real life

"Why, in my thirties, I suddenly stopped smiling in photos."

I recently stopped smiling in photos. If I do smile, I make sure that there’s soft lighting, I’ve turned my face to “my good side,” and I use a filter before I post online, because why take a photo unless you post it, right?

It’s not that I have no reason to smile—this is the happiest I’ve felt in a long time. The problem is that when I do, fine lines spring up around my eyes that shout: I am tired! I am old!

What gives?

Even if I’ve slept a full eight hours, the lines show up anyway. And I think they’re here to stay. Blame sun damage, dehydration, or poor moisturizing—whatever the reason, I don’t think any special serum or self-care routine will make them go away no matter how confident their claims. I’m not sure that’s the answer, anyway.

But I’m not going to lie. I looked up Botox and other fillers, only these “solutions” are expensive and temporary. Plus, something makes me nervous about having a needle that close to my eyes.

Do I really want to start investing money and subjecting myself to pain and bruising for momentary vanity? What do I hope a young, line-free face will do for me?

Erica in her twenties (left), and thirties (right). Image supplied.

To satisfy this curiosity, I went digging through old photos in my iPhoto library. I thought about putting together a time-lapse video to trace when and how the lines etched their way into my face over time. There were photos from my study abroad trip to Italy in college, and from the time I lived in Maui not long after.

There I was in my New York City apartment and living out my Hemingway fantasy in Paris. As I looked through the photos of my young face, growing nostalgic from the memories, I noticed something surprising.

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Though they didn’t bother me back then, these fine lines had been under my eyes since my mid-twenties. Sure, they weren’t as pronounced as they are now, but they were there. I can see them now.

How could I have not noticed? Did I care less about my looks back then? Was my self-esteem more intact?

No way. My twenties were some of the most difficult years of my life. Though I’d travelled extensively and had many exciting adventures, and even more exciting romantic trysts, I was extremely concerned with how I looked—taking hours at a time to get ready, feeling pathetic if I didn’t get male attention or enough likes on my social media posts, and spending an extreme amount of money on my hair, nails, makeup and clothes, so that I showed the world I was pretty and cool and carefree.

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But I was not carefree. My twenties were also the height of my sex and porn addiction—an isolating experience that spanned two decades, leading me to sabotage or avoid meaningful relationships, put myself in harm’s way one too many times, and believe that I was worthless, shameful, and unlovable.

Looking back at those pictures of me smiling—fine lines and all—I appear young and happy, but I know the truth: I felt sad and empty. And the only reason I didn’t obsess about the fine lines was because I was obsessed and insecure about a multitude of other things and the lines were the least of my worries.

I would’ve got to them eventually.

Now, a decade later, I can’t say that I’m 100% carefree or happy all of the time, but I am getting closer. I have so many things to be grateful for—a beautiful daughter, a loving husband, a fulfilling career, a home of my own, and even more self-acceptance than I’ve ever had, despite my new fixation with the lines under my eyes.

Back then I wasn’t sure that I’d ever have the kind of calm stability that defines my life now. I couldn’t visualise myself as the kind of person who counts her blessings more often than her flaws.

But as I look at my life now, it seems to me that my fine lines are mere proof that the flaws are finally outnumbered. And when I think of it that way, I can’t help but smile.

Erica Garza is the author of the memoir Getting Off, a NYT Editors' Choice, and her work has appeared in Time, Glamour, Health, The Cut, Good Housekeeping, BUST, Bustle, and Salon. You can follow her on twitter @ericadgarza

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