I used to wonder what women meant when they talked about needing beauty sleep and described looking worn and tired in the morning and the evening and while traveling and before putting on makeup and after having children and just in general. I used to look the same when I woke up as when I went to sleep. Sure, my face would be a little puffy, in a cute way, but I looked like myself.
I'd like to lie and say I'm definitely still in the bloom of my youth, but I'm a bad liar. The truth is, I can see where this is headed. I'm smart. Let's not pretend. My neck is going to sag one day. Not yet. But one day. It's preparing. I can feel where it's soft and pliant, at the point where the base of my jaw meets with my neck.
And when I am tired, I look tired. I look worn. My hair looks limp, my eyes are hollow, and there are shadowed dips in my face, trenches alongside my mouth, up to either side of my nose, where patches of dark have fallen asleep and won't budge. There is no flattering angle I can turn towards the camera. There can be no cameras.
I have been known to look harried. Haggard. Other unhappy words that begin with an "h." Harpie. Hairball. Hapless. But haggard? That didn't used to be a look I could do.
So I get it. I get what women mean when they talk about this. About freshening up. About touching up. The stuff that those silly creams in the commercials definitely can't do, but are always insisting they can. The creams that those models never seem to need but are sensually rubbing into their fine, stretched skin anyway.
It's a little shocking. I thought that was an exaggeration -- all that stuff about the unprepared, unmade-up face and its weary troubles. Or maybe I was just being smug. How many times was I smug, back then, without even having to think about it? I guess that's how smugness works.
I think I should try very hard not to feel smug now, because everything I've taken for granted in the past has come around eventually to look me in the (weary) face from the other side. The flat belly. The thick, lustrous hair. The one poem I had published in a teen magazine as a kid. I thought it'd be all slender body parts and cascading hair and publishing from there on out. Well, guess what?
You guessed what.
But really, it's better than all that. It's a plush little belly (cake! pizza! grilled cheeses!) and forget-it hair and writing all day long and all the rest of life that means a lot more than flat abs and teen magazines anyway.
So if I can look harried now, so what?
I can't lie, I'm not over it. I feel like sometimes I look surprisingly old. Which means that I feel like, in a way, I look surprisingly bad.
When I think about it, it seems sad that looking old is such a terrible, frightening thing.
It reminds me of my grandmother, who says, "I look so old!" And she is old. So she looks old. And she also looks great. Because she's supposed to be old, so it's okay. And because old and beautiful are not opposites.
But I am not old. I'm too young to look old. Or maybe this is just what it looks like, when you age, at any age over 20 or so. Or possibly 23. Maybe there are these hints. These signs. These suggestions.
Maybe it's not breaking some rule or falling apart or just generally horrible. Maybe this is just what I look like at 26. Sometimes fresh, sometimes utterly tired. Sometimes taut, sometimes slackening. In flux. Which is what we all are, always, whether we know it or not. Whether it shows on our faces or not. Whether it has played with the lines of our body yet or not.
I am changing, shifting, always moving towards the sagging neck. Towards a better understanding of everything. Towards deeper lines, more shadow. Maybe more light, too. Shadow, after all, is all about light.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake