The “Mask of Aging”: Who Is That Woman in the Mirror?

Millennial women—especially elder millennials like me—are reaching our late thirties and early forties. That means we are probably reaching that delicious time of our lives when we’re supposed to be more confident than ever, more sure of ourselves, and ready to embrace full and unapologetic authenticity (or so we’re told).

And yes, in my experience anyway, it’s been kind of like that. I’ve certainly noticed myself feeling less self-conscious, less prone to people-pleasing. I suddenly feel way less concerned about what people think of me and am living my life according to my own rules instead of everyone else’s. That feeling is euphoric!

But I’d be lying if I said that I am fully embracing my age.

Thing is, I feel so damn young. I’ve finally stopped feeling twenty-six, as I did through most of my thirties. But I’d say I still feel like I’m in my early thirties. Not thirty-nine and approaching the big four-oh. My brain hasn’t really caught on yet that I’m at the age my mom was when I started seeing her as an “older lady.” So, when I look in the mirror and see someone who looks suspiciously like my mom did back then, I feel a tinge of confusion. Almost like I don’t recognize the reflection as me.

There is a term for this experience that so many women our age have. I discussed it recently in my article for Psychology Today. The term is the mask of aging. It’s the confusing feeling of being unable to reconcile our inner youthful selves (to whom our identity is bound) with our aging external bodies. For many of us, it is a disorienting feeling that throws us off balance. We become unsure of ourselves, despising the woman in the mirror. We don’t hate her because we think she’s old or ugly. Indeed, in many ways we can see how lovely she is. We hate her because she doesn’t match our inner self-image, and that contradiction is upsetting.

It’s why so many of us shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars on costly anti-aging creams and serums, Botox, fillers, and even plastic surgery. We will do almost anything to make the woman in the mirror match the girl we know on the inside.

For me, the important work I need to do in this season of life is teaching myself that the woman in the mirror is me. That work can be difficult because, let’s face it, many of us have been taught since we were little girls that age is something we’re supposed to fight against. Although getting older is natural, unavoidable, and universal, we have been raised to believe that our post-twenty-something lives should be typified by doing everything possible to disguise the evidence of getting older.

When we see a refined, elegant, and dignified woman peering back at us in the mirror, we don’t see her for the wise woman she is. We see someone who society tells us is undesirable. So, rather than embracing the reality of our newfound maturity and the stories our skin tells, we shrink away from it. We divest from it. We say that is not me.

I’ve begun the difficult but healing work of reconciling myself with the mask. I take time every day to gaze into the mirror, accepting with warmth and gratitude the woman peering back at me.

I tell her she’s beautiful.

I tell her how proud I am of her.

I tell her how much she’s overcome, and how much I love who she is becoming.

Most importantly, when I’m all done, I remind her that she is me.

I am beautiful.

I am proud of myself.

I have overcome so much, and I love who I am becoming.

Through this daily work of embracing the woman in the mirror, I am arriving at an authentic love for myself exactly as I am. I find myself appreciating who I see—recognizing that she is everything I had hoped I would be by this age. She and I have more work to do, of course. We are all a work in progress. But I am doing that work with love, sincerity, authenticity, and self-respect.

If you’re a millennial like me, I urge you to do this work, too. Get to know the stranger in the mirror. She is a good and beautiful person. And she is worthy of your admiration.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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