Commentary: Struggling with short-sightedness and other ills of growing old while wanting to stay young
Singapore is going to be an ageing society but are we ready to embrace what it means to get older, asks Tracy Lee.
SINGAPORE: At the supermarket, you see grandmas and domestic helpers lugging around a trolley - with a body comprising either an aluminium “cage” or a black, navy blue or floral-printed nylon bag with a front flap, an inverted-U-shaped handle like you get on suitcases, and wheels.
For so long, I have eschewed the supermarket trolley – and carry two recyclable bags to hold my purchases. But last week, lugging my haul, my shoulders ached, my arms felt as if they were on fire, and my fingers struggled to keep up, as if they would break and fall off.
It bothered me, because I hadn’t even bought that much stuff. I’ve definitely experienced pains transporting groceries before.
But that was usually because I was carrying four bottles of wine, two litres of milk, a bag of rice and three months’ supply of cooking oil.
The time of reckoning had come.
Perhaps it was time to buy a grocery trolley, but I am only 49, I thought. Surely I am not old enough for a trolley?
The truth is, the signs that I was getting older had already been there for quite some time.
OH VANITY IS THY NAME
Six years ago, my friends began making fun of me because they noticed I had begun squinting, while holding a menu at arm’s length. Eventually my drink orders became “whatever you’re having” and my food requests became “y’all just get a few things so we can share”, just so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself (and them) reading menus.
It was clear that the solution to this problem was simple – I just needed prescription glasses. But I felt stupidly ashamed that I needed them – I had perfect eyesight all my life! Surely I can hang in there.
It was illogical but my mind refused to accept this. So when I did get them, I hid them like a dirty little secret in my bedside drawer, and used them strictly for bedtime reading. No way was I going to be caught dead wearing them in public.
READ: Commentary: An elderly public housing project is a game-changer but mindsets still need shifting
And then one day, the penny dropped. I had to make a work-related speech in front of 200 people. Of course I didn’t have my glasses with me. At some point, I needed to check my index cards, but realised I could not make out my notes.
I stretched out my arms as far as they would go, and squinted real hard. Nada.
I paused mid-speech for the longest, most awkward few seconds in my life, sweating under the glare of 10 spotlights and 400 eyeballs.
“Er, haha, that’s what happens when you’re too vain to admit you need reading glasses,” I ad-libbed, as I silently cursed my stupid irises for not being able to contract sufficiently in order to bring my notes into focus.
Thankfully, I remembered the rest of my speech.
Needless to say, that was the last time I left home without my reading glasses.
HOW DO YOU AGE GRACEFULLY?
Being child-free has perhaps lulled me into a Peter Pan-like state of mind as I’m pretty much the same size and weight as I was since age 20, and my immediate environment doesn’t come with any obvious markers of the passage of time.
This is unlike my sisters and friends who are parents of teens and twenty-somethings who tower over them.
Yet, the signs are clear as day that I am well past my youth. But the question I cannot deal with is how should one approach this whole ageing thing?
Should I take inspiration from celebrities who are around my age, or older?
There’s 54-year-old actress Halle Berry, who recently began fronting a collection of free workouts on fitness app FitOn, with her trainer saying she has the strength and athleticism of a 25-year-old.
Actress Selma Hayek, also 54, still posts “thirst trap” photos on social media, which feature her striking provocative poses in revealing swimwear.
Another poster girl for never ageing is Jennifer Lopez, who’s 51. In an interview with ELLE magazine, in conjunction with the launch of her anti-ageing skincare brand JLo Beauty, she said: “Every day, I say I am youthful and timeless at every age. I live a beautiful adventurous life with my children, and we're all in perfect health, always.’’
And there’s model Paulina Porizkova (some of us might remember her as the face of Estee Lauder in the 1990s), who recently, at the age of 56, posed for a full-frontal nude on the cover of Vogue Czechoslovakia’s May 2021 issue wearing nothing over her lithe, toned body but a sheer black bodysuit with two swan emojis placed strategically.
According to Vogue, she was chosen to represent “the beauty of maturation in every moment of human life”.
Now lots of people respond positively, like “oh you are an inspiration”, “you don’t look your age” are compliments we hear often.
But is that a good thing? Why does “the beauty and maturation in every moment of human life” have to look like a 25-year-old underweight model’s body, especially if the actual model is 56, and very, very few 56-year-olds (or 25-year-olds, for that matter) look like that?
Who has decided the beauty standard middle-aged women should aim for, is “desperately clinging on to youth, posting social media pics of you wearing skimpy clothing, and trying to look and behave like you’re 25 forever”?
Doesn’t this just serve to create an impossible ideal that most middle-aged woman would find hard to attain, especially considering this is a time when so many are caught up in being part of the sandwiched generation, caring for their children and aged parents simultaneously?
Also, who has the time and money to look like celebrities? These people have personal trainers, nutritionists, plastic surgeons, dermatologists, hair and makeup artists, professional photographers, personal stylists, plus hired help to run errands, do housekeeping and so on.
It reminds me of how new mums find it such a struggle to regain their pre-pregnancy figures, as compared to their rich and famous counterparts, who seem to go back to size zero within weeks.
All this just invites unhealthy self-comparisons, adds to our lives stress we don’t need, and increases levels of self-dissatisfaction.
Might it be more liberating to allow those grey roots to show, to not feel one has to erase every single wrinkle or age spot that appears, or to spend endless hours at the gym, salon or plastic surgeon to deceive the world into thinking you’re a quarter of a century younger than you actually are?
Or would people think you’ve just gotten lazy, and given up your quest to be your best self?
Over the next one and a half years before I turn 50, I am going to spend more time reflecting carefully about the kind of older woman I want to be.
READ: 'I was an accidental ambassador': Chan Heng Chee on being a female icon, the sacrifices she made and Singapore’s changing politics
I need to find my sweet spot between “spending enough, but not too much, effort to look good for my age” and “not bothering at all and letting every extra pound, wrinkle, sag and grey hair all hang out”.
This doesn’t mean I will give up being vain – perhaps I shall not buy that grocery trolley after all. I’ll just order my groceries online and have them delivered to my doorstep.
Tracy Lee is a freelance writer who writes about food, travel, fashion and beauty.