I felt old yesterday, a rare occurrence, even though I'll be turning 39 later this year. My clash with reality took place at Vidal Sassoon, where an absolutely stunning 22-year-old stood behind me with her hands resting gently on my shoulders, poised to give my raggedy hair a desperately needed trim. Dressed in a style I’ll call “cover-your-privates-and-not-
She possessed a sexy exuberance, undulating her body to describe how my hair would soon be transformed into supple waves that would miraculously cascade down my pale and saggy shoulders. Staring at her intently, partly in awe and partly to avoid my own reflection, I wanted to escape to a kinder and more just world where gorgeous 22-year-old women – those with perfect skin and hair, no dark rings under their eyes, and rock-hard thighs – don’t tower over middle-aged women with skin spots, one very long gray hair, and character-building laugh lines. In that moment, what our society values above all else – youth – was right smack in front of me. All I could do was cringe and look away.
Most of the time, I really don’t mind growing older. It’s true, I see the grooves deepening around my eyes and mouth, but I observe the changes above my shoulders with curiosity rather than dismay. That’s why I’m still Botox-free, at least for now, and why my skin-care regimen consists of Dove soap and Cetaphil lotion, both of which I purchase at my local drugstore. But fidgeting uncomfortably before this young and beautiful stylist in a hip downtown salon, I found myself feeling unattractive, awkward, and inadequate. A bittersweet nostalgia welled up inside of me. In that instant, I wanted to be twenty-two again.
Even in the midst of this self-induced pit of despair, I couldn't help but be struck by the absurdity of my wishful thinking. I was unhappy throughout all four years of college. And overweight. And insecure. You get the drift. But during my senior year, in 1996, the gray clouds parted for a few months when I started teaching conversational English at a local school for adults.
My students were educated professionals who had relocated to Gainesville from other countries to study for the TOEFL exam, work, or putz around while their spouses taught at the local university. Each week, I spent a couple of hours with them, facilitating conversations about culture, politics, and any other topic that would help them practice their English. From my lovely students I learned the Brazilian Samba, sipped on a Korean drink called Sikhye, and attended my first drag queen show during an outing with the entire class. Among this joyful and disparate group of foreigners, I discovered a sense of belonging and happiness I’d never known before.
I distinctly remember one of my students, a total firecracker from Venezuela. She was thirty four years old and one of the coolest people I’d ever met in my life. A tomboy in her youth, just like I had been, she seemed so mature, sexy, and confident. “Thirty-four is the magic age!” I proclaimed to whomever would listen. "When I hit thirty-four I will be confident in who I am and will no longer care about what people think of me. Hooray, thirty-four, here I come!” That belief stayed with me for the next twelve years.
Did it all come together for me by age 34? Hardly. I was living in a city that didn’t feel like home with a hubby who was gone all the time for work, and I was desperately trying to save a career that seemed to be moving off the endangered species list into extinction. I was also a new mom, a role I cherished but one I believed was contributing to my loneliness and frustration. Thirty-four had not been the magic number I thought it would be, and I knew while sitting in the salon chair that going back to twenty-two was not the answer either. So at what point do I finally feel comfortable with exactly where I am, in years and in life?
Without much else to do, I started to chat with the hairstylist. She told me about her boyfriend, whom she’s known since high school and doesn’t get to see that often because he’s in a band and lives in California. She then told me a little bit about her family, her extra job, and her previous night’s adventures at Lollapalooza. As her life unfolded before me, I quickly got past the stunning exterior and saw a person who had been much like me back in 1996: eager to please, feisty, ambitious, and vulnerable, though we both refused to show it.
During our conversation, after one particularly hilarious anecdote she was sharing, I happened to glance in the mirror. Gone was the sallow skin and weary eyes that had gazed back at me gloomily half an hour ago. Sitting there I saw a woman who had everything: a child and husband she adored, an emerging career that left her breathless, wonderful friendships, good health, and a city that felt like home. Twenty-two was not perfect, just like thirty-four had not been perfect. In another 15 years, I have to wonder, will I be wishing I appreciated how I had looked and felt at thirty-eight?
When the hairstylist dusted off my shoulders and showed me my new and sexy look (and trust me, it’s super sexy), I found myself happily smiling at the almost 39-year-old woman staring back. No longer focused on the beauty of the 22-year-old woman standing behind me, I was finally able to see the more mature, muted, and dare-I-say splendid version of my own.
~By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop