The Picture of Bearian Gray

(This one is especially for you, PapaFreeak, 'cause I know you have no idea what it is like to be so "astoundingly petty, envious, and self-pitying" as I am.  Enjoy!  For all my other readers: this was a post that I had been mulling over for the past several days, before I got interrupted by the News of the Week last week--as didn't we all?  It was meant, contrary to PapaFreeak's inability to read my "self-pitying" for what it actually is, as a way of working through some of the issues that I still have with my self-image, most particularly of myself as a woman.  Feel free to give me a shout-out if anything I say here sounds at all familiar from your own experience.)

My sister, age 45, is expecting her first baby within the next week or two, just in time for her 46th birthday.  And, yes, I'm jealous (I told you you'd enjoy this one, PapaFreeak).  Partly because a small part of me still wishes that my husband and I had had at least one more child together, but mainly because I know that, even at 46, my sister will never experience what I did when my son was 2 and I was the ripe old age of 33: namely, being mistaken for my own child's grandmother one day as we were playing in the park.  One minute, I was there, pushing my son on the baby swings, happy as a clam; the next, I had a woman apologizing to me, once she'd seen my face, "Oh, you just went gray early, didn't you?"

Well, duh, yes!  Did I really look old enough to be a grandmother when I was 33?  Mind you, it is not out of the question.  If I had had my first child at 16, my 17-year-old daughter might have had a 2-year-old when I was 33, but it is pretty unlikely for someone who looks like me in our neighborhood (you know, 'cause we're so privileged and all).  (Sorry, PapaFreeak is a really, really good demon.  I told you he hit all my buttons.)  In any case, this stranger mistook me, at age 33, for somebody, well, the age I am now, although in our neighborhood I am still pretty young to be a grandmother at age 48; not many of our graduate students have children in their first couple of years of study, which means families don't tend to get started until more around, well, age 30 or 31, and even that is a bit young.  (I had only been in my job two years when my son was born, and most of my colleagues were shocked that I didn't wait at least until I had been renewed.  Many of my colleagues have waited until after getting tenure to start their families.  But I digress.)

It was odd to be mistaken for someone old enough to be the grandmother of a 2-year-old when I was 33.  What do you think the odds are now that someone will mistake me for my sister's son's grandmother when we go down to visit her and her family (it's complicated, she has stepsons-to-be) this summer?  Me, I wouldn't bet against it if you didn't want to lose your wager.  It's going to happen, I just know it is.  Why am I so certain?  Because it already did happen the last time my sister and I were together four years ago and the teacher of the yoga class we went to together asked if I were my sister's mother.  Yes, we were already there on our mats in our yoga clothes.  Yes, she looked straight at both of us.  No, she had never met my sister or me before, she was simply judging by the way we looked.  And to her eyes, I looked like my sister's mother.

Fine, I have--how did PapaFreeak put it?--"intelligence, health, a supportive family, good income from meaningful work in a prestigious job," why in the hell should it matter to me whether some stranger in a yoga class assumes that my sister is my daughter?  Because, of course, this is hardly the first time in our lives that people have mistaken our ages.  I have looked, shall we say, middle-aged pretty much ever since I was 20.  My sister still looks, oh, 25, give or take a year or two, despite being according to her birth year well into middle age.  Certainly, I looked middle-aged enough four years ago--i.e. two years younger than she is now--to be mistaken for the mother of a 42-year-old (the age she was then).  Our mother, just to put things in perspective, will be 75 this year.  I was born when she was 26.  And now I look old enough to be she, at least when I am standing (or sitting on a yoga mat) next to my sister.

You don't believe me?  Okay, here we both are, in photos taken within the past month or so.  That's me on the top, sitting at my laptop.  That's her on the bottom, in a photo taken by her main squeeze.
 
Me at my keyboard, age 48
My beautiful sister, age 45
I dare you: say I look just as beautiful and young as she does, give or take a couple years.  (Mind you, my son and my husband would, but I always figure they're biased.)  I would humiliate myself even further if I gave you full-length pictures of us, but I wanted to give myself a chance (certainly, it didn't help me when we were in yoga class together).  No, it wouldn't make any difference if I "tried" to look "better," e.g. by coloring my hair (been there, done that after being mistaken for my son's grandmother in the park; my hair started falling out, and frankly I look better with it white, which it has been totally since I was 40).  Face it: I look like exactly what I am: a middle-aged history professor.  She looks like the daughter I never had.

I know, I know, I am supposed to be above all this, living the life of the mind as I do.  Yeah, right.  And women in the public sphere are never judged on how they look.  And I am certain that Dana Delany would be starring in Body of Proof if she looked like me.  (I have some real estate down in the swamps to sell if you believe that, Mr. PapaFreeak.)  I may have--what was that again?--"intelligence, health, a supportive family, good income from meaningful work in a prestigious job," but put me in a room with my sister and a group of strangers, it doesn't matter whether they are women or men, and I will be the frump and my sister will be the star of the party.  Guaranteed.  Trust me, it's happened over and over and over again throughout our lives: in high school, in college, in graduate school (oh, did I mention she has a Master's degree in Neurobiology?  She's hardly just a pretty face), once I got the job here, the last time we were in yoga class together.

The one time I can think of that I didn't feel physically eclipsed by her was when we were in New York just the year before our father died: for complicated and mysterious reasons at the time, I was skinnier than I had ever been (seriously, my periods had stopped--I thought maybe I had gone through menopause at age 39), and somebody on the street commented on how hip I looked (or words to that effect) (I was dressed to go to yoga class, go figure).  This was a first for me: nobody ever said anything like that to me in the two-and-a-half years I lived in New York when I was in graduate school, age 23 to 26, and I went to yoga class all the time (way back in the days when all the yoga mats were institutional green, can you believe it?).  Suffice it to say, I am not that skinny now and haven't been for some time (grief, plus, you know, stuff; even Atkins hasn't taken me down to the weight I was then).  I doubt very much I would get even a second look from that same person.

I don't care, I don't care, I don't care.  I have never dressed to attract the attention of random strangers, not when I was 25, not now.  It should not make a bit of difference how many strangers mistake me for my sister's mother, no matter what I'm wearing, no matter what color my hair is.  If I really wanted to look like her, I should have had different parents.  Oh, wait.  This isn't some random beautiful stranger we're talking about (like, say, Dana Delany or Mary-Louise Parker--who looks just like my sister, don't you think?  And Parker is six months older than me!)  This is the person who looks most like me in the whole world, but somehow, I don't look like her.  Or not her sister anyway.  Maybe an aged aunt.

One day, I will transcend all of this.  I won't care any more what people think about how I look, I won't care whether they think I'm 48 or 103.  But when my mother's mother Rachel died in 1981 at age 69, she was still insisting that she was "39 and a few months" (my mother, her daughter, was 43 at the time; I was 16, the same age my son is now).  It runs in the family, I guess, refusing to grow old.

Comments

  1. I actually think you and your sister do look very much alike. You have quite similar facial features, and I think your faces look much the same age. The main difference is obviously hair color. My hair would also be all white, or nearly so, if I didn't color it. I started going grey in my early 20s, and for much of my early career I did not color it, because I was barely older than my students, and I WANTED to look older than I was. I started coloring my hair in my early 30s, and I probably will keep on doing so. At this point, my issue is not so much that I want to look younger than I am, but getting rid of the hair color would require either getting my hair cut much shorter than I am willing to go, or looking very strange for a very long time! I'm sort of sad about that, since I actually think pure white hair is beautiful, and I've always admired yours!

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  2. I actually chose pictures that make us look more alike than sometimes we do, but you're right, we do look alike, which is one of the things that I think makes it all the more galling when strangers make the mistakes that they do. It has to do with how we move and hold ourselves as well, as well as with how we dress. I still have no idea how that stranger in the park looked at me from behind and saw someone in her 40s or 50s before she saw my face; my hair wasn't even that gray at the time. Now, however, people in their 60s (as, for example, at a neighbor's open house just yesterday) simply assume that I am their age even looking me straight in the face. I wish I knew how Steve Martin managed to pull it off; I don't think anybody thought he was in his 60s when he was my age now.

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  3. I just want to reiterate that I think your white hair is quite lovely, and I wish I could let my own be natural without looking bizarre for a good while. You could dress however your sister does and look lovely, even as I know, from seeing you at conferences, that you look lovely as you are. I learned "fashion" in my 40s, and I have come to accept that I may need to pay attention to things that seem trivial to get where I want to be professionally and personally. I have come to enjoy makeup and stylish, distinctive, and--I admit--somewhat conventionally feminine, though still adventurous, clothes. It is quite fun, and professionally beneficial.

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  4. You are so sweet, ntbw! Thank you! Just FYI, it did take awhile for me to grow my hair out once I decided to stop coloring it when I was 40. I was also grieving that year for my father, so certain things simply didn't seem to matter very much anymore, including wearing makeup, which I had asked my sister to teach me about five years before that. I tended just to put it up with hair sticks, so the color differential was disguised by its being wrapped in a bun, but once the color was gone, my hait was too slippery to wear in the sticks, so I cut it--and realized that I would have been better off with it shorter all along. Go figure.

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F.B.

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