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The Compliment I No Longer Want To Hear

It all started when I was in my mid 40s.

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Winnie Au (Hair and Make Up Stylist: Jessica Seguine/Zenobia Agency)
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When I turned 44 in November, I discovered that a lot of people I’ve met recently had no idea how old I was. Far more often than I received a “happy birthday” from these new acquaintances, I heard the comment, “I thought you were … younger than me/in your 20s/in your 30s.”

My boyfriend tells me that colleagues of ours were shocked when he revealed I was born in the ’70s. I’m not going to lie: I’m often flattered when someone tells me I look younger than my age. I have plenty of body-image issues, but my face is one area — save for when certain stubborn red spots won’t go away no matter how many fancy serums I use — where I feel good about my looks.

After hearing it for the umpteenth time, however, I started to feel uncomfortable. Why are we so fixated on looking younger than we really are, to the point that there’s even a skin-care line called Youth To The People? What’s wrong with looking our age and wearing our wisdom and knowledge with pride? Can’t we still pursue beauty without it always being about seeming younger?

I may not mind looking like I’m in my 20s, but when I think back on that time in my life, there’s no way I’d want to be mistaken for acting like I’m in my 20s. I was, to put it mildly, a hot mess. In that decade, I dropped out of law school with no plan of what I was going to do and, armed with $150,000 in student loans, moved from my NYU Law dorm in pricey Greenwich Village to ultratrendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I stayed out drinking until bars closed and then tumbled into a series of mind-numbing administrative jobs. In my personal life, I pursued relationships with people who in retrospect were largely unavailable or interested only in sex. I spent money I didn’t have to keep up with my alcohol-fueled social life, figuring out the art of borrowing more and more and more as if my future didn’t exist.

Every aspect of my life is better in my 40s. I’m in an almost-eight-year relationship with a man who’s my total opposite in temperament but who makes me laugh and tells me he loves me every single day. I run a creative business that has grossed six figures the last few years. Rather than sleeping on a dingy mattress on the floor as I did in Brooklyn, I get my z’s on a fancy Sleep Number bed my boyfriend gave me when he upgraded.

Is my life perfect? Of course not. I struggle with anxiety and depression, worry about my aging parents, and stress out when work slows down. But those are issues I can handle. The only huge, glaring negative about my 40s is that I haven’t been able to get pregnant — when all I want now to complete my imperfect-but-happy domesticity is to become a mom.

Infertility is awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But at least I have a home base of love and stability from which to consider next steps that I didn’t have in the past.

The flip side of “you look so young” is the fact that surely someday I won’t. What will people say then? “Your hair looks amazing”? I’ve had friends and family who, every time I see them, insisted on commenting on my weight, which has fluctuated over my adult life from 110 pounds to my current 190. Compliments about my face remind me of “You look like you’ve lost weight,” a phrase I’ve heard whether I actually had or not. To a large degree, I have no control over how young or old my face looks. Sure, I use face masks, do my best to drink 100 ounces of water a day, always use moisturizer with SPF when going outside, and take care of my skin.

But I could wake up one day and look 44, or 54, or 60 — and I’d still be proud of the woman I see in the mirror. The truth is, when I get up close and personal with my visage, I can tell that my face holds more experience than it did 20 years ago. I’ve been through a lot of good and bad in that time — amazing travels, deep friendships, love and sex galore, as well as layoffs, bankruptcy, panic attacks and the deaths of loved ones.

Those are all parts of me that I carry around — why would I want to hide them? I’m not writing this to shame anyone who has told me or anyone else they look younger. It’s a default in our culture, just like the weight-loss-as-victory fallacy. They are both traps I’ve fallen into, because they’re so easy.

But I’m not happy to celebrate each birthday because I look like I was born in the ’80s or ’90s. As the badass late model and makeup artist Cindy Joseph wrote, “Aging is living” and “living is aging.” Not everyone I know made it to 44. I’m happy to get to be alive, and I’m not afraid of acting — or looking — my real age.

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