Reckoning With Our Necks

In 2020, I suddenly noticed my neck. And my age.

Since When Am I An Elder?
Photo: Eric Jeon/InStyle

In my mid-thirties, I vowed to never get Botox. I was so serious, and apparently so confident in my ability to age gracefully, that I wrote my anti-Botox pledge in a blog post for all the world to see. Now I look at that earnest, innocent pledge, and I laugh.

The problem is, in my mid-thirties I was at my peak of hotness and youth! I looked better at 35 than I did at 25. My frizzy hair was silky straight, thanks to the pricey and toxic Brazilian blowouts I was getting. My skin was smooth, my body hadn’t been transformed by pregnancy, and I never, ever worried about my neck. In fact, back then I remember reading Nora Ephron’s book I Feel Bad About My Neck with a kind of detached humor. It’s a hilarious series of essays about getting older, and at that time it felt like something I would truly relate to far into the future, maybe when I had grandkids and an AARP card. Well, ignorance is definitely bliss, because a few years later I turned 40, I had a kid, and I started to feel very, very bad about my neck.

Oh, and I also broke my solemn vow and got Botox. Many times.

Most of us want to “age gracefully,” whatever that means to us. We want to go full-force and accept the wrinkles and grays (good for you!), or else maybe dabble in Botox and keep dying our hair. The quest to feel beautifully youthful isn’t a new one, obviously. Cleopatra supposedly took donkey-milk baths because of the anti-aging effects, and raw meat facials were apparently once a thing. It’s easy to proclaim that you’re going to accept your crow’s feet or your neck no matter what when your neck and crow’s feet still look cute. It’s a little harder when you look in the mirror and your turkey neck looks like a flashing neon sign saying NO AMOUNT OF CREAMS WILL FIX THIS.

A few weeks back, I came across an Elle essay by Chloe Hall called "Can I Please Just Be 50 Already". I’m not 50 (see how I have to proclaim that?), but I am closer to 50 than I am to 29, which is Hall’s age. In the piece, she talks about wanting to become an “elder,” like Martha Stewart, Padma Lakshmi, Michelle Obama, or JLo. Her argument is that your twenties are hard (true), and she longs to have the surety and confidence of the celebrity women fifty and over who seem to be living it up and facing challenges with grace, at least on Instagram. That’s an amazing sentiment, but as I kept reading all I could think was: Am I almost a freaking elder?

My neck was giving me enough grief, and now this.

We usually think of elders as wise 90-year olds or great-grandparents who need help with the groceries. How can you call Martha Stewart, posing seductively in her pool, an elder? How is Padma Lakshmi, rocking a bikini in a Twitter photo that says “50 is the new 30,” an old woman? What I realized once my self-esteem resurfaced and my anger subsided was that it’s not about being “old.” It’s not about wrinkles or being on death’s door. It’s about attitude, and style. And guess what, 50- or 60-year old women can look hot. Just look at Helen Mirren.

Hall writes of the elders she admires: “Most importantly, during this incredibly anxious period, they, more than anyone else, appear to be … fine.” There’s a danger in idolizing celebrities based on their Instagram feed, which Hall acknowledges. Still, there is some truth to the fact that experiencing breakups and loss and triumphs and epic failures in your twenties, thirties and forties makes it a little easier to weather things that might have sidelined you before you attained elder status.

Attitudes towards women and aging are changing, and much of that is thanks to celebrities like Lakshmi and Halle Berry. In a recent Guardian interview, Isabella Rossellini, a great beauty who was once fired as the face of Lancôme because she was a decrepit 43-years old, said, “Aging brings a lot of happiness. You get fatter and more wrinkles, and that’s not so good, but there is a freedom that comes with it. The freedom is: I better do what I want to do now, because I’ll be dead soon.”

Years later, Lancôme apologized to Rossellini and hired her back, when she was a youthful 63 — further proof that there has been a cultural shift when it comes to our perceptions of women and aging. That’s not to say that society is fully embracing older women, or even that we’re fully embracing ourselves. Like anything, it’s a journey, and sometimes, depending on the day and the lighting, that journey can suck.

A study called Body Image, Aging, and Identity in Women Over 50: The Gender and Body Image (GABI) found that “middle and old age are generally seen as period of decline in Western society, a problem with particular relevance for women due to Western society’s long history of placing value on physical appearance, youth, and thinness.”

From that same study: “All women claimed that they still felt young inside and often experienced shock when they looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of an older woman.”

Who is to say that Michelle Obama and JLo don’t feel that sometimes too? That discovery makes me a little sad — that so many of us look in the mirror and see a reflection we don’t recognize. It’s life, it happens, but it’s not always easy to embrace the things that remind us that we’re not 29 anymore. We should not let all of our self-worth rest on our looks. We need to focus on who we are, what we do each day, and what we want to accomplish. The idea of becoming an “elder” at 50 can be inspiring instead of depressing, depending on the way you look at it, and the way you look at yourself in that mirror.

The truth is, as much as I despise my new old neck, I would not want to remain my 25- or 29-year old self forever, because I hadn’t yet experienced some of the most trying and joyous and fulfilling days of my life yet. In my forties, my self-esteem is more about what kind of mom I am or how good of a friend I can be or what I can accomplish in my career.

Maybe I’ll try and follow Rossellini’s lead and adopt the attitude that age does bring freedom and happiness. What if 50 is the new 30, rather than just being a nice thing to tweet? As Oprah once said, “Every year should be teaching us all something valuable. Whether you get the lesson is really up to you.” Maybe my lesson is to embrace where I am, and view “Elder” status as something to look forward to, instead of something to fight against. Maybe the best years of my life are right around the corner, in my fifties!

That said, if a magical youth serum for necks comes on the scene and actually works, I’m in.

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