I was brushing my teeth when I saw it — a white hair. Films and television have taught me that when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of her advancing age, a woman is supposed to have an emotional meltdown. Unfortunately my bathroom is too small for a proper hysterical hoopla.
I suppose I could have made more of an effort — thrown some bottles of unguent around, perhaps sunk to the floor in tears, or run off to Italy to eat pasta and flirt with younger men — but I had stuff to do and places to be, so I plucked it out, had a shower and forgot about it. Well, mostly I forgot about it.
A few weeks later I was putting on make-up when I realised the white hair hadn’t been an aberration. There was another one, small and fine but unmistakeable. And another, and another — seven in total, and each one of them a betrayal. I had been robbed! Not of my youth — nope — of my birthright! Gingers don’t go grey. Instead our hair fades to strawberry blonde, then pale blonde and then white. But that’s not supposed to happen until our mid-fifties or so, and that’s still a long, long way off. After all the taunting about fiery tempers and fire crotches, being teased about my freckles and my lack of a soul, this was to have been my payback.
Both my sisters have been going grey since their early twenties, as have many of my friends. My partner’s glorious beard is shot through with tiny grey hairs and he is sexy as fuck. Grey or white hair may be associated with age, but it is not necessarily indicative of it. However, I will admit that I was worried about more than just a few pale hairs. It probably didn’t help that I had been reading Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time — you’ll find my review in the book pages — which is all about getting older. So yup, I was feeling perturbed.
The obvious thing to have done was dye my hair and buy myself a new frock. After all, that’s what women are supposed to do — constantly reinvent ourselves — to appeal to the male gaze.
On the one hand, yes, of course I want my partner to find me sexually attractive; but on the other, paying too much attention to the clamouring cultural noise that tells women that they have no value if they are not young and beautiful — or at least fuckable – is a loser’s game.
A woman’s temporal crisis point is, depending on who you ask, thirty, thirty-five or forty. Certain strands of “male rights activists” reckon women should be finding husbands in their teens because our feminine allure falls off a cliff after the grand old age of twenty-one.
Society values youth and beauty in women, far more so than in men. After a certain age, a woman is supposed to make an effort. If you don’t, you’re castigated for “letting yourself go” as if ageing was a personal failing. Alternatively, if you have plastic surgery or use too many fillers, people will ridicule you and call you shallow and vain.
A great deal of the media directed at women is underpinned by the idea of makeovers and transformation. In order to remain fuckable, a woman is supposed to relentlessly self-monitor for flaws and keep time at bay through diet, exercise and luxury consumption.
Makeovers can be found in magazines, in films and television shows. Some, like Operation Transformation, have a health and fitness message (alleged). Others, such as The Swan, How To Look Good Naked, Extreme Makeover, and 10 Years Younger may adopt a “you go girl” message, but they are really about re-modelling a woman in line with heteronormative standards of sexual appeal. 10 Years Younger is the worst of these. Woe betide you for looking your age! Call in the experts! We have Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian to look forward to later this year, where the reality star will help the broken-hearted get vengeance on their former partners by shedding pounds — as if the only thing that could have caused your relationship to fail was your flabby tummy.
Makeovers are sold as empowerment to women, whatever their age. Twenty-something party girls are remade as classy ladies; women in their thirties are told that, with enough effort and money, they can look like twenty-something party girls; women in their forties have to stave off the ravages of time; in their fifties and sixties, they have to do their damnedest to reverse the clock. A truly empowering message would be that you are fine as you are, but that probably wouldn’t make for compelling television.
In makeover television, participants are described, by themselves or others, as having failed in some way — by choosing the wrong clothes, picking up weight or getting old. The participant is humiliated and her (or occasionally his) failings displayed for the audience. Physical transformation is seen as the first and most necessary step in self-improvement. The costs associated with, and consumerist logic of, transformation is suppressed as high-end grooming is seen as a basic necessity.
The makeover is an update on the Cinderella tale. An essential femininity is said to have been revealed, which is responsive to men’s desires, but also psychologically healthy — the old “the better you look, the better you feel” argument. Whether she is twenty-five or fifty, this new-and-improved woman has got to be the best version of herself possible, which is always the most physically and sexually attractive version — not the smartest, kindest or most professionally successfully one.
Women’s magazines and beauty blogs are notorious for urging readers to spend hundreds of euro on luxury self-care items. And although savvy readers may be well aware that positive reviews of eye-wateringly expensive cream, make-up and clothes are merely adverts in disguise, the relentless drip, drip, drip of the sales pitch can be hard to resist. Will my skin look ten times better if I buy a face cream ten times the price of my usual cheapo brand? Unlikely, but the hope is always there, even though there isn’t a single cream as effective as a good camera filter.
It is a truism that you should never draw people’s attention to your flaws because most of the time they are worrying about their own failings and unlikely to notice yours. Instead I told everybody about my white hairs. Hell, I am telling you. I cannot help myself!
“You’ve had them for ages,” my boyfriend said with a shrug. He’d found a gnarly white hair in his beard the week before and so he was not impressed by my teeny tiny smooth colourless strands. I was glad to realise that the Australian’s awareness of my crop of pale hairs hadn’t dampened his desire in any way; but if they had been there for a while and I hadn’t noticed them, I may be going blind too!
Later that day we went to the cinema. As we passed the Star Wars Battle Pod in the foyer, the Australian noticed it was empty.
“I kinda want to have a go,” he admitted shamefacedly.
“Me too,” I said. “Let’s do it!”
Yup, me and my grown-ass male companion — old enough to get white hairs, but not mature enough to resist the lure of shiny games. But there was no point in pretending we were — we had tickets for Captain America: Civil War.
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