On beauty, at age 37

29 February 2024

In somewhat surprising news, I’m happy with the way my face looks.

I say surprising, because, as of this week, I am 37, and drawing ever-closer (or perhaps I’m already there?) to the age where panic over the visible signs of aging often sets in. But I don’t feel panicked. In fact, I feel rather pleased. This seems worthy of exploration, and so I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately. Shall we explore together?

Here’s why I think I’m content so far with the aging process, and with my particular face — some reasons practical, and some more philosophical.

1. My skin looks objectively better than it did when I was younger. I had some acne in high school and despaired of bumpy, flaky skin on my forehead through much of my twenties. Over time, I’ve learned more about my skin and found products that work for me. (In case you’re wondering, I’d say only two have made an immediate, highly-noticeable difference: this charcoal soap, which evens out my oily/dry skin (I’ve been using it since 2017!), and this toner, which completely got rid of the forehead flakiness and smoothed out my skin overall (in the rotation since 2019).)

When you remember what things used to be like, it’s easy to be grateful for where you are now.

2. The signs of aging my skin does show are palatable to me. I have some serious laugh lines around my eyes. They truly don’t bother me at all – I see them as evidence of a joy-filled life with lots of reasons to smile. Other than that, I think my skin looks… kind of the same as it always has? I attribute this 100% to genetics, fanatical daily use of sunscreen since I was in college, and a penchant for wearing big hats when I’m spending time in the sun. Thank you, mid-aughts magazines, for drilling this into my head.

(I use this sunscreen now and LOVE IT but used regular old drugstore Neutrogena before I could afford it.)

3. I am frugal. John and I are highly-motivated savers and givers, and I don’t have a ton of extra spending money lying around. Because of my frugality, more invasive (a.k.a. expensive!) procedures have always felt off the table — and so I don’t spend time researching them or analyzing before and after photos or even considering what’s possible. I’ve also never met with a consultant who told me all the things that could be improved, so it’s easier to be content with what I have. Ignorance is bliss :)

4. The faces I look at most are aging naturally. And many of them are the people I admire most. That’s in part because they’re mostly faces in the real world with me, not faces on a screen. My friends and family and the women at school pick-up and soccer and church and in my neighborhood are who I have for companions and comparison, not the cream of the internet.

I also read a lot about how social media, with its filters and ring lights and editing apps, is not realistic. This has inoculated me against the idea that online perfection is something to strive for; instead, I assume it’s artificially enhanced and move on.

5. I’m largely protected from ageism. The world can be a cruel place. I’ve had the same job for 15 years, and for most of that I’ve had only women colleagues. I don’t have to routinely get up in front of a boardroom of men, I’m not in sales, and I don’t often find myself in professional settings where I’m judged on my looks. Ageism and prejudice based on beauty is a real thing, but it’s just not a thing I’ve had to deal with.

6. Beauty has never been my foremost characteristic. To be clear: I could name plenty of things I wish were different about my face. It used to sting when other people’s looks were complimented more than mine, but now I’m grateful for it. From my teenage years, it right-sized my expectations: if I wasn’t expected to be “the pretty one,” it was okay that my skin wasn’t perfect and my face was only “good enough.” And it hurts a lot less to see something degrade or be less valued over time if it’s not something you hold dear.

7. And yet, a good, good man finds me beautiful. And he tells me that often. What more could I want or need?

8. Still, I don’t believe my beauty is a measure of my worth or value. This is beautifully rooted in my Christian faith. What makes me worthy is that I am made in the image of God, as we all are — and that never changes or fades. No matter my age or how I feel about the body God gave me, my value is secure.*

9. I tend to recognize the good old days when they’re here. I won’t look back in twenty years and wish I had appreciated how I looked. I know I have it good right now, which makes the idea of fixing what I have… kind of silly.

10. I am so grateful to be alive. I am grateful to age alongside my husband and children. And aging has a physical component. In this world, that’s just how it is.

This feels like a risky post to write. It could easily be misunderstood or misconstrued, or maybe I’ll look in the mirror in 10, or 20, or 30 years and feel quite differently. But I have achieved a measure of peace in this area of my life that spills out into so many others, and if there’s something about how I’ve gotten here that might be helpful to someone else, I want to share it — because there’s not many other people who will. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracist, a message of contentment in imperfection is not one that many online voices are incentivized to share, since it doesn’t really sell anything (except maybe sunscreen!).

So! I hope you receive this with the heart with which it was intended, and please do chime in with any thoughts of your own. I look forward to reading them!

*Thank you to Laura Wifler for so beautifully articulating this truth!

Oliver. I am dying. Can you spot him in the photo above?

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March 1, 2024 6:41 am

I echo these sentiments 1000%! So beautifully written Emily, thank you for sharing.

March 1, 2024 7:15 am

I had a feeling a birthday-ish post could be coming this week! Dear friend, everything about this and you and your heart is just so beautiful! I will never forget the moment a sweet friend at church told me that she thought I was most beautiful with silver hair. First I was embarrassed! She knew I had gray hairs?! Then it was immediate freedom that I could let my body be itself and that self was lovely and beautiful. I could go on and on about how letting my hair be it’s natural silvery brown color at 38 has been one of the best decisions of my 30s. What freedom it is when we care for our bodies but let them age rather than frantically trying to hide all the signs that we are growing older! What a gift we are giving to our daughters!

March 1, 2024 7:18 am

I love each of these, and thought of #9 especially yesterday. I took a selfie of Jeff and me on a walk and said “We’re going to have a few more wrinkles the next Leap Day!” and thought about how my future self will appreciate how I look today. It makes all the difference in your mindset. Here’s to growing older and all the wisdom you gain with it! Happy birthday, friend!!

