, I’ve given up mirrors.”
We took a picture together and posted it on Facebook. One friend posted a picture of us from the biking trip. There we were, side by side, then and now.
Twenty-eight years ago, we’d pass the heavy jug of milk at breakfast and show off our defined biceps. Now I’m holding my arm out slightly. My skin looks loose, my muscles not so defined. I’m wearing a snug T-shirt and there’s the start of that menopause tire just above my belt line. My hair is going gray and my face is wrinkled around the eyes and forehead, but the effect is beautifying. I look chiseled. Mature. I look like an aging hippie. I look better than ever.
Andrea Askowitz is the host of the podcast Writing Class Radio. She’s at work on a memoir about attention. Follow her on Twitter @andreaaskowitz.
Originally Appeared on Glamour