A week ago, someone told me, “You don’t look your age.” This is the kind of sentence that can split your self into 73 Michelle Yeohs, everything, everywhere all at once. One Yeoh is flattered. One Yeoh/you responds, “Oh, how sweet.” Another thinks, “Oh, she’s just being polite.” One you definitely thinks, “You should see me without kajal.” Another self wonders, “Are we still saying these things?” And many selves think, “We are now at the age where we are told we don’t look our age.” It’s a full Greek chorus and there is no winning this one unless you are six years old.
If you were a woman, you used to go straight from “too young” to “too old” without passing Go and without collecting ₹100 in the board game. If you ever had an uncle who ever took a flight, you were sure to hear how Air India had “old crones” as flight attendants. And if you are in your 20s or younger and online today, you are bound to be flooded with Andrew Tate-ish messaging about women over 25 being “low value”. It’s the same presentation of women’s lives as commodities to be consumed by men. I won’t say nothing has changed. Enough seems to have changed for the Andrew Tate equivalents to lose their hair over it and attempt mass hypnosis of young men into sillier and sillier editions of patriarchy.
The problem with being preoccupied by whether you look your age is that it gives you less time to really think about the years that have passed. Who have you become? What have you been doing these years? This is not to say that we must rise above appearances. Of course, what you looked like has been a big factor in how your life has turned out. It’s just that there is no room for really thinking about the actual body. About the only way in which we are allowed to say without self-flagellation that the body has changed is to say that we have developed an allergy. For instance, you can say you now have lactose intolerance or wine now gives you a headache and the word allergy allows you to talk about it without breaking cover of eternal youth.
Every now and then, I suspect the calm contemplation of how your body has changed over time can be quite relaxing, like a 3D photo album. The calm part is the hard part, schooled as we are in what my brainy friend Paddy calls a “declension narrative”, a.k.a., it’s all downhill.
One way to think about the body is, of course, to look at images. While I don’t have too many photographs from my 20s, every now and then one surfaces. The shaven-headed year, the stray skinny year. I thought my 30s were documented by the minute but apparently not. A friend shared an old video online recently where we are both reading from our first books, his finished, mine unfinished. We both look quite young. I was most struck by the lip quirking I was doing when talking about my work. When had I acquired this gesture to distance myself from my own work, from anxiety?
Images are one kind of meditation object. Despite all my grumbling about data harvesting apps, I was fascinated when I realised I now have 14 years of data on a fitness app.
Weight, of course. But also exercise routines. Blank weeks followed by weeks of hectic activity. A week of walks that seemed shockingly long until I realised that was the week I lived near a mini forest. Swimming sessions regularly logged until the pleasant morning when I nearly drowned and got rather unnerved by pools. The year I started logging my sprints because I was illogically convinced that running would fix what dengue had destroyed like a cyclone. Looking at the data reminded me of 2019, my red fleece jacket and getting to the park when it was still dark, when the street lights were still on.
The problem about contemplating the years that have passed is that it quickly brings on a terror of the years ahead. Of course, the future of your body is often determined by genetics and wealth. But we like to also try to assert control over these pretty mortal coils. And that’s how I met Radha Krishnakumar, a Bengaluru-based fitness consultant. She is 68 and has a career in training professional sportspeople. Luckily for me, she also meets deeply unserious civilians and allows them to ramble on about running ambitions. In her Lululemon leggings, Radha watched me huff and puff through a series of exercises and demonstrated the right way to do them. After a couple of hours of assessment, she gave me what I expected: great advice. What I didn’t expect? The thrill of listening to a 68-year-old woman say that she ran her last marathon a couple of years ago and now “only” runs 10k races. Another surprise? She took photographs and videos and told me things about the way I stand, move and turn.
Amazed at all this new-found knowledge about my own body, I called my Paddy. I have known her from the same time period as when I was first told, “You don’t look 10” (in case you are wondering, yes it was a creepy remark).
As I was raving about my experience with Radha and how awesome she was, I said to Paddy. “All these years I never knew that I always stand with my right foot splayed.” Completely calm, she replies, “I have a photo from when you were 13. And a photo from when you were 6.”
“Right foot splayed?” I asked, astonished.
“Yeah,” she said.
The body keeps the score or something. But buddies keep it better.
Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She tweets @chasingiamb.