March 1, 2024 7:35 am

Oh my goodness, this is so good. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately as someone I follow posted their experience with fillers, and someone commented that they were afraid they would be old and unattractive because they have to age naturally (due to the expense of procedures). There was then a request for cheaper options to help people look and feel good. While that is great, I think your post gets to the crux of the real answer, that natural aging is STUNNING, for all the reasons you listed. Yes, if people want to get fillers and Botox etc, that is so great for them, but there’s an option of being happy and pleased with the way you look even without those things.

March 1, 2024 7:49 am

Oh I love this post, and I love love to hear another woman publicly celebrating that she feels beautiful and good in her naturally aging skin. More of that, please! I feel the same and am nodding along with many of your reasons why.
I turned 40 in December and being this milestone age has been on my mind for a while, leading up to my birthday and still as I get used to it. In just the few years before 40 I felt like I started noticing more visible aging in my skin and sometimes it would momentarily deflate me. But, like you, I am able to right myself and see my own natural beauty of being myself and appreciate how “good” and “young” I look. Especially compared to my 60, 70, 80+ year old self. I know 80 year old Kelsey would be so disappointed if 40 year old Kelsey wasted time thinking she looked old.
I would say a factor for me is that I live in a very image-conscious area (Gilbert, AZ). It has kind of an LA image-conscious vibe to it. Rampant aesthetic dermatology and dental offices. Plastic surgery (breasts, lips, etc) and facial treatments like botox are pretty common. Not as much within my closest friends but there are exceptions. Oh and just about everyone dyes their hair while I am letting mine gray naturally, and have a fair amount of gray so far. So I am more faced with seeing faces/bodies that are not necessarily aging naturally and that can feel hard sometimes. But I remind myself, “Good for you, not for me!” and appreciate that I feel confident and beautiful just the way I naturally am.
I also have, thankfully!, worn daily sunscreen pretty consistently since high school and college. My go-to now is Paula’s Choice Youth-Extending spf 50 and I have loved it for years. My husband also uses it! I also use their toner and exfoliator, and now use prescription retinol (cheaper/more effective than the marked up beauty brands). I also keep my skincare simple and as affordable as possible and am pretty resistant to more expensive products that try to entice me. I love Trader Joe’s face care as well for face wash and moisturizers. My dermatologist told me the things that actually make a difference are sunscreen, a vitamin C serum, and retinol so I stick to those.
OMG I zoomed in to find your cat — LOL!

March 1, 2024 9:07 am

I love that you chose to write about this topic, Em! And happy birthday!! I especially love #9 – what a great perspective! I feel mostly the same and am lucky that my husband would not want me to change anything or worry too much about aging. But I will admit that my gray hairs do bother me from time to time and as much as I want to gray naturally, I don’t know a lot of other women who do, and that does make me feel like I probably look older (if that makes sense). Like, if most women didn’t dye their hair, it would just be normal to have some grays at age 40 and you wouldn’t necessarily look older than your fellow 40 year old friends ;) But I’m sure my 60y/o self would be like: You barely had any grays at 40, I wish you would have just lived your life and not wasted brain space on that, ha.

March 1, 2024 9:35 pm
Reply to  Kerstin

I’m in the gray hair club as well! I’m 33 and about 50%ish of my hair is gray (I stopped dying it during Covid). I like it now and don’t feel like it ages me up, but I’m open to reevaluating how I feel about it as the years go on.

March 5, 2024 6:21 pm
Reply to  Sara

Love this! Thanks for the encouragement! Very timely, I saw this article on Cup of Jo today about going gray. Thought you might enjoy it!

March 1, 2024 9:41 am

I always love hearing your thoughts and this one brought so much joy to me. I’m 38 and have many of the same thoughts as you and this just reinforces all the areas about which I can be content and grateful when it comes to my face. Also, my 60 year old self would 100% feel AMAZING about my body and face right now! :)

March 1, 2024 10:10 am

Happy Birthday! I also turned 37 in February. I’ve been pleased with the way I look for a while now because my skin also happens to be better looking now than it was when I was in high school! Lol And to quote Toni Morrison, my mostly wrinkle free skin is an “accident of birth” not a virtue or any special skill on my part. I often wash my face with Johnson’s baby soap. So I can thank genetics and a long line of wrinkle-free melanated women who’ve come before me for my skin’s smoothness. I’ve mentioned in other comments that I have a chronic illness and have had 2 kidney transplants already. I’m usually the youngest patient at my nephrology practice. So it’s an honor and a privilege to get older and look older IMO.

March 1, 2024 12:58 pm

Thank you for sharing these beautiful thoughts on beauty! Yes, the only way to live a long, happy life is to do it with wrinkles. We are earning our stripes. I am interested to see what I will look like when my hair grays. Will it be sprinkled throughout? Will it be full-on gray? I truly want to know and plan to rock it however and whenever it decides to come! lol …definitely not something I hear anyone say, ever. Also, I feel the more botox a woman has, the more alien-looking she becomes. Why sabotage natural beauty like that? So, I appreciate your #4.

March 1, 2024 2:11 pm

Absolutely love this post! 38 this year and I’m happy with the way my face looks too. It’s like this post gave me permission to say it out loud.

March 2, 2024 8:15 am

Lovely sentiments that I share and beautifully written. As much as I want to set down all of my teenage baggage, I’m still carrying some of it. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I found 38 and 39 to be more challenging emotionally than 40 as far as birthdays went. Now that I’m here, I own it!

March 4, 2024 1:50 pm

Gabriele Grunewald (a professional runner) used to say “we should feel lucky not old because growing old is a privilege denied many”. I like my face as it ages, it’s a mark of privilege to grow and look older.