Just Like Butter: How I'm *Actually* Feeling About Aging
The honest truth about aging in this society, and the beauty in aging with a furry buddy.
Beauty Mark is a monthly column by Allie Rowbottom, where she answers readers' pressing beauty questions. To submit your question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Okay, I’m struggling with getting older. I cried on my 28th birthday. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I can’t stop dreading aging. I miss milestones because I’m so afraid. Don’t know what my question is exactly, I’m just looking for advice.
Summer after summer in New York, I walk down the street in a short dress with the hot wind blowing memories at me like the sweet, sad caresses of an ill-fated love, and notice a steady decline in the number of cat calls directed my way. For a time, I wondered: Is this the result of #metoo? Changing cultural mores? Maybe a little. But deep down, I know it’s not just the morals that have changed. It’s me, too.
It bears noting that not all cat calls are created equal; some are admiring, others are scary and make you feel like trash. For the purposes of this answer, I’m talking about the admiring ones. Still, some readers will surely bristle at the cat call of any tenor as a barometer of any sort. The appropriate response to such attention is to frown and roll one’s eyes at the gall of MEN who should surely DO BETTER. Maybe so.
But the truth is that some Saturday nights, as a lonely young woman in New York, I put on a tight dress and walked down Broadway, counting how many men called out to me. “Smile!” They’d yell and I’d bare my teeth, stick out my tongue. I didn’t want the reality of their company any more than they wanted the reality of mine. I just wanted the assurance of their wanting. Sometimes, when I received enough validation, I’d turn around and head home before arriving at whatever club I was going to; it was enough for me, to bask in the fleeting desire of a stranger.
Yes, I was young then. My brain wasn’t fully formed. Men’s attention and approval as a measure of my worth poured itself into the unset substance of my psyche, becoming baked in. This was my own fault, or my parent’s fault, or the fault of patriarchy or American image culture or it was nobody’s fault at all. But now I am no longer young. As I’ve already mentioned in this column and will probably mention again, I recently turned thirty-seven. For many readers of Byline, this may make me ancient, obsolete, and in my worst moments, I’m inclined to agree.
Though I am ostensibly the advice giver here, I don’t find aging easy. Since turning thirty, I have struggled with feeling embarrassed of my age. And yet it is also true that since turning thirty-five, I have never felt happier or healthier. My fear of aging and my enjoyment of the wisdom and accomplishments that come with age coexist in the form of a question to which there is no answer. I know I’m not the only one.
Consider my dog Butter, who is eleven years old, a sway-backed French bulldog with flecks of white fur around her eyes, a withering wisdom in her gaze. But when she was brand new, flaxen furred and smelling of milk, she was the cutest puppy on the face of planet earth. This was an objective truth. The crowd at every dog park, on every city street, parted for Butter’s passing. We couldn’t walk one block without being stopped by multiple strangers screaming, cooing, asking to pet.
As is natural, Butter became accustomed to the attention. It was the only reality she ever knew. After a few years, when strangers stopped flocking to her, she developed a habit of trotting up to each person at the dog park, smiling, expectant of their affection. She always received it.
But in time, even that failed to produce the response she seemed to be looking for. Her charms were met with lack-luster pats. When this happened, Butter seemed confused. She has no mirror, no concept of aging and anyway, she’s still beautiful, but her beauty has a depth to it, a texture, that’s less easy to pinpoint than the simple fact of youth, that untarnished innocence often conflated with beauty. For the most part, people are simple, we like obviousness and the beauty of a soul who has lived and loved and lost is often less obvious than the beauty of a soul who has not. How can Butter understand all this? How can I?
For a time, I thought becoming a mother might provide me with the answer. Motherhood might help me contextualize myself as a woman moving ever closer to her forties. When you’re a mother, you have a culturally condoned purpose other than being beautiful, which seemed a relief to me. But it turns out that by all accounts, motherhood doesn’t free anyone from the yearning to be seen, to be wanted, to be beautiful, to be young. And I’m not sure choosing to have a child for any reason other than deeply wanting to have a child is a good idea.
What helps me and may help you is this: contrary to the inanity of Tik Tok, or some people’s weird insistence that we’d all be modelizers like Leonardo DiCaprio if only we had his power, our cultural preoccupation with youth as currency is a fairly recent phenomenon, inseparable from the capitalist boom of 1950s post war America where a total forgetting of our collective mortality and the heinousness of humanity became the salve du jour. Products and the scientific advancements that created them were elevated to a God-like status. Denial of death in the form of depilatory creams and vacuum cleaners and low-cal Jell-O (which I wrote about extensively in my first book Jell-O Girls).
When the 1960s rolled in, Don Draper got to work rebranding this cultural shift by adopting the language of burgeoning political movements. Oldsters were squares and knew nothing. Young people were cool and had their finger on the pulse. Technology has only exacerbated this divide. Oldsters don’t know the latest tech, that’s often a fact. But there’s more to life than technology, at least if we want to enjoy ourselves.
Privileging youth the way we do in American culture–with a maniacal fervor–is a trend and tenet of capitalism. Just as beauty standards privilege extreme thinness because it’s nearly impossible for most bodies to attain or maintain, telling women we’re only attractive or valuable during a slim window of time (coincidentally, a window in which our senses of sexual agency and self-esteem are still in the early phases of development and are therefore extra vulnerable) and then selling us products that promise to return us to that slim window is at best lucrative, at worst psychological warfare.
I say women here not because men are immune to the pressures of aging. But I think men get much more leeway. Accomplishments count for more and men tend to enjoy a wider range of culturally condoned markers of success. Wrinkles are signs of distinguishment and virility, even as advanced paternal age is as much a problem for men as advanced maternal age is for women, though of course nobody starts badgering single men to freeze their sperm the second they turn thirty.
Another thing that helps me as I age is to focus on my accomplishments. What is it I am proud of? How did my life experience enable me to create the things I’m proud of? My idols when I was eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five, were women in their thirties and forties. I wanted to be a writer, after all, with several books and books take time. Yes, now I’m thirty-seven and that feels old, but I also have those books to my name. Which means I should celebrate, not yearn to return.
Recently, I’ve started to talk to Butter the way other people used to. When she rounds a corner to meet me in the office or on the couch I say, “Oh my God! Who is she? Look at the most beautiful dog in the whole wide world!” She scurries up and I scratch her ears the way she likes and imagine she feels grateful for my validation and enthusiasm. I don’t judge her for wanting those things. They are part of who she is, after all.
“What’s going on with you two?” my husband, Jon, finally asked. My cooing and complimenting was getting out of hand. But doesn’t he do it too? Tell me how beautiful and sexy and desirable I am even when the rest of the world starts staring past me like I don’t exist. I know he’s blowing smoke sometimes but I also think he believes what he says. It’s all a matter of perception.
Now, when Jon and I take Butter to the park, she just sniffs the perimeter, concerned more with smells than with people. I stare at her. I can’t stop. Her body is a container for memories, our shared past, both our youths and all the ways in which we’ve grown. Even now, as I write this, I turn to watch her, sleeping in a bed behind my desk, snoring and farting, the light from the open window showing up the wrinkles time has worn in her face, the silver in her coat. She has never been more beautiful. And I have never loved her more.