It took me to my mid-40s to learn not to depend on anyone else’s approval of my appearance. (Michelle Mildenberg/The New York Times)
Like many of you, I have spent the last 14 months staring at my neck. In all of human history, perhaps no necks (or eyes, or foreheads) have been inspected so relentlessly, and with such attention to detail, as ours collectively have since last March, while working and socializing from home. If Narcissus had been required to look into a high-definition camera, with or without a ring light, for hours each day, would he have been so enamored with his own appearance?
Based on the surge in people currently seeking cosmetic procedures, what some are calling the “Zoom boom,” it seems unlikely.
And yet I find myself, midway through my 40s, freed from agonizing over my best angle, feeling just fine about my neck. Great, actually. This is no small feat, as anyone who’s read Nora Ephron call tell you.
Fifteen years ago, Ephron, who would have turned 80 this month, published the essay collection “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman”—and people have been referencing it ever since. I was 31 that summer, just entering the decade that fashion magazines set up as though it were a creature-of-the-deep horror movie: While things might appear to be fine, terrors were lurking under the surface waiting to take me down if I didn’t take the necessary precautions.
I recall reading Ephron’s title essay in my bathtub, emerging from the hot water to inspect my neck in the mirror and promptly resolving to pay close attention to its care. And I did. Along with the rest of my face, it was washed and moisturized daily without fail. I did this for years with the quiet superiority of someone who’s been shown the answer to the exam before taking it. Ephron provided guidance.
Her words — funny and blunt and smacking of honesty — felt like a blast of fresh air. To those of us not yet feeling bad about our necks, there was still time! Not just to take preventive measures, but to enjoy ourselves. You should not feel bad about how you looked in a bikini until you were 34, Ephron said, at which point, goodbye to all that. Our necks would not go wrong until age 43, at which point nothing could be done. Before these sell-by dates, however, failing to enjoy ourselves was foolish.
This was the radical gift Ephron gave us: Permission to enjoy ourselves even if it came with a deadline. There was nothing that suggested this was possible in any women’s magazine I had ever come across, which were (and largely remain) compendiums of all the things that were wrong with us and needed to be fixed if we wanted to find love or happiness or worth in the world, let alone have fun.
I didn’t need to look far to see the cruelty of adhering to this system. My mother was a woman who could quote Shakespeare, tell you the Latin root of any word and routinely did crossword puzzles in pen. And yet, one of my most abiding memories of her was her endless battle to lose 20 pounds and her inability to recognize her own beauty. It wasn’t until a year or so before her death, when her body and her mind had been ravaged by her illness, taking with it those stubborn pounds, that she finally took joy in her own appearance. “Isn’t it amazing how thin I am?” she said one afternoon, acknowledging her skeletal frame, an unmistakable note of triumph in her voice. I’ve heard similar stories from so many friends, and it feels like a gut punch every time.
The fourth essay in “I Feel Bad About My Neck” is titled “On Maintenance.” In it, Ephron describes every single beauty routine she subscribed to. This was nearly a decade before the advent of self-care beauty sites; in some ways, Ephron was ahead of her time. “Maintenance,” she says, “is what you do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into the guy who once rejected you, you won’t have to hide behind a stack of canned food.”
When I reread the collection midway through last year, looking for some joy, this line, and not all the deadlines and ruminations on death, is the one that remained lodged in my head. It turns out I have reached my mid-40s unable to conceive of a life in which the idea of running into an ex-boyfriend, or any man really, factors into my thinking over my appearance. I do think quite a bit about what I wear, and like Ephron enjoy an excess of bath oil, and own many creams. Where I’ve learned to stop short is considering the thoughts of others, let alone ex-boyfriends, regarding the results.
No doubt, this is a result of timing. The years since I entered my 40s included the #MeToo movement and Covid-19. After witnessing so many women publicly reveal their traumatic experiences at the hands of men, and then watching as they drowned under the responsibilities that come with getting all the things you are supposed to be after with all this maintenance, I found myself asking: What is this maintenance for exactly? Who am I hoping will give me permission to feel great, or expect me to feel bad? I feel great. I can’t be convinced otherwise.
Which is not to say I have been able to live Ephron’s advice successfully. One of the skills I’ve acquired since turning 40 is the ability to recognize there will likely always be a gap between seeing a photo of myself and appreciating it. That gap, I’ve realized, is the time it takes me to overcome all the ways I’ve been taught to value myself in the world. The older I get, the more I understand that delay as evidence of a sort of theft. One that I’m only now understanding has occurred, and it is my anger over that which has helped shorten it.
I’m struck, now, too, by the whiteness of Ephron’s concept of beauty. In the section about hair care, Ephron notes that she went to Africa in 1972 and will never return because “there were no hairdressers out in the bush, and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of that place.” She goes on to express her envy for all Asian women: “I mean, have you ever seen an Asian woman whose hair looks bad?” In her book, “Thick: And Other Essays,” Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, writes: “Beauty is for white women. If not all white women.” Ephron’s adherence to white beauty standards undergirds most of the book.
Ephron, like my mother, was also a complicated woman from a generation that demanded that its women hew to a different idea of womanhood every 10 years and then punished them for it. I am not. These days when I look back at photos of my younger self, acutely aware that I’ve always possessed the things I was taught to believe I was lacking, I can think of my old subscriptions to fashion magazines only as a sort of violence I was enacting upon myself.
Ephron wrote about all the time and money it required to maintain, but I wish she’d also reflected on the brain space. When I think about beauty standards these days — the ones my mother followed, the ones I have — what I mostly consider is all the space the not feeling good took up. It took up most of my mother’s life, and a large portion of my own. I consider all the things that weren’t done, and all the rooms that weren’t walked into because so much of the language of beauty is simply about forcing you to itemize for yourself, over and over, all the ways in which you don’t deserve to be where you are.
Here’s the thing. I feel fine about my neck. And not because all those years of massage and moisturizing rescued me from the dreaded age 43 deadline; about this particular date I must tell you Ephron was correct. I have on occasion tried to feel bad about this, but I can’t. I do not, it turns out, feel bad about my neck, because I do not need to.
Glynnis MacNicol is the author of the memoir “No One Tells You This.”; (Art note: An illustration by Michelle Mildenberg accompanies this article.)Glynnis MacNicol | c.2021 The New York Times Company