-Illustration by Andrea De Santis
The other night, at a bar, I got ma’amed.
It wasn’t the first time it happened, but it was the first time I can recall a fellow woman directing the term to me, and it stung. I think the issue was that she was in her early 20s, blonde, and being genuinely polite. Ten years ago, I was also a (moderately) polite server with blonde hair slinging drinks and accidentally shocking customers with formal greetings dripping in antiquity.
Currently, I am 34 years old. I’m an elder millennial who remembers landlines and call waiting and didn’t get my first cell phone until college, and even that thing had a walkie-talkie button. I vividly remember Y2K and 9/11 and, perhaps somewhat less culturally significant, the creepy countdown to the Olsen twins’ 18th birthday. I remember being amused as sociologists and ad executives tried to define and understand my generation’s motives. I remember reading endless contradictory think pieces on how we were lazy but resourceful, born of analog but coming of age in digital, entitled but scrappy.
And as with all things when you’re young, the world’s attention on my generation felt somewhere between an eye-roll and being warmed by the sun. We didn’t yet understand that all older generations examine the hell out of the new ones, wondering how we measure up, the ways we might save the world, and the ways we’d be sure to end it. We just knew that we were young, and that this was of deep interest to everyone.
And now we’re all mostly in our 30s, being called ma’am by the kids we used to babysit.
The ma’aming, obviously, struck a nerve with me.
When it was just men using the term, I could chalk it up to politeness. I could let myself believe that these were respectful males who were taught to err on the side of caution—that I was somehow only running into the kind of men who would never assume a woman’s pregnancy or interrupt her during a board meeting. But to this woman, I was thoroughly a ma’am, an exhausted-looking mother of two, trying to fit in a few pages of the books she’s been reading for months while waiting for a friend to show up for post-bath and bedtime drinks.
Once I got home, the ma’aming sent me racing back to my gently lit bathroom mirror to confirm what I generously had been thinking was a self-critical over-exaggeration: I really do look older. The lines around my mouth don’t disappear when I stop smiling. Despite my dogged commitment to the one good thing Paris Hilton ever taught me—wear sunglasses at all times, at all cost—crow’s feet are spreading out from the corners of my eyes. Even the Botox I had tried on a lark last summer was betraying me, allowing me to express a genuine reaction to the neck wrinkles I’d just spotted.
Aging, as with all things human, is weird. In the immediate wake of being ma’amed, fortified by two Negronis, I felt haggard and irrelevant. Without my youth glowing out of my pores, who was I? Until that night, I had never been so old in my life.
But in the harsh light of the next morning’s low-key hangover, and despite an entire night spent aging, I looked—young-ish again? And since then, it’s been fascinating to see how the aging process is both linear and entirely random. There are days I catch myself in the mirror and think I look great for someone with two toddlers who is mathematically in her mid-30s. And then there are the days I walk by a reflective surface and wonder who the crypt keeper dressed head to toe in Madewell is. The good days give me confidence and hope; the bad ones give fat commissions to the skin care team at Sephora.
Curious about the non-surgical ways I could freshen things up a bit, I decided to take action and made an appointment with plastic surgeon Nadia Mostovych at Belcara Health in Mt. Washington. I arrived armed with a picture of the endless bottles, pots, and snake oils that comprise my skin care regime and the need for an explanation about my sudden lurch into early middle-age.
What I learned was a science lesson in the art of decay. It turns out collagen production starts to decline at a rate of about 1 percent each year once we turn 20. It takes a while to notice, which is why so many people cite their early 30s as the time they first begin to see signs of aging. It’s clear that external elements like exposure to the sun, pollution, and nicotine can hasten wrinkles, but there’s not much to be done about curtailing the natural aging process.
“During consultations, some people say they feel like they look tired,” says Mostovych. “What they see in the mirror doesn’t look like them anymore. People get stuck on how they looked and felt during their late 20s and early 30s and can eventually feel really out of balance when those things no longer match.”
