No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.
When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.
Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.
I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.
My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.
My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.
The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?
I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.
When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.
Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.
I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.
I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.
Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019
Audio Version can be heard here.