Although one of the blessings of maturity is the loss of vanity, older women and men are not completely devoid of a certain level of care about their appearances. For some of us, not reaching for that bottle of Clairol is an act of political defiance but while for others, they will visit the hair salon for a monthly coloring and send a check to Ms. as compensation. Not having plastic surgery (despite the promises and promotion) or injections of Botox or collagen is an act of acceptance that one’s skin will sag and wrinkle. It may come to pass that one will look her age or someone else’s idea of what seventy looks like. It is the embrace of “What the heck? How long can I fight this battle?” The truth of it is that some of us could afford a little work, as it euphemistically referred to. My fear is that plastic surgery would be like home repair. You ask the workmen to do one thing and they discover that the whole foundation is rotting and must be immediately replaced. What I am imagined was a tiny lift here and there is a major re-engineering, making me look less like my fifty year self and more like that porcelain baby doll I used to have that wet herself. You get to be a certain age and you avoid being photographed, not because you are running from the law but because you are still not used to looking like the person you have become. It is annoying to listen to people my age (late sixties) immediately attach the person who took the little snapshot with her iPhone. “Why did you focus on my neck?” “Why did you take this picture outside? The light is so bright.” “Wait. Let me put on my scarf and sunglasses and coat.” So much for aging gracefully.
Last year, I was giving a talk at Cornell University. This followed the publication of my book about teaching in colleges and universities. The semester had just ended and I was delighted to be taking a trip to this campus since I respect the work they do. On the second day of my visit, I walked to the lecture hall and saw a poster announcing a speaker for the same speaker series that I was a part of. I was excited and grew even more so when I saw that this was Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known staff writer for the New Yorker and best selling author of kazillon books (Outliers, David and Goliath, Blink, Tipping Point). I was delighted to be in the same company as him. I must admit that I was a little star struck by the possibility, maybe even giddy. Really.
As I grew closer, I realized that the picture on the poster was not Malcolm Gladwell at all; it was me. Now, I don’t think there are many women who would mistake themselves for a man and be happy about it. And, I don’t think there are many people who would be flattered to be mistaken for Malcolm Gladwell, no matter how many books he has sold. (Personally, I think he is very cute in a geeky sort of way because he is not very cute in another sort of way.) I must also say that I hadn’t seen this picture of me before. It had been taken by university photographers in their biennial round up of faculty for up-to-date photographs for university publications. It was horrid. It was me, of course, but not the me, I know I myself to be—my fifty-five year old me with curlier hair and fuller eyebrows.
Below is the evidence. One of these photos is Malcolm Gladwell; the other is me. Now, imagine these images on a poster at some distance away and you can easily see the resemblance between Gladwell and myself. And, you can sympathize with my disappointment, both at mistaking myself for Gladwell and for imagining that he and I would share the same lecture series.
I assign readings by Gladwell in my sociology courses and intend to continue to do so despite our recent misunderstanding, not that he is aware of it. I have learned lessons here. One is not to appear on any sort of poster, whether issued by a friendly university or the FBI. The second is to try to regain ownership and distributorship of photographs of yourself. I just checked Google Images and found images of myself I wasn’t aware of. This is terrifying. Finally, you should really be careful about hairstyles. A decidedly poufy hairstyle in a nation of straight ironed, blown out hairstyles is certain to make you a likely candidate for a Malcolm Gladwell look-alike contest.