11/05/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nothing Old Can Stay: Aging in the Zellweger Era

Mary Beth Holcomb

My hair is falling out. Standing in the shower, I concentrate on peeling off the stringy filaments coiled around my fingers, clinging to my palms. I imagine they, too, are reluctant to go, as they stretch then drop in clumps too large to rinse down the drain. I'm ashamed by how easily this phenomenon derails me, how quickly vanity consumes my thoughts. It's a common menopausal symptom, I remind myself. I'm nearly 48, with a husband who loves me, four children who mostly still need my affection, and three dogs who delight in my presence. I close my eyes under the stream and focus on the daily chaos, aware of its ephemerality, as teen bodies lengthen overnight and canine muzzles whiten across lazy, nap-ridden days.

Still, I obsess over this widening hair part, the way it opens like a zipper to reveal a small white patch of skull at the back top left of my head. "No one notices but you," my husband comforts me, and I know he's right, if only because no one much notices a 47-year-old woman at all in this society.

We live in a culture without lines, with no limits on what the body can and should be asked to do as we age. Most of us stake our flags somewhere in the middle in our claims against time. I judge those who opt for cosmetic surgery, but am kinder to myself, as I dye my hair brown and wax my lip clean. I find overly-toned middle-aged bodies depressing, yet am prone to fits of self-loathing over the drooping mom butt in the mirror. I'm alternately defiant and dejected, wishing mainly to skip this part, the societal fade-to-invisible I always assumed I'd greet with a self-assured shrug and a spunky middle finger.

No, I'm sorry to report that the stare-through smiles of males these days do bother me. It's complicated, but the idea of no longer feeling seen, not necessarily in a sexual light (though there's that too) but in a human way, is shockingly demoralizing, more so than I ever anticipated. It's not just that you're no longer hot -- it's like you're no longer there.

As the coffee barista focuses somewhere between my chin and left cheekbone, I feel a crazed impulse to shove my life's resume under his nose: "I write! I'm funny! You'd like how we cook and entertain, the revolving door of friends and kids at our house, the giant retriever who thinks he's a lap dog, the way we linger at the table, divvying up the last bit of wine, past caring if a snort escapes or a comment sounds stupid or a tooth winds up covered in spinach. We're sexier than you know!"

Except, of course, we aren't. We're not sexy because there are lines at the corners of our eyes, proof of those nights spent around tables. We're not sexy because of the curved indentations ringing our smiles, the rock skips of youth and sex, of marriage and kids, echoes of prior joys. We're not sexy because rolling hills become craggy mountains, full of nooks and footholds and crevices worth exploring, if you'd only look.

There are reasons, I know, and frankly some good ones, for our country's obsession with youth. Young people are prettier to look at, don't generally remind you of your own mortality and, well, most still have hair. But the quest for endless youth is like rubbing a smooth stone between your fingers -- soothing, but ultimately not very stimulating. Lines and texture are life's work, love's meaning. Look at Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and tell me who you believe.

I won't say that aging is beautiful, but you should know there are worse alternatives. So I'll try to restrict my pity parties to the shower, or at least to my husband's idly sympathetic ear. And I'll dye my thinning hair as long as I damn well please, and I'll laugh, leaning over dinner tables until the wood rubs my elbows raw, and I'll know who's missing out if your gaze won't quite meet mine, even if it stings a little.