As a teenager, my smooth, unblemished skin was my saving grace. I had wide hips, without the feminine bust to match. My strong legs came with oversized knees. My eyes were large but asymmetrical, and my ears jetted out (“Dumbo,” I’d been teased). But my skin had remained soft and glazed with shine. I barely wore lipstick, and ate from children’s menus into my twenties. Dermal care had always come second to binge exercising and bleaching my arms. I may have looked like Woody Allen, but my pelt was my pride.
Until one fateful night.
“How old are you?” asked Dori, a woman I’d just met. We were the only two people at the Halloween party who hadn’t dressed up. She, 50-something, was scouring for men and wore a mini-skirt.
“Twenty-seven,” I answered. I was also single. An aspiring stand-up comic, I’d come in jeans.
“Twenty-seven?” Her too-tanned face looked shocked. “Oh. My. God.”
I assumed she thought I was younger, and was about to joke about my immaturity, when she yelped. “You’re the same age as these kids?” She pointed around. “You look five years older -- at least!” I do? “What do you use on your skin?” she asked. “It’s horrible for someone in their twenties.”
“Dove,” I replied quietly, unsure.
“Dove?” Dori exploded, her eyes popping, her mouth foaming. I hadn’t been using day cream, night cream, afternoon cream, middle-of-the-day, middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-cheek, under-eye, over-achieving creams since I was 17? What had my mother taught me? (My mother, the Holocaust survivor, had been too busy worrying about the Gulag to really focus on Oil of Olay. In fact, she encouraged wrinkles -- you could hide money in them.)
“You better start your regimen now,” Dori warned, “so you can at least freeze your horrible skin at 27.”
Regimen? Freeze? “OK,” I stammered.
“Remember,” she said as I left the party early in order to cry myself into unconsciousness, “Your face is like a leather couch. Sooner or later, it will crack."
That night, I panicked. How had I lost awareness of my most public part, allowed my one "pretty" attribute to slip away? Though my mother, grandmother and aunt had all married at 26, I was from a different generation, and with plenty of single friends, I wasn’t romantically worried (yet). But Dori’s critique was a shrill reminder: I’d crossed to the other side. Until that evening, time seemed to be offered in unlimited refills. Now, my mortality stared me in the shameful face.
I awoke the next morning with the image of my face breaking in half, my brains falling out. I marched myself down to the nearest department store, which was seasonally bedecked with orange and black streamers and papier-mache masks. I, however, was meeting with the best mask-maker of all: Bobbi Brown.
“Look at your bags,” the perfectly made-up saleslady chuckled. “Your chin. You have the skin of a 40-year-old divorcee -- who smokes. And tans in bursts. And lives in a pollution corridor.”
Within minutes, I'd spent $700 of credit on cucumber-extract liquids, hyper-hydrating serums, vitamin-pumped sprays, pore reducers, lash enlargers, and a potion for my newly-discovered décolletage.
After that, each evening included hours of exploration: Where had those lines above my lips come from? The flab below my chin? I applied moisturizers, exfoliators, and retinol-based fruit masks like a religion. I stuffed myself into saunas praying that the sweat would flush out my premature decay. I tried to avoid making unnecessary expressions -- a furrowed brow could add decades in seconds.
I became conscious of how old I appeared to people my own age, feeling guilty, as if my face was a reminder of their eventual demise. So I started to hide it. First under make-up. Then with chunky plastic glasses that covered my bags. I grew my hair long, pulling it over my cheeks. Dates were arranged in candle-lit bars only. I envied my religious neighbors’ burkas and hijabs. When family remarked on how I looked like my father, all I could think was: he’s 73.
My flawed profile was especially inconvenient because I was pursuing a career for which you needed a face -- a young one. Other comics worried about their jokes; I panicked that the audience could tell how old I wasn’t. Worse, I feared no one would book, invest in or care about an act who was old. The dingier the venue, the larger the microphone head, the drunker the audience, the more cataract-covered the promoter -- the better for me.
When things went wrong, I assumed it was because of my face. Bad audition? My veiny forehead. Not invited back? Must’ve been the crow’s feet. I was too lined and sallow for TV. Even radio.
As the years passed, my anxiety worsened. There was no time to lose. If I didn’t find immediate success at one gig or audition, I was off, looking for the next people I could fool. I hopped between showcases and clubs, not investing too much in any one thing. I needed to make my mark before marks made me. Daily, my biological alarm clock woke me at 5 am, reminding me of my aging, making me stressed and tired, and looking even older. A vicious visage cycle.
Then the foundation broke. While playing a small part in a comedy film, the director asked if I could body-double for the lead, a 12-year-old girl. “Don’t worry,” she declared before the crew and 500 extras, “there will be no shots above the shoulder.”
My hand flew upward in shame. Was it my frown lines? My neck wrinkles? It was clear: even if my body looked young, I didn’t. I had to face the facts. To be flattered that at 32, I could play the rear of a 12, even if the director thought I was 55. I could no longer even dream of my teenage facade –- it was really over.
It wasn’t just my aging countenance but also my aging psyche that made me stop doing stand-up. The late nights and constant terror of bombing became exhausting. I decided to pursue the relatively calmer field of journalism, an area in which one is respected for their words. (Plus, you could Photoshop headshots). I attended my first workshop, terrified the fetal undergraduates would think I was the teacher. In her dynamic investigative style, the real teacher point-blank asked my age, a question I’d avoided since that Halloween night.
“I’m 32,” I whispered, my heart racing.
“Really?” the teacher said. “I assumed you were younger.”
“27,” two infant-looking students blurted.
Wow, I thought. Journalism was really for me.
I walked home that night catching glimpses of myself in every car window. Did I look younger? Those bags, come to think of it, had graced my eyes even in fourth grade. Had I frozen my skin at 27, or was it that my face wasn’t really my biggest flaw, but my insecurity blanket? Though it might be easier to project anxiety onto concrete semi-corrigible attributes, my real defect was not lazy epidermal tissue, but what was underneath: I hid from people and jobs, I fled from imperfections, I couldn’t handle failure, I lacked confidence, and I’d let a bored salesgirl and an unhinged cougar ruin my self-image for five years.
I would never know if my face had really looked old to anyone but my mirror. But perhaps finding some calm -- finally becoming comfortable in my own evolving skin -- had led me to look lighter, younger. Whatever it was, I wasn't complaining.