Fear and loathing in the mirror: self-image, ageing and sex

I first realised I was attractive at university, in my late teens. There was a man who fancied me. He was a theatre writer and director, strange looking, pale with round glasses. I was uncertain about how attractive I found him, but the way he looked at me made me feel a million bucks. When I looked at myself I couldn’t for the life of me see what he saw. That’s now changed. On the long journey between then and now I have come to like what I see in the mirror. But now, once again, I’m uncertain.

I’m 50 now and there’s a different person looking back at me when I look in the mirror. And at the very time I could do with some positive reinforcement, it starts to die off. So how can I learn to like how I look when others stop looking at me with desire? And where does sex fit into all this?

Mirror, mirror

Once I asked my mother if she felt different, being older. I was around 18, full of hubris, my mother in her early 40s. She told me she felt exactly the same way as she used to when she was my age. I thought to myself what a load of crap. Now I know exactly what she means. I feel the same. Then I look in the mirror. How the hell did that happen? I sit opposite my friends at lunch and think they look old. But of course they are just like me. It’s like someone else has taken over my body and is changing it without my permission. Stop! I’m not ready to look this way! My body doesn’t take any notice. It goes on blindly doing what it’s designed to do.

The looker and the looked at

Being looked at has always been a big part of sex for me. I dress, I go out, I see in men’s eyes that I am desirable, I see myself as desirable, I feel desire. Now I look at men my own age and find some of them attractive. But on a purely aesthetic level they, and I, can’t compare with the young. The very best of the young are beautiful. Sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. In the market-place of flesh, that’s who I’m up against.

As a feminist I know it’s problematic, this objectification. As women it seems inevitable that our physical appearance once again takes centre stage. But I believe we have a natural desire to look at beauty, be it nature, architecture, art, or beautiful people. And from the outside, we are all objects. For me, being looked at, desired, does not make me feel less of a fully rounded person. I am not reduced by your gaze. In fact, I like it. And if anyone thinks I am only what I look like, even a brief conversation quickly reveals I am so much more than just an object. As it will with anyone.

I’ve been unattractive and I’ve been attractive, and there’s no doubt that being attractive smooths the rough wheels of life. Am I approaching the end of my use-by date? I’ve heard said it’s liberating, becoming invisible. I can’t imagine how.

Sex, sex, sex

So I work hard to stay as attractive as I can. At the gym I push and pull various machines and lift heavy weights. On the televisions play endless music videos with endless young men and women parading, thrusting, leering and pouting. Sometimes an old person is featured for a laugh – a cougar molesting a young man’s butt, an old man drooling over a young woman’s cleavage. Pathetic creatures. I work harder, trying to push back the years.

Wisdom my arse

Some older people cannot bear the truth of the mirror, so they cut and tuck and scrape and plump. It inevitably looks worse. You become an ersatz you. Not younger but instead a sort of mockery of who you were as a younger person. I can see why you might go down this road. Our culture celebrates youth. Old people are left holding the ‘wisdom’ stick. Wisdom isn’t sexy. Wisdom is all cups of tea and sensible advice, not mojito cocktails and a red lacy number with g-string. Wisdom sounds serious. What I want to be is playful, irreverent, silly even.

Sex is ridiculous anyway

On TV and film sex seems to be serious business. Dewey-eyed moaning women with worked-out jocks pounding them as earnestly as a marathon runner pounds the pavement. They fuck like someone’s watching (which of course they are). But what if sex isn’t work, but a game? It certainly lends itself to this – the noise, the sounds, the smells! Think Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson when they get it on in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ (Nancy Meyers, 2003). It doesn’t need to look great. No-one is watching, and if they are, good luck to them (and you).

If sex is not a spectator event, then how I look naked only matters to my lover, and myself. Putting aside looking, touch is still wonderful. Better than ever. Yes, a bit more massage oil is required, and sometimes a bit more time needs to be taken to arouse the napping libido. Games are fun. So is role-playing, and dress-ups. My lover is not a young man, just as I’m no longer a young woman. I could look at him through critical eyes, but when I look at him, I see the dearest person in my life. And from that tenderness, lust grows.

So here’s the rub

Is it time to stop looking in mirrors? To be kinder to myself? This takes effort. Feeling good about this ageing body of mine is a journey. It’s one I don’t necessarily want to take, but what’s the alternative? I don’t want to be someone who shuts herself down to life, to lust. I have no intention of vanishing into the background, going grey, or disappearing into a frumpy middle-aged body or clothes.

I still dress for an audience, but now it’s mostly women. And my lover. In his eyes, I am still the most attractive woman in the room. So he tells me. And for me, for now, that’s enough.

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Image: Jairo Alzate

CR Portrait June15 copyChristine is a writer and filmmaker. Her recent projects include writing and directing the science-fiction feature film I am Evangeline, featuring Georgia Flood (screening MUFF and STUFF) and the documentary Remain in Light on award-winning architect Sean Godsell. She has multiple credits in short drama, educational film and digital stories that have screened at local and international festivals. Her articles have been published in the Herald Sun weekend magazine and MamaMia. She also creates web content for Briarbird.com.

8 Comments

  • melinda commented on February 3, 2016 Reply

    Great article on a tough subject, Christine, much appreciated thank you. Though I still hope to age with irreverence and plenty of silliness myself – and have had a some fine role models to base that on! And I think those things become more possible without the male gaze constantly critiquing ‘beauty’. I certainly feel freer and stronger at 54 than 24.

    • Christine commented on February 3, 2016 Reply

      Thanks Melinda! I just joined this choir full of irreverent and gutsy women post 50 so I too am surrounding myself with fabulous women!

  • Christina commented on February 3, 2016 Reply

    Love this line Christine. “I still dress for an audience, but now it’s mostly women”.

  • Jen commented on February 4, 2016 Reply

    Thank you for writing this. Beautiful, vulnerable truth is here.

  • Carol Middleton commented on February 4, 2016 Reply

    An honest and unabashed article. As an even older woman, I’m not too keen on mirrors either, Christine. Yes, let playfulness and irreverence rule! Now I can no longer present a youthful face to the world, I’m happy to take myself less seriously and let others take me as they find me. And it’s great to have escaped the seriousness and angst of my twenties!

  • Caroline Yego commented on February 5, 2016 Reply

    Christine, a good piece. Am there too but I dress and feel for myself. Am as young as I feel not the way I look. It takes courage but it’s true.

  • Libby Barry commented on February 12, 2016 Reply

    Great writing Christine. I actually felt uncomfortable when (some) men would look at me when I was younger (in my 20’s) so although I miss my physical beauty, I find being ‘grey’ can give me a certain anonymity that means I am respected for my experience as an older midwife but, at the same time, also care less and less about what other people think of what I wear or how I look.

  • Ellis Tomlin commented on February 15, 2016 Reply

    My God! so many truths, I cringe at the sight of mirrors. I’m older, much older and feel it.
    And yet I feel a certain comfort within myself.

    My age no longer has relevance; I’m past the mirrors, I look into a good book instead, and I become one of the characters travelling on an adventure.

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