Greyphobia: Why can’t I just love my wrinkles?

I’m thirty-four years old.

I have certain products I put on my face daily. One is an antioxidant serum I use around my eyes to prevent wrinkles.

I also have many grey hairs, which I first noticed when I was pregnant with E (age 30). Each pregnancy has accelerated the process. I’ve never dyed my grey, but that’s probably because it’s still mostly hidden under the top layer of brown hair. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of colouring someday. (Especially since I have a three-year-old who once said to me, “Mama, I hope I’m not getting old… like you.”)

Back in our twenties, when my Hubbibi was wooing me with written correspondence, I remember one of his letters – which always contained social/political commentary (yes, that was part of what wooed me) – talking about how crazy it was that companies could charge so much for something like anti-wrinkle cream and people would still feel the need to buy it. At the time, part of me agreed with him… and yet, I already knew that such vanity existed in me, although I had no eye wrinkles at the time.

Now, here I am. I do spend money on skin products, including ones to “keep me young”.

I know it’s kinda dumb. It’s not like I’m losing my eyesight or developing arthritis, both of which would actually hinder my ability to enjoy life. It’s not like I’m a famous personality who gets lots of public attention and scrutiny. I’m not hoping for some kind of big break based on my youthful face. But I can’t deny that when I see my wrinkles getting more pronounced, I sigh sadly. When I see an obvious grey hair, I pull it out.

Why do I do this? My “signs of aging” are the results of life being lived – the laughter and tears and sunshine and pregnancies and interrupted nights with my babies – and I wouldn’t trade these things for youth… not even the tears. I am glad to be healthy and alive, knowing lots of people have had their lives cut shorter than this. To age is a privilege.

It’s not that I think my life has already passed its peak and it’s all downhill from here. On the contrary, I look forward to the next thirty-four years – and beyond, if I’m lucky – as more opportunities to do and be and witness great things.

So why can’t I just own this aging thing? Be proud of my grey hairs? Love my wrinkles?

Frustratingly, this seems to be mostly a women’s problem. Men apparently don’t give a dirty diaper-full about going grey or getting wrinkles. Why do women get these neuroses?

Conveniently, I blame society. (Because society can be blamed for everything.) Especially advertising media.

It dawned on me when I saw the commercial for “Touch of Gray” (Just For Men).

For men, grey hair is an asset. It’s distinguished, handsome, mature. It says “experience”, for crap’s sake.

You’ll notice the woman doing the interview has NO “touch of gray” WHATSOEVER. No visible wrinkles either. Sheesh. Please excuse me while I gag on the double-standard.

Women get crow’s feet. Men get “crinkly eyes”.

Women are bombarded by anti-aging advertising, featuring models either airbrushed or well under forty (or both). These ads are designed to create anxiety about looking your actual age – aging skin can’t possibly be “great skin”. Have you EVER seen such an ad featuring a man?

Male actors – some of the biggest celebrities – can walk around with crinkles and grey on display, and still be considered hot… think George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, John Slattery, Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere. Female actors don’t get to show their grey unless the part actually calls for it; Helen Mirren, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, and Meryl Streep almost never let their true colours show. (And don’t get me started on plastic surgery.) How is that fair?

Pretty-Woman julia roberts richard gere
Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (age 41) in Pretty Woman

I asked my husband if he ever worries or even thinks about grey hair and wrinkles. He practically scoffed. “Are you kidding? I can’t wait! I’ve always wanted to be an old man!” Of course, Sean is not a good person to ask about this; he has a perpetually young-looking face, and also an odd penchant for deliberately choosing accessories that are, shall we say, “elderly” (sweater-vests, flat caps, even the occasional walking stick or pocket watch).

But how and why does he get to want to be an old man? I think we’re dealing not just with ads, but with a deeply ingrained societal idea.

