I was at an airport not long ago when a TSA agent did a double take while checking my ID. I’m used to this. I’ve always been blessed with youthful looks, and typically people meeting me don’t believe I’m actually nearing a half-century of years on Earth. Occasionally I’m still carded in bars. That feels nice. So I smiled, ready for the usual compliment.
But this was different. This man looked at my photo, looked again at me, squinting, and said, “Wow, you look about 16 in your picture!” Translation: “You look waaaaay older than you did when that photo was taken.” It was the first time someone had remarked, even indirectly, that my face finally matched my years.
It was inevitable. After all, one can’t look like a teenager forever. Life carves away at us in visible ways, even those of us with good DNA. And I’ve had a lot of poor health in the last decade, with effects that I’ve been seeing in the mirror more and more. Tired eyes. Splotchy skin with spots that no long pass as cute freckles. That extra pat of fat under the chin. Deep lines like scars between the brows. Thinning hair. It’s all here, on a girl who thought maybe, just maybe, she’d sipped from the fountain of youth.
But it’s happening. And, as is sadly true of most women, there are traits I’ve always disliked—and they seem only to stand out more than ever. Is my nose actually getting bigger, and, if so, why isn’t my chin getting stronger, too, rather than droopier? My pores still scream for attention and my dull-brown rag of hair continues to underperform. And so on. It’s normal, but also shallow and silly (people are starving around the world, I know) and not something I’m proud of.
So it goes with age, of course. It’s no secret that we don’t appreciate youth until youth peters out. Wasted on the young, they say.
Then, I was poking around on Instagram and came across a photo of a woman by a photographer I know. It was a shot of his wife, in near-profile, and she was clearly in her 50s or 60s, with all the signs of her age in her face and wild, rippled graying hair. And she was absolutely gorgeous. I mean, stunning. Not for all the typical reasons, but because you could see the life she’d lived in her eyes and the life still to come in her faint smile. She wasn’t posing; she was simply being.
I couldn’t stop looking at her. If her nose was crooked or her eyebrows thin, I didn’t notice. I suddenly almost wanted to look 60 (okay, 55) if age would promise me a full narrative of wrinkles and gray-streaked hair, and an air of confidence and grace that replaced this one of fear and self loathing. She was beauty, clear and true.
A face that holds my attention reminds me of those scientific studies looking to mark beauty as an evolutionary signal of ship-shape DNA, a way to help us make smart mate choices. A lot of the research has been about facial symmetry rather than nose size and other traits that rely on cultural preferences. Importantly, genetic and environmental blips can cause a face to be slightly out of whack, the way most of ours are, and who knows what invisible (deadly?) flaws come along for the ride. Developmental stability certainly affects what we become and perhaps how long we last.
Fortunately, our complex brains have evolved to accept great diversity in facial aesthetics. But the research that made headlines suggested that people all over the world favor perfectly symmetrical faces, with the bias growing weaker when the images are flipped upside down (looking more like objects than people). The latter point supports the theory that it isn’t just a general love of symmetry that drives us; instead, we seek “perfection” in a mate specifically, so those nicely aligned features might signal something important about our quality as a mate. Scientists thought perhaps a model face would pair with excellent health, which would make evolutionary sense. (Interestingly, at least one study has shown that infants hold their gaze longer on less symmetric faces. So, well before we start dating, novelty is more intriguing than perfection. You go, babies!).
But researchers didn’t find the symmetry-health connection. The largest and most recent study, with more than 4,000 teens whose health had been tracked since birth, found no link at all between childhood maladies (that can lead to ill health later) and facial orderliness. Nor did those faces say anything about the subjects’ current health status.
If you have a working arm growing out of your hip and cry tears of blood, a potential partner might question your potential as a DNA donor. But if one eye is slightly higher than the other (one of mine is, damn it, and probably one of yours, too), he or she shouldn’t write you off as a poor mate choice. The face seems to hold its secrets close.
I’m grateful that aging doesn’t, in addition to everything else, knock our features out of line. But unlike a neatly stacked one, an aging face does indeed send an important message. Survival of the species means knowing the optimal time for reproduction versus the time to pull your slacks up too high, forget basic computer functions, and give credit card information to cold callers. By the time we look (and act) old and haggard, a woman’s body in particular—the workhorse in this situation—isn’t interested in making a baby anyway. So if the 25-year-old pizza-delivery guy doesn’t find me beautiful in that way anymore, it won’t affect the continuation of the human race. (Let’s hope at least the pizza is hot.)
But back to TSA. Next time I get that incredulous look from the agent checking my ID, I’m going to own my retired ovaries, my weirdly uneven eyebrow wrinkles, and both of my chins. I’ve been places and done things that I’d never trade to subtract a few years from my outside. My new aim: Let experience draw a map around my eyes, let each gray hair represent a memorable adventure. Youth: The young can have it. That portrait of the photographer’s wife, with her advanced years a beautiful badge of honor, will keep me honest.
Now…does anyone know where I can get that drug that gets rid of turkey neck?
Photo credit: Shutterstock