When I think about it, there wasn’t any fixed moment when I realised I was getting old. Numerically I was gaining, of course, but each passing year brought with it a new level of maturity and more challenges to overcome, so I viewed my twenties as exciting more than anything else. That, plus the comforting knowledge that I was finally an adult, well and truly, and wouldn’t be written off as a little girl any more. Hurray! People finally recognise my struggles as legitimate and my opinion as worth listening to! Ageing was a plus more than anything else.
My first realisation that I was getting old — not older, old — wasn’t some startling moment of truth. It was a realisation that accumulated in parts, little bits of evidence piling up over the months and years, negligible at first but undeniable soon enough. The pimple that took a little longer to vanish, the hands that started cracking in the sun, the post-night-out dullness that lasted a day or three longer. The most significant changes were wrought in my figure, which I was hitherto more or less in control of. I was still slim, but it was getting harder and harder to stay so. I felt the flab that, gram by gram, lodged ever more comfortably into place with each treat I consume. Three pieces of fried chicken were enough to make me gasp, and I ran the risk of nausea every time I reach for a second slice of frosted cake. And every extra portion at a meal translated into an agony of bloating, which only exacerbated my inability to pull off those slim-fit jeans and bodycon dresses without a dozen love handles spilling out. Perhaps not a dozen — but a positive number, where earlier there were none.
I didn’t pay it much attention even then. Lifestyle changes, that’s all I need, I told myself. I stopped going for nights out and cut my drinking down to zero, and I definitely felt healthier in general. The flab, however, continued to settle in permanently, even though my diet wasn’t particularly unhealthy. I had switched almost entirely to Indian clothing by then, so I still looked slim to others — underneath, however, my midriff was packing on the pounds. I don’t think people quite realise the pain of slim people who put on weight like this — it’s easily hidden with the right outfits, so outsiders refuse to believe it and even accuse us of trying to draw attention to ourselves. But we know what’s going on inside, and it worries us — immensely.
About six months ago I underwent a major mental transformation — the product of several years of depression, frustration, fear and gathering courage — and started focusing on things that were good for me rather than things people were telling me to do. And among the many, many matters I came to terms with then, my body and my youth featured prominently.
The truth was — I was getting old.
Not just older in years. Old.
It was obviously a hard pill to swallow. Hang on, I’m just 24. How can I be getting old? I thought ageing only happened after 35! What’s going on???
Natural, of course, the denial. But as the months slipped by and 24 turned into 25, the facts could no longer be ignored.
Visibly young though I may be, my body has started, in teeny-tiny ways, to remind me that I won’t be young forever. A twinge here, a spot there, things that could almost go unnoticed but which scream out to the senses that are put on alert. The occasional joint ache announces itself, as does the neck ache from awkward pillow angles. Standing or sitting for too long makes my legs feel like leaden weights, and dancing at parties stops being fun after the first few songs. Back in college I could stay up half the night without any repercussions beyond a faintly greyish rim, but now the under eyes appear to be permanently smudged in kohl. My skin, thus far almost angelically good to me, has started sporting blemishes that refuse to go away overnight. And is that — heaven forbid — a fine line? A few months ago I bought my first ever concealer. Part of me went yayyy, finally I can sport Clinique makeup like the boss ladies! Except that the use of concealer implied the presence of something to conceal.
My female friends are going through much the same thing, and they and I often get together complain about ageing. It’s partly genuine, and partly contrived — in a way, we relish the status of adulthood, of legitimate ageing, as an indicator of having wholly outgrown our adolescence. It’s partly vanity too — we stress on our ageing so that older people can cuff us affectionately and say “don’t be silly, you’re still young” and we can remind ourselves that the twenties are still the golden decade, where youth, beauty, wisdom and ambition come together in a glorious whole. It’s something we do almost entirely to be ostentatious — a luxury we still have and hold on to before the complaints become genuine, private and unhappy.
Because that, too, is just around the corner.