Say the words “old man” to yourself. (Or Google it, if that’s easier.) What images come to mind? Maybe it’s just me, but I think of someone old and wise, gentlemanly, even venerable… like Winston Churchill, or Gandhi, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. After all, the iconic “Old Man and the Sea” was about an old Cuban fisherman with extraordinary strength, determination, and resourcefulness.

The words “old lady” just aren’t the same; inexplicably, I picture someone hunched, shuffling, blue-haired, going a little bit dotty. Even “old woman” doesn’t sound good – “old women” do things like invite hapless children into their gingerbread homes and roast them. They might live in a shoe, or swallow a fly for no good reason.

Why do I think this? It’s ridiculous! All the old women I know are amazing, intelligent, lovely people, not at all how I describe. Why does societal perception trump my actual life experience?

It would be easier to reveal the evidence of our journeys toward old-womanhood if women, as a group, were allowed to age properly, naturally, graciously. How will we get permission to be free of a myth in which we participate?

I guess I should start by wearing my wrinkles and grey hairs proudly, like the badges of my personal history that they are… and then show young girls it’s okay – by being super-awesome.

I’ll work on that.

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20 thoughts on “Greyphobia: Why can’t I just love my wrinkles?

  1. Mama says:

    I’ll go buy Dove – not because it will get rid of my wrinkles, but because it’s a COOL ad!

    The good thing about the ad with the grey-haired guy is: it’s a woman interviewing HIM, not the other way around.

    Sears catalogues are featuring a lot of women over 50 these days – or at least, they LOOK over 50, so it’s the same thing.

    While you’re being super-awesome to show those young girls, how ’bout also being able and competent and FEMININE at the same time? I know you can do it!

    • diblog says:

      Mama, I agree about the interviewer and interviewee… but she does give him a rather seductive look that kinda takes out some of the credibility. Nice to know about Sears – they’ve always been better than most at including women who are attractive but look basically like normal people you could be friends with. I like that.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence – I’ll do my bellydancing best! 🙂

  2. the commercials are icky either way – the pro-age one has airbrushing, too, and in any case still says you have to have a certain kind of sexy skin whatever age you are. what about women who have coarse skin for some reason from youth onwards? what about those of us who have never been beautiful or sexy in any standard way?

    here are a few things:
    – for starters, you, Di, in the picture of you snoozing with new baby A, look like a teen mum.
    – my dear daughter, 5 years younger than you, has had grey hairs visible since she was a preschooler. she’s gorgeous.
    – some of the most beautiful sexy people i know went white-haired in their 20s.
    – plus, i first got arthritis in my 20s
    – part of the societal thing is that women really will pay fabulous amounts of money on cosmetics – it is BIG business to keep women thinking they need them. therefore, i will NOT buy dove. i can get aged skin without even trying!
    – i know there are people who look at me and think, what a fat, grey-haired old biddy! i don’t actually care.

    if you know enough folk-tales, you know that the baba yaga eat-the-children type of old woman is vastly outnumbered by the wise, knowledgeable, helpful, and turn-to-her-in-a-crisis type. or you can just take my word for that.

    • diblog says:

      Auntie CL, I see what you mean about the ad – but I appreciate that it gets people talking, thinking a bit more critically. You and I have the sense to question the average ad we see, but did we have that when we were of an impressionable age? Sounds like you might’ve, actually – your attitude is so solid and healthy, and you passed it right along to your daughter, which is amazing. (And of course you’re right, she AND her hair could hardly be more gorgeous.) Really sorry about the arthritis, though. THAT seems unfair.

      I would love to hear more stories about those awesome old women…

  3. Clearly, I don’t follow directions well. I do have arthritis. I use a cane (sometimes). I dont yet have grey hairs (I dont think) and I have found many wrinkles yet. I’m much more like Sean.. I can’t WAIT to hit the crone stage of my life! I was delighted to have the privilege of turning 40 this year. I’m loving growing older. I’m not loving my broken body, but I forgive it its vagrancies a little more at 40 than I did at 30. It’s hard to tell societal expectations to go shove it, I have my own issues thanks to media and society.. but I managed to skip the aging one. 🙂
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    • diblog says:

      Heather, I’m glad you ignore directions. That being said, I think of you as a very youthful-looking person – as in, No WAY, You’re not 40?! And it sure does suck about the arthritis, too… interesting (and yet unfair) that if you get it young enough, it has no associations with aging in your mind – or body. We’ll just keep on working on telling our various societal expectations that get us to SHOVE IT. Sounds good.

