Last week, I read Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay in the latest issue of Elle. Although she didn’t call it such, it’s all about being Formerly Hot, as well as Formerly Crazy.
In the piece, lavishly written as is most of what she writes, she essentially says that now that she’s no longer a total nutcake, “both emotionally unkempt and mentally unhinged–deeply depressed, drugged, sensitive, and nasty all at once,” she’s also no longer hot, and hence no longer the sultry sexpot publishers want to put on the covers of her books to help sell them. (Not that she’s writing them anymore–she’s an attorney.) “Something has abandoned me,” she writes. “I don’t know what that thing is–they’ve been trying to jar it and bottle it for centuries–but it’s left, another merciless lover.”
It’s not that she was hot because she was crazy, exactly, although Lord knows there are those who find a dark beauty in lunacy. It’s more that the very time and experience that have rendered her a capable, sane, mature adult have also pushed her, she thinks, to the verge of no longer being someone you’d want in your bed. Youth is not wasted on the young, she writes. Maturity is wasted on the old. “Oh, to be 25 again and get it right,” she muses.
Please. Who got it right at 25, no matter what she looked like? Who ever gets it–“it” being the big stuff–categorically right, except perhaps in retrospect? Looked at that way, I’ll bet even Wurtzel would say she got quite a few things right. I remember envying her ability to parlay herÂ struggle with depression into a fabulous living when the rest of us writer types were doing the same dumb-ass self-destructive shit in our off hours while writing captions for $17K a year to pay the bills.
I went to my 20th college reunion this weekend at Wesleyan, in Connecticut, which was lovely. Much lower key than I’d expected, just old friends hanging out in the green grassy playpen we were all plunked in when we were 18, or old acquaintances pleasantly surprised that we had so much to discuss with people we hadn’t known that well back in the day. Whatever extremes of our tiny campus we thought we’d belonged in 20 years ago, we’d all moved figuratively to the middle, and talked kids and computers and hair loss and friends not present.
I wonder how many of my classmates think they got it “right,” at 22 or 25 or 35 or at any other time. Granted, people who come to reunions are contented enough with their lives to share them with those with whom they started out, all wide-eyed and full of P.C. certitude.
But I didn’t see a single person strutting around, chest puffed out, talking about how “right” he got it. Mostly, folks talked about the things they were glad they did, the things that didn’t quite pan out and the ones that kicked them in the ass but turned out to be a net positive.
I was a big bulimic mess in college, insecure about not having any one thing I knew myself to be good at, and for whatever reason was attracted to WASPy guys for whom I held little appeal. Over the years, I got it together. Time has been my friend, even if, sure, I don’t look quite so dewy.
A woman I adored–a brilliant, gorgeous, wickedly funny girl who drank a lot–told me she’s been sober 20 years, and how she and her second husband are building a life they can enjoy, rather than constantly striving. Over the years, she, too, got it together. She looked exactly as beautiful as before, but I’m sure she could point out a few blobby bits that weren’t there before she had two kids. Time is on her side, too.
And there were many more people present to whose turmoil I was not privvy in college. Over the years, they seemed to have become whole. Even those who weren’t known for screaming up at lovers’ dorm room windows or crashing their cars or burning themselves with cigarrette butts are not spared the stormy internal weather Wurtzel clearly kind of longs for, even though it’s the way she looked back when she was cuckoo that she claims to miss.
I suspect that those who think they got it “right” have simply found a way of looking at the things they’ve gotten wrong in a compassionate light.
And as for how they actually look to others, as in their physical appearance? Yeah, OK, we could all probably step it up with the sunscreen. Wrinkles, bad; melanoma, worse.
But for now, let’s just be glad things are easier, for those of us for whom they are. Getting older is not one long dance party. But no longer being a big old headcase is a joy, pure and simple. And that only comes with age.
May 26, 2009 at 4:36 pm
Did you ever see the play “Three Tall Women”? It had a fascinating view of aging, one that I think is quite interesting. Basically, we see one character at three stages of her life. And during each stage, her interests and her circumstances are so very different, that in some ways she’s very much like three different characters. She doesn’t necessarily get wiser as she ages, she simply goes from one set of circumstances to the next, and these in a way define her. So when she’s young and looking for a mate, that hunt very much dominates her personality. So I wonder if “formerly hot” makes sense for a lifeview. Perhaps the truth is, you’ve met the love of your life (and from the intro to this site he sounds like a lovely guy) and so you’re able to jettison needing to be “hot”. Its not an element that has as much importance. (And so nobody thinks I’m insulting you: I haven’t seen you in person in years, and so have no way to judge how “hot” you currently are or arent).
And all the folks you saw at Wes (wonderful Wes!), who’ve made various decisions in their lives, are living out who they are at this stage in their lives. I’m not sure they’re a “better” version of who they were as youths, but they’ve found what works for them now, whether it be not drinking or career choices.
Not sure if this is apropos, but I was enjoying the website, so thought I’d try and contribute.
May 26, 2009 at 6:38 pm
I love this post! I just discovered your site through SELF Magazine and I LOVE it!!! This piece was beautifully written and so poignant!
Keep up the great work!! I am bookmarking this site NOW!
May 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm
I never came close to getting it right. I never will come close to getting it right. I will die not having gotten it right. My only hope is I will be at peace with not getting it right. And, I think I’m on my way. Hey, I was able to go to the reunion 😉
May 26, 2009 at 10:57 pm
And to think there was a brief moment when you doubted there’d be material for a FORMERLY HOT post at your COLLEGE REUNION. Please indeed.
This one raises an interesting question, not really developed this time around, that I haven’t seen elsewhere in your blog (or if I have, I’ve forgotten): what’s the relationship/difference between being “hot” (which signifies some sort of universal appeal) and being attracted/attractive to more appropriate people. Is it possible that we had better luck with the wrong people in our 20s, but maturity actually put us in a better position vis-a-vis the people we should be with anyway? It’s academic for us marrieds, though probably in the same way that being hot is, or at least should be.
I realize I’m totally ignoring your main point, about what’s on the inside. Well, not totally, insofar as what’s on the inside is an important attractor for real relationships. But your point that we’ve matured, and that’s more important for us as human beings (not just as daters or potential daters) than looks is well taken. I just was intrigued by the potential crack in the whole notion that we are former hot just because we don’t look 20 anymore. I’d like to think we’re hotter now because we’re not so stupid.
Also, while I agree with you that wanting to be 25 and “get it right” is unrealistic, I don’t feel like I even understand why that’s what she’s pining for. Why is that any better than being 40 and getting it right? We’d all like more time on this planet, sure, but this seems like a good time to become whole, when the people around me are whole too. More wholes, fewer a-holes. I’ll never lose nostalgia for my college days, but I don’t wish I were 20 again like I did when I was in my 30s.
May 27, 2009 at 11:11 pm
A lovely post, but the whole thing saddened me, as I ended up thinking about things and people I’ve lost (in all the ways you lose people,) and how, for mostly legitimate reasons, I skipped out on my Bard reunion last weekend.
Yes, I’m more whole and less crazy, and sometimes it feels that clear cut and others if doesn’t. Right now, I feel more whole, but with “holes.” But I will get over it and soon feel abundant. Maybe tomorrow.
May 28, 2009 at 8:03 am
I love the line were you said ” I suspect those who think the got it “right” have simply found a way of looking at the things they’ve gotten wrong in a more compassionate light.”
We should all learn to forgive ourselves and embrace what’s “good about today”.