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Opinion: What I realized after Charlize Theron’s comments about aging

Opinion by Holly Thomas, CNN

(CNN) — Some conversation openers are evergreen. “How’s work?” “How’s your love life?” and the daredevil’s favorite, “You OK?” will always have a place. As time passes, others materialize. These new topics signal a shift; a new life phase incoming. For those of us in our 30s, home ownership and procreation are obvious themes. Another increasingly pressing question is: “What are we doing with our faces?”

This was the point at issue for a coffee companion of mine recently, whose eagerness to discover the answer superseded concerns like personal space. She leaned forward without warning, brought her nose within two inches of mine, and declared: “You’ve got small pores, like me.”

She leaned back, satisfied. “That’s why you’ve not had anything done yet.”

Her fervor, while a bit much, was understandable. Everyone, from the omnipresent anti-aging billionaire Bryan Johnson to disconcertingly young TikTokers, seems preoccupied with the question of how to roll back the aesthetic clock. After a certain point, the question evolves beyond whether you’re doing anything. That’s taken for granted. The new puzzle becomes: What have you done?

“People think I had a facelift,” complained Charlize Theron, the star of “Monster,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Fast X” in a recent interview for Allure magazine. “They’re like, ‘What did she do to her face?’ I’m like, ‘B***h, I’m just aging! It doesn’t mean I got bad plastic surgery. This is just what happens.’”

One sympathizes. While all forms of cosmetic surgery are proliferating exponentially, anti-aging procedures are a specific beast. It’s one thing to want a new nose, another to want to look like yourself 10 or 15 years ago. Whereas we can only assume the inspiration for someone’s redesigned features, the template for our “younger” face is right there, in our old Instagram photos and Facebook albums — or in Theron’s case, in paparazzi shots dating back several decades. It’s more obvious (and therefore embarrassing) if you appear to have made an attempt gone wrong. But the wildest thing is that even if you emerge looking 25 again, the reality of your situation — that is, your actual age — remains unchanged.

Having your breasts reduced might resolve the issue of having a large chest if that’s something that bothers you, but while facelifts, Botox and fillers may make you look younger with varying degrees of permanence, they cannot undo the passage of time. No matter how you look on the outside, your body’s actual capacity to enjoy certain experiences will change as you get older, and — more pressingly — the years left to pursue those experiences diminish. As Theron put it: “The thing that really bums me out is that I make action movies now and if I hurt myself, I take way longer to heal than I did in my 20s. More than my face, I wish I had my 25-year-old body that I can just throw against the wall and not even hurt tomorrow.”

The most extreme illustration of this tradeoff that is currently dominating the public consciousness is 45-year-old Johnson, the aforementioned mega-rich tech mogul whose obsession with reclaiming his youth looks set to monopolize his remaining decades. Johnson insists that his punishing exercise regimen, super-strict diet and rigid daily routine (plus seemingly endless blood tests and diagnostics) are in the service of others.

He likes to say he spends millions per year measuring his body so that others can spend “just” $1,500 per month utilizing his findings and reaping the benefits. While much of Johnson’s work is internal — he wants to prove humans can reduce the “biological age” of their organs by 25% — he also seems extremely preoccupied with looking “young forever.” But what is the point of looking or even feeling eternally young, if it takes going to bed at 8 pm every night and agonizing over every calorie to do so?

I understand that, for some people, looking a bit younger may be career-saving, or for others, truly life-enhancing. And honestly, I envy that a bit. I am approaching this from a far more neurotic perspective — that of someone who agonized over turning 10, because they were convinced that childhood was over. I’ve had a chronic Peter Pan complex my whole life, severe enough to know that were I to attempt any anti-aging measure beyond moisturizing (sometimes), I would become trapped in an endless cycle of diminishing returns. Because the thing that really freaks me out about aging is just that: aging. The state of my face in the morning is a red herring pulling focus from the fact that a new day is beginning, and what might actually bring me peace would be to make the most of it.

It’s no wonder that people assume Theron’s had surgery. So many people have had some sort of work done that it’s almost a prerequisite for remaining in the public eye, if you’re famous enough for the exposure and rich enough to pay for it. And with people like Johnson out there taking anti-aging to a new extreme, a little nip and tuck suddenly seems moderate by comparison. But normalizing the visible effects of aging isn’t just important because of body positivity and the fact that most supposedly effective options are financially out of reach for most people.

The fine lines emerging around our eyes serve as a vital reminder that the most important thing about growing older, the slippage of time through our fingers, is completely out of our control. What we do with our time, as opposed to how we look while we’re doing it, is the point.

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