  4. Beverley says:

    I love this post on ageing. It’s something that I’ve struggled with over the years. The “pro-age” Dove campaign is all about selling their product. Yes it’s nice to see older women in the commercials, but ultimately it is just a marketing strategy. It stills plays on women’s insecurities about how we look. I agree with you that it is a privilege to grow older. When I was 42 I lost a sister to leukemia who was only 26 yrs. old. I’m over 60 now…..which is hard for me to believe….but truly thankful for all the years that have been given to me. People often think that I’m younger…I do dye my hair….but I almost find it a “backhanded” compliment as if there is something wrong with being older. I think we need to celebrate the years that we’ve lived and the experiences that we’ve had as women. I definitely like to think of myself as the “turn-to-her-in-a-crisis-type”….and I’m finally thinking about letting my “auburn” hair go grey. My grandchildren won’t care….so why should I!!

    • diblog says:

      Beverley, you’re right about the marketing strategy. Dove has made a lot of ad campaigns based on “real beauty”, and it’s a step in the right direction, putting a wider scope of women in ads with a very large audience… but still, sales are sales.

      I’m sorry to hear about your sister – what an awful loss for your family. It certainly does give appreciation of the years we’re getting.

      I guess if the “norm” (for women) is to dye one’s hair, then we are all contributing, if unwittingly, to the idea that there IS something wrong with getting/being older. Even though I really don’t think any of us believes that! What a silly thing.

  5. I buy expensive skin cream (and as I’ve gotten older, the creams have gotten pricier); I pay someone to erase my gray hair. I won’t get botox or anything and I like to think that I’m fine with aging…until it’s time to pay the woman who does my color. So I guess I’m…*sort of* okay with aging… But it’s definitely insidious, this sense of “omigod i look old…”
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    • diblog says:

      deborah, I have the impresssion that the standards vary. You being from NYC (and I imagine Abu Dhabi might be similar) means that you’re up against a societal expectation that has a much more stringent upper limit. Or… that’s my (stereotyped) idea from books and TV. I live in a town where it’s very common to colour (or pay someone to colour) your hair, but nobody talks about botox or plastic surgery… What do you think?

    • diblog says:

      Ooh, 30 is a big milestone – one which I hope gives you no trouble at all! Sounds like it won’t, since you have a great attitude. 🙂

  6. i found my first gray on my 20th bday. i stopped coloring after my wedding when i was 35. since having my Lovie nearly three years ago, the gray has turned into a silver, and now at 40, there’s LOTS of it. but…i kinda like it. it’s a part of me now. some days i think it’s too much and i’m waiting for Grandparent comments, but for the most part, i own it.
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    • diblog says:

      christina, that’s cool. It sounds like you have a very healthy, resilient outlook that will be a great example for the young girls around you. I have some good friends who started getting gray hairs very early – like high school, even – and I would have coloured too, at that age, no question… but I hope I will be able to own my grey when it gets obvious.

  7. Mama says:

    My first grey hairs were in high school (if not earlier). I never did anything about them – didn’t even pull them out. And I like the grey I have. Someone last weekend said to me, “Oh, you’re going to go all gloriously silver! You’re almost there already! I’m jealous!” This was a woman, mind. I just spent over 2 hours going through a bunch of tests and questionnaires as part of the CLSA (Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging). Very interesting. Grey hair and wrinkles are only a teensy part of it: attitude, support systems, memory, social life, exercise – both mental and physical: those are biggies. And do I get to see you do your bellydancing best?

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