The good doctor began our consult by explaining the bare minimum of preventative skin maintenance—mineral-based sunscreen, retinol, and a good vitamin C serum or any kind of antioxidant serum—but as she moved into the more serious options to turn back time, I physically and emotionally found myself leaning in. In what can only be described as a self-imposed game of “vanity chicken,” I began wondering exactly how far I’d be willing to go with the myriad treatments, factoring in my current age, income bracket, and short-lived tanning bed stint in college.
Surprising even myself, I was willing to bypass traditional facials entirely, and head straight into the realm of procedures, which is how I found myself having my blood drawn on a sunny Friday morning. I opted for a platelet-rich plasma facial, better known to those us of who follow open-book celebrities on Instagram as the “Vampire Facial.” Essentially, blood is drawn and put in a centrifuge to separate the platelet-rich plasma. It is then placed on the skin, and a micro-needling treatment ensues. This treatment is ideally performed three times over the course of three to four months, and it’s meant to leave the patient with smoother, clearer, glowier skin.
2020 is a wild time to be alive.
In the immediate days following my treatment, I looked pretty banged up. I cancelled weekend plans, hunkered down with my generously portioned bag of post-treatment serums, and waited for the bruising and redness to subside. (If you believe we are close enough friends, I will show you post-procedure pictures, otherwise you’ll have to use your imagination or Google.) And after a few house-bound days, I noticed a genuine difference. My skin was tighter, my fine lines kinder.
The procedure isn’t cheap, and there is some recovery downtime, but it’s also painless and the results are immediate and can last more than a year. My toddlers haven’t noticed the improvements (rude), but close friends have, and I’ve been fielding texts and sending updates to the women in my life who are also finding themselves on the less buoyant side of collagen production.
There are clearly plenty of ways to fight the good fight against aging, but the question remains: Why do we fear it? How can a $50.2-billion-a-year industry thrive raging against the one thing our bodies all inevitably do, whether we intervene or not?
To explore that, I reached out to Michiko Iwasaki, a geropsychologist and associate professor at Loyola University. Aging in America, she pointed out, is not like aging in most countries. In her native Japan, she says, “Aging equals wisdom, and there is a more positive perception.”
But here in America, where we emphasize youth and vitality, it’s quite the opposite. “When the term ageism was invented in the late ’60s, people unconsciously accepted that aging is bad,” says Iwasaki. People do plastic surgery to find better work and partners, because looking young gives them an advantage.”
And we’re expected to act youthful, too. How can we genuinely embrace the fact that our bodies are aging when culturally we’re expected to work long hours, say yes to everything that’s offered, ignore accumulating PTO, and work during maternity leave? And with the advent of social media, we’re now keeping tabs on our own selves about just how much we can fit into a day while looking happy and attractive. Energy and activity are our social currency, and physically aging is the way we eventually betray ourselves.
As I considered my conversation with Dr. Iwasaki, I realized the timing of my interest in experimenting with anti-aging treatments isn’t simply vanity—it’s existential. Though I’m not past child-bearing age, I do not intend to have more children. My body is beginning to show wear and tear through, among other things, the cacophony of knee cracks signaling my impermanence each time I lift myself off the floor after playing with my kids. And the fact that my face is starting to look a bit older actually kind of matters. I automatically and subconsciously react to people based on their perceived age every day. I once gave a ride across a parking lot to a much older female stranger mostly because I assumed that, unless she was armed, she posed no threat. And when I encounter high-schoolers, I vacillate between not being able to stand them and wanting them to think I’m cool. If I’m making snap judgments about people based on their age, I think it’s reasonable to assume the same is happening to me.
So, is it possible to age gracefully? It seems, like so many things, that the answer is somehow highly specific to each of the eight billion people on this planet. For some, it might mean decades of plastic surgery, while others might rely solely on sunblock and water as their beauty treatments. For me, it will likely fall somewhere in between. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to get older, but I think I’ll always be a lady perpetually—though non-surgically—on a mission to look good for however old I am. Because, as Iwasaki points out, “Whomever, wherever we are, we are all aging.”
Just be careful whom you call ma’am along the way.