Red lipstick smears“You look like you’re one of the sisters!” declared the supermarket cashier to my mother as he rang up a bottle of orange juice from our very large order. My older sister Julie and I were helping to put items from the cart onto the conveyor belt..

My 15-year-old self looked up from my task. Was this guy crazy? He looked normal enough, with his graying, close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Maybe he didn’t see too well? But that couldn’t be, because he was able to read the prices as he entered them into the register.

I waited for my 40-something mother to protest, to suggest that he needed new glasses. But she did something uncharacteristic. She giggled. Then she voiced the mildest objection, as if begging for more, like the performer who seeks to quell his audience’s applause while continuing to take bows. “You don’t really mean it,” she said.

“Honest to goodness, I thought that you were a girl. Gave me a start when I realized who-was-who and what-was-what.” He was a salt-of-the-earth type, probably a resident from the retirement community in the small New Hampshire town where we had our summer home.

When we got into the parking lot, my mother asked my sister and me, repeatedly, if we had heard what the cashier said. Sure we had, but I couldn’t help but think that my usually sensible mother was acting very silly. And things got even worse when we got back down to the lake. The second we walked through the screen door, my mother found my father to tell him the story. She even asked us for corroboration. Then, instead of chuckling at my mother’s folly, my dad did something uncharacteristic: he expressed approval, even agreement with the cashier’s pronouncement.

What the heck was going on? Had the adults all gone mad? When did a grown woman, who’d procreated age-appropriately, look like she was her own daughter? Who was fooling whom … and why?

My mother had never been one of the “cool” mothers. Although she was always willing to lend us her sweaters—mostly muted-colored cardigans—she never borrowed ours. She had grown up in an era when young women strove to look sophisticated, older than their years. In her teens, she adopted a swath of bright red lipstick across her mouth, and continued to use it as her sole daily makeup regime. She kept her body trim and clad in neat, quietly stylish clothes. Her haircuts, too, were neat and quietly stylish, as were her glasses. In other words, this was a woman who looked nice, but didn’t fuss. How could she fuss when her days were filled with shepherding five children through the world?

Many of my friends had mothers who worked much harder at their appearance. They applied lots of makeup, dyed their hair, donned loads of bling (although we called it jewelry then), and wore attention-getting clothes. And that was before today’s over-the-top cult of youth. But the question arose then as it does now: does trying to look younger actually work? Is it worth the effort? And does it fool anyone?

“There’s no question that there’s more pressure to look attractive when trying to find a new mate.”

I think about the issue more and more these days, now that I’m back in the dating pool since my 25-year marriage ended. There’s no question that there’s more pressure to look attractive when trying to find a new mate. In many an online profile, a fellow will write, “I’m looking for a woman who is thin, pretty, thin, intelligent, thin, kind, thin, lively, thin, and funny. Oh, did I mention I want someone thin?” A recent profile went a step further, when the fellow wrote, “Oh yes … good looking toes are always nice.” To emphasize his point, he posted a stock photo of a woman’s feet in the surf on the beach. This is a new category of appearance pressure: you have to be appealing from your head to your toes, literally.

Whenever I mention to a friend, in passing, that I’d like to let my hair go gray, I am met with a tirade of disapproval. No, don’t even consider it. No, you’re crazy. No way. NO! At least hair dye has lost its stigma. It used to be a best-kept a secret so that “only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Now women young and old  flaunt their dye-jobs, some with alien-like colors—pink, green, blue, purple. And more and more men are getting into the act. We’re not talking about them combing Grecian Formula through their locks (does it even exist anymore?); we’re talking about them going to the hair salon, on a regular basis, to professionally eradicate the gray.

Old snapshot of Alice and her mumOf course, lots of other WMDs (Weapons of Mass DISTRACTION) are in the arsenal if you want to look younger, the most significant ones offered by doctors (collagen, botox, surgery). But many of these measures make people look, as the expression goes, “yold.” Yep, try as you may to turn back the clock, you could end up “young-old.” Not a wrinkle on your face, not a gray hair in sight, and yet not convincingly youthful.

And guess what? Even if you look stupendous—after all the time, energy, and expense you’ve poured into looking young—when you pose for a photo with your kids, their aging visages act as time markers. The only remedy is to refuse to acknowledge them as your offspring. I have a friend who, when her son turned 20, said, “I no longer have a son; I have a brother.”

Being my mother’s daughter, my solution is to try to live healthfully (eat right, exercise daily, get some sleep, keep engaged) and take modest pains to look good (dye my hair, get it well cut, use a little makeup sometimes, have age-appropriate clothes). There’s nothing wrong in wanting to look good—even wanting to look younger than one’s age—but it’s more important to be good.

So what do you think I did when a friend recently said to me, upon viewing a Facebook photo of me with my children, “I didn’t spot you at first. I thought you were one of the kids”? Reader, I giggled.

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