Some not-so-distant day, the body won’t be coy about ageing. Someday the concealer will become a necessity and the joint aches will become a daily affliction. I’ll discover my first grey hair one morning and bemoan the end of my life. Treats will truly become occasional and exercise will become a heart healer rather than a tummy controller. Late nights will become a non-negotiable taboo and skipping meals will have far more severe effects than a carb craving. Jeans will lose whatever elasticity they had and several dresses will have to be permanently shelved as “stuff I rocked as a young gun”. The nightly medicines will go far beyond vitamin capsules and the eye cream I apply daintily with my little finger will evolve into a slew of anti-ageing potions, rubbed on determinedly in a bid to defeat the clock. And the clock will tick on coldly, each second a step towards a future where youth and beauty will be a distant memory. Of course, I know it doesn’t have to be that bleak. I know that if I start devoting time to exercise and healthy meals every day I can be a lot healthier and still fit into skinny outfits when I’m older. Things can be better. But they can’t ever be the same. The twenties can’t be duplicated — just as the trashy lifestyles of teens can’t be sustained beyond 20.
Now that I’ve acknowledged the truth, I can feel glad that I did so before it was too late, and that I have enough time to start making the most of the youth I have left. And while to many that may mean living dangerously while it’s still possible, to me it’s about preparing intelligently — about listening to the signals my body is giving me, and heeding them — so that the inevitable ageing of the coming years can be mitigated as much as possible, for my own health and well-being more than my vanity (though I don’t deny that vanity plays a part too).
To prepare thus is to embark on a journey, and the journey towards self-care and growing older with grace starts, perhaps brutally, with some hard realisations. That certain luxuries I had until lately are simply gone.
Gone are the days I can gorge and be confident that the food will all get digested somehow. Gone are the days I can stay up till 4AM each night reading random fanfiction and watching DIY videos. Gone are the days of riotously good health no matter how hard I push my body or how gleefully I stuff myself. Every day calls for extra care towards this newly delicate machine, and its demands on me will only increase with each passing year.
Those days are gone, and no amount of wishing and moaning will bring them back.
It’s a sombre moment, undoubtedly. Accepting that I’m no longer a spring chicken.
But this also a moment to think about the happier side to this, about attributes that could well count as blessings.
For instance, perhaps I can be grateful for a dressing sense that naturally leans towards the elegant and evergreen rather than the outrageous and under-30-only, which means I can keep wearing most of what I like wearing now without looking like I’m trying to act younger.
Perhaps I can be grateful that I was never a party animal and that I need never worry about getting a beer belly or handling weekly hangovers or fitting into sequinned, super-short club outfits.
Perhaps I can be grateful that an inherent tendency to put on weight has made me fairly conscious of calories for a while now, and that I have successfully weaned myself off potato crisps, soft drinks, evening snacks and ice-cream after meals for several years now.
Perhaps I can be grateful for a body that, while highly inclined to sprout tyres and muffins and thunder thighs, has beautifully fashioned collarbones, slender arms and a model-worthy curve of the back.
And I’m so utterly thankful for my gene pool that preserves women’s beauty through the decades (witness my gorgeous fifty-something mom).
They say growing old is mandatory but growing up is optional. The first part is indubitable, but I’d like to add a caveat to the second part. Growing up is indeed optional, but it’s an option we should all choose. Growing up — maturing gracefully, assimilating the lessons we’re learning, accepting our bodily ageing and treating ourselves with caution and care — is a responsibility, and a beautiful one. We polish our silverware to keep it shiny, we paint our walls to keep them bright, we repair our car engines to keep them running smoothly. Why not put that extra effort into maintaining that greatest gift from above — our own selves? Why not embrace the growing responsibilities of adulthood and carry them out?
I’m getting old now, and I don’t deny that it bothers me — a lot — at times. But on the whole, I’ve started to be okay with it, to accept — with equanimity — that I’ve crossed the silver jubilee of my existence and that I’ve started to hurtle down further and further away from the glorious peak of my youth. Most importantly, I’ve started to accept and rejoice in the fact that with a little extra effort, the years to come can also be glorious and that I can keep slaying with as much confidence as any young debutante up there.
And for now, I’ll keep applying my eye cream every night and hope that the fine lines will stay away just a little bit longer.