Mirror, Mirror on the Wall : Retin-A or face-lift? Diet or liposuction? Eyelids or chin? Reflections on being an age that dares not speak its name.

Jenijoy La Belle is a professor of literature at Caltech and author of "Herself Beheld: The Literature of the Looking Glass" (Cornell University Press, 1988).

I'm having a birthday soon, one of those that ends in zero. I don't think it's necessary to tell precisely which one. Let's just say I'm somewhere between 30 and death. It's disconcerting to face birthdays that mark a decade, because we also have to face up to ourselves.

It's not that I feel old (we all believe old age is at least 15 years beyond our own), but I realize I no longer look young. Evidence from others is subtle, but unmistakable. My boyfriend asks, "Are you tired?" My hairdresser says, "Let's cut your hair shorter this time." A well-meaning friend inquires, "Want to borrow my copy of Germaine Greer's 'The Change'?" And to each remark my heart replies, "Not me. Not yet." But every month it gets harder to say those words when I look in the mirror.

Like many women, I'm having trouble coming to terms with growing old. It doesn't help that the media send out contradictory signals. One says: Deny and defy your wrinkles. The other says: Accept, nay love them. So far I haven't figured out how to do either.

In some ways, denial of age seems braver than acquiescence. Why shouldn't we strive against the death of youth? Why not fight the battle to stay young-looking, a la Jane and Joan and Liz? Exercise, starve, cover the gray. Be peeled, tucked, implanted, liposuctioned. Gloria Steinem titled her latest book "Revolution From Within," but even she had the fat removed from her eyelids. She claims she did it to see better. Surely she did it to look better.

Mostly, I find it impractical to follow the Draconian dictates for maintaining youthful attractiveness. Never let the sun fall directly on your face. Always sleep on your back. Don't ever frown. Also, I'm not courageous enough to try to beat Nature. Georgette Mosbacher suggests that if your eyebrows are pale, get thee to a tattoo artist. Ouch. Lauren Hutton advises that if you want smooth skin, have a dermatologist burn off every brown spot. Double ouch. If I can't stand needles or liquid nitrogen, how can I endure the bruises and aches of a face-lift? Are women who have had a lift (or two) frivolous? Or intrepid? Narcissistic? Or realistic about the ways our culture values youth and beauty?

Maybe women should stop raging against aging. We could quit running down the road after Cher and Raquel (breasts forever firm, buns eternally taut) and instead seek out the path that Betty Friedan is strolling along. In her new book, "The Fountain of Age," she argues that when we see age solely as a decline from youth, we make age itself the problem. She claims to have shifted from rejection and fear of age to "acceptance" and "affirmation." Though this sounds good on paper, what if the Fountain of Age is as much a myth as the Fountain of Youth? We should all try to accept aging, but can we really learn to celebrate the signs of advancing mortality?

If any men are still reading this, yes, I know you too feel regret over getting older. But you aren't measured by your appearance the way women are. A recent issue of Time magazine refers to Burt as "Burt," but to the younger Loni as "his aging Barbie-ish wife." While this neat compound of sexist assumptions deserves to be damned, it does contain a truth about what happens to women in this world.

Maybe a few brave souls can revolt against the culture of youth and beauty, but can we expect most women to reverse course and eschew attitudes learned since childhood? And isn't there a difference (one registered even in the faces of leading feminists) between how we look at aging as a general social issue, and how we respond to our own aging? To make women feel good about their natural appearance was one of the goals of feminism. Has that goal been achieved? Theorizing, generalizing and high-mindedness cluster together; something else happens when we gaze, alone, into the mirror.

I had hoped to resolve my ambivalence; to either erase my crow's-feet or embrace my cronehood. But I remain confused. I am, however, certain of a few things. Loni looks lovely. Age cannot wither Friedan. Steinem, with or without fat lids, is glorious. As for my impending birthday, so what if the candles cost more than the cake. Every woman glows in candlelight.

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