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On Being Firmly in my Forties

I had a birthday this week: 43. Such an un-special number. An unremarkable age to be. Maybe that will be nice though, like no major expectations for this year. I try not to dwell too much on my birthdays--especially lately--because I truly don't feel my age and don't particularly want to be my age. I'd rather have hung out in my thirties a little longer.

But this year I've had to confront my age with 2 strong slaps in the face, dealing with the delayed outcomes of two very bad decisions I made in my twenties. And dealing with them now has been incredibly uncomfortable. For really the first time I've had to reckon with who I was 20 years ago and although I don't dislike that version of me, I'm also not totally pumped about her or her choices.

The two bad choices I've had to contend with are 1) endlessly worshipping the sun with no sunscreen, and 2) getting a tramp stamp. Both dumb, but both totally emblematic of a girl in her twenties in the late 90s/early '00.

I was in high school when indoor tanning hit its peak popularity and I took advantage of it. In fact I'd sneak around a little to do it. Not all the time, but before the summer hit, before prom/dances, etc. I thought I looked prettier with a tan (or burn) on my face and hotter with some color on my body, which I still believe but am no longer willing to damage myself to attain. Especially because now my face has brown "sun spots" all over it that are not pretty at all. I've always hated my pale skin, especially the contrast to my dark hair. It's just not a look I like on humans. Except Jennifer Connelly, she really pulls it off.

So for my entire post-pubescent life I laid in the sun--never with sunblock because then what would be the point?--and accepted the brutal burns and nasty peelings that resulted, living for that 24-48 hour window when I just looked less pale, if not tan. I repeated this cycle, multiple times per summer and on every sunny vacation, from about age 12 to 32. The last ever horrific burn I got was in Rio in December and I finally felt like the pain of wearing clothes post-burn and being unable to comfortably move or enjoy myself was no longer worth it, and I started applying the thinnest layers of sunblock in the lowest SPF rating possible.

A few years ago, right after I gave birth, I noticed the 'dark splotches' on my face for the first time and thought it was postpartum melasma. It faded somewhat over time and I wasn't too worried about it because I had much bigger issues in the first year of motherhood. About two years ago some of those spots started to get scaly--dry, raised, angry red scales that couldn't be covered with makeup because they were so unevenly textured. By this time I was too busy to consult someone about them. But a few months ago I realized that being in quarantine offered lots of time to make and attend important health appointments that I'd been putting off since the birth of my son, so I finally saw a dermatologist and the news was not good. My 'spots' were pre-cancerous lesions and there weren't just a few of them, more like 30. I was given a chemical concoction to apply to my entire face that would basically burn them off in about a week's time. It was painful and ugly and not 100% effective the first time around. The second round of treatment was a bit stronger and longer and the effect a whole lot worse. I looked like a burn victim because essentially I was. It was depressing. It was surreal to be forced to reckon with how irreverently I treated myself in my younger years, with absolutely no concept of or regard for future me. Normal behavior for teens and twenty-somethings, but sad nonetheless.

One aspect of Ahimsa that isn't talked about much is the harm we do to our future selves. This could be concrete and short term, like drinking too much one night, causing both harm to the body and to the you that wants to be productive and active the next day, who now can't because of a hangover. Or it could be more obscure harm inflicted on your future self by the bad decisions you make as a foolish twenty-something: breaking the law, not trying hard in school, ruining your credit. This is just the natural course of life for many of us: do stupid shit when we're young and hopefully learn to do less stupid shit the older we get.

I already knew that skin cancer ran in my family and that my pale Irish skin what exceptionally susceptible to it, but I didn't care. I wanted to feel pretty, even if just for a day or two. Now my choices may result in my pre-cancerous lesions turning cancerous and causing far less pretty scars from surgical removal. This poor decision for what I see now as really sad reasons makes me examine other decisions I've made in the last few years, big ones like having a kid, leaving NYC, perplexing career choices, etc. It's anxiety-provoking at best.

The second bad decision I'm attempting to undo right now is that of getting a tattoo in the small of my back sometime around 1999, later dubbed a "tramp stamp" by people who establish these iconic labels.

Could be worse.

I remember the first time I heard the moniker, a couple of years after getting mine, and I was immediately embarrassed. Is that what I advertised myself as to everyone who saw it peeking out above the waistband of my low-rise jeans? A tramp?? I brushed it off and didn't think much about it for years. After all, I rarely saw it.

As I got older, by thirty I guess, I started to feel self-conscious about it, especially when hobnobbing with sophisticated finance wives at rooftop pools and Caribbean getaways. Of all my tattoos, only the tramp stamp has brought self-consciousness (and eventual regret). It was my third and I had designed it myself, with the intention of adding on to it over time--a piece that would change and grow as I did. But I never made the envisioned additions (thank god) and the unfinished piece sadly languished, occasionally peeking out from under my clothes, declaring my approximate age and artistic deficiency.

I've wanted it removed since laser tattoo removal became a thing, but waited until the technology improved and the price decreased. I knew it would hurt, but I've done laser hair removal (very painful), so felt pretty prepared for the intensity. I was not. At all. It is the most painful sensation I have ever felt. Luckily each treatment only takes about 60 seconds. And it's already working! In the end, the removal of this particular tattoo will cost FIVE TIMES more than I paid to get it, and will cause about 1000 times more pain.

Lessons learned and wisdom gained.

And I feel better after scrolling through this article on all the now middle-aged celebrities that also have tramp stamps and have not gotten them removed.


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