“C’est la grande aventure,” as my Parisian tap-dancing teacher used to say about the fifth grade, which I never reached. But what he meant, basically, was that beyond a certain point you have to wing it. When you get to your late forties and early fifties, most of the options and role models on offer for women of that age are boring ones. So you have to make it up as you go along.
[In these three photographs, I was trying to look like a slattern with a wrinkly neck. And I think I succeeded.]
Shortly before I left London, I got followed up Tottenham Court Road at four o’clock one afternoon by a bunch of yobs chanting, “Ugly! Ugly! Wouldn’t want to fuck that!” (I didn’t want to fuck them either, but that’s not the point.)
A few years later, in the Bastille quartier of Paris, a yob mumbled something I didn’t quite catch, and when I asked him to repeat it, said, “Madame, vous êtes magnifique!” I guess he might have meant it ironically, but I don’t think so.
So there I was, newly arrived in France with my crooked teeth and crazy hair, and people telling me I was magnifique. And I learnt to speak a new language, made new friends, travelled to new places and generally had a beezer time.
In 2005 I bought my first digital camera – a Canon Ixus – and started taking photographs again. And naturally, once again, one of my favourite subjects was myself. My usual method was to hold the camera at arm’s length and snap away, hence the slight distortion in some of these pics.
It was getting more challenging, though. My face was obviously changing, but I wasn’t sure how. I tried to catch myself off guard, taking photographs when my hair needed washing, I wasn’t wearing lipstick or didn’t feel 100% bushy-tailed. I aimed for the merciless close-up, even if I ended up rejecting some of the results as just too ghastly to contemplate. And I tried to find ways of smiling without exposing my horrible teeth. As you can see, I tried to cultivate an expression of ironic amusement.
I missed being able to control the image in the darkroom, burning in the light spots or holding back the shadows, but now there were new ways to manipulate it, thanks to iPhoto, PhotoShop and Acorn. Retouching became easier, and ever so tempting. Perfect skin. And look at all the things you can do with all the different colour settings…
All my life people have told me to “cheer up”. I suspect some men think it’s a woman’s duty to go around smiling like an idiot. Well bugger that; when I am in repose my facial muscles relax and I look a bit grumpy. Unless you have told me a funny joke, or I’m thinking about a film I’ve enjoyed, I am not going to grin just to amuse you.
Once, a young man in the street told me to “cheer up” and I responded by telling him (quite truthfully at the time) that my father was dying of cancer, and did he expect me to go around smiling about it. He riposted with, “Ugly bitch.”
I have also noticed that, as you get older, people think it’s OK to tell you if you look tired. Either you really are tired, in which case you don’t need it pointed out to you, or you’re not, in which case their remark is pointless and dispiriting. But I do like this quote from Inès de la Fressange I once saw in French Elle.
“C’est pas mal, aussi, de voir, vers le soir, son visage fatigué et de l’accepter. Parce que c’est l’indice que c’est le moment de lâcher prise et d’aller se reposer.” (It’s OK, too, towards the end of the day, to see by your face that you’re tired, and to accept it. Because it’s a sign that it’s time to let go and put your feet up.)
As you can see, in these pictures I have perfected my enigmatic, tooth-concealing smile. I have also evidently decided this is my best angle, and have made my complexion look smoother and more blemish-free than it really is. But appearing younger than I really am isn’t a priority. I’m more interested in finding acceptable ways to look my age, or maybe trying to redefine that look and the way I feel about it.
Both these photographs were taken by the same friend in 2007. The photograph on the left is what I look like when both light and angle are accidentally flattering, hair more or less behaving, and I’m not in the middle of talking or making a face.
Whereas I think the photograph on the right is pretty much what I look like in real life.
The Photo Booth application on Mac computers is invariably quite brutal.
When you look back at yourself 20, 30, 40 years from now, you will realise you looked great all the time, and without even knowing it.
What may seem adorably dishevelled and devil-may-care in a teenager can sometimes make an older woman look like a mad bag lady.
If, like me, you have always had baby-fine hair, it will only get finer with the passing years. If, like me, you have pale skin and darkish hair, your scalp won’t show through your hair quite so much if you go several shades lighter, or even blonde.
Regular exercise becomes obligatory after the age of 40.
The term “mutton dressed as lamb” was invented to keep you in line. Don’t toe it.
Your skin doesn’t change when you hit the menopause. It only begins to change. Gradually, it becomes less elastic, saggier, more wrinkled. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of that in Mugshots Part 6.
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