Comparison is the thief of joy. This is one of my therapist’s favorite sayings. And he’s right. This is true for all people but can be especially true, perhaps, for women of a certain age; of my age. Yet we are vulnerable to this kind of theft only if we allow ourselves to be. In the end, it is always a choice.
I tried to take a novice-selfie the other day, to update my Instagram profile. I had been perusing other friends’ pages and was feeling inspired by the bright-eyed, dewy, rose-cheeked photos I saw. It had been quite a while since I’d willingly placed myself in front of a camera, and I chose this particular day to take the selfie because I had taken a bit more time and care with my makeup that morning and my hair hadn’t rebelled as stubbornly against the flatiron. But when I clicked the camera to self-facing and saw the image staring back at me in the phone screen, I was shocked. My neck had rings, actual rings, like some mighty, venerable tree. The bags under my eyes were more heavy and pronounced than I’d thought. The beginning of jowls were starting to appear along my jawline.
Everything in my face was beginning to take a downward slant.
When did this happen? When did everything in my face start to take a decidedly downward slant? The image was surprising because this was definitely not what I saw when I looked in the mirror that morning.
And I wondered…..do we always see ourselves as younger than we really are? Just having turned 50, I thought I’d held up pretty well. People often said I looked younger. But the camera doesn’t lie. Today, in this photo, I looked……well, my age. For a moment, I felt deflated. And I immediately thought, who can give me the name of a great plastic surgeon…..
Witnessing yourself age naturally can be a difficult thing to do in today’s society, particularly as a woman. After all, we rarely see celebrities aging naturally anymore; they are kept so well-maintained and youthful-looking by plastic surgeons that now it’s almost jarring to see a celebrity over 50 with age-appropriate wrinkles and a few gray hairs. Even in my own little corner of the world, I see the same plastic-surgery trend – in upscale restaurants and cushy little boutiques around town, if I simply stop to observe many of the women around me. And unfortunately that is what we have been conditioned to do as women; observe other women around us; and compare. And that comparison can lead to feelings of inferiority if we let it.
This same phenomenon, this comparing, happens in so many other arenas too. It’s this very thing that led me to deactivate my Facebook account for a couple of years – almost all the women I knew seemed to be posting things that gave the impression their lives were wonderful and perfectly arranged. My own life was falling apart at the time; I was dealing with the dead-end of infertility, divorce was becoming a real possibility, my beloved dog Sophie had just passed, and I was in a deep depression. I just couldn’t take the happy, smiling faces and the bouncing, cheery posts.
The gym can be dangerous ground for this too. Most days as I’m walking the treadmill at the YMCA, earbuds tucked snugly in my ears, I have a perfect view of the machine and free-weights section. There are women there with flat, firm bellies and a decided lack of swinging bat-wing skin under their arms. They are working hard for those thing, granted. And I am not. My only goal is to get my heart rate up and burn a few calories. And I hope I am not judging those women; I hope I am admiring them.
But sometimes admiration can cross into the dangerous territory of comparison and that’s when I have to close my eyes and remind myself that a tight, firm body is not everything in this life. Isn’t it just as, if not more, important to be kind, to be giving, to be loving, and open? Isn’t our interior work more important than our exterior maintenance? Yet that is not the message that our modern society sends; instead, it propels us violently toward the desperate reach for youth, even when we are well past it.
Aging is honorable and beautiful, despite the messages society send us. This is what I recognize on some very deep level as an authentic and absolute truth. But in those moments of comparison, it is sometimes hard to hold on to that grounding.
So, while my body is more Rubenesque than ripped; and my face isn’t as fresh and rosy-cheeked as it once was, I resolve not to let my joy be stolen by constant comparison. For me, this requires a daily inventory of the things I am grateful for; from the biggest to the seemingly smallest – my health, my family, the way my dog looks at me, the tree branches I see swaying in the wind outside my window, my miraculous ability to breathe in and out. The simple and astounding fact that I am alive. Grounding myself in gratitude and not giving in to the comparisons is the only way I see to maintain joy. And though I may still keep that plastic surgeon’s name on my refrigerator; for today, I don’t feel the need to pick up the phone and schedule a consult.