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On Being Older, Wiser and Visible

Writing by Jane Tara // photos by Markham Lane and Dominika Ferenz

Few things mark the passing of time quite like an updated headshot. Not many people renew their driver’s licence without commenting on the difference between their photos. I used to mourn the expiry of each old passport, leaving behind the photo of me a decade earlier. There’s a particular type of discomfort in moving forward with that new photo. But no updated photo has been more poignant than my latest author photo. At the end of a recent photoshoot, I slipped on a red shirt for one final photograph. I wanted an updated version of a photograph taken the year I turned forty, because, since then, I’ve beaten invisibility and learnt to see myself.

About 15 years ago, I enlisted a photographer friend, Markham, to take some headshots. Like most things in my life, which I’m now comfortable admitting, I had no idea what I was doing. I just wanted to look like an author. Solemn look, tick. Intense stare, tick. A couple of extra buttons undone… okay, not my idea but Markham thought it would work. Mostly, I didn’t know who I was, so took the photo I thought I should take.

Markham, with his artist’s eye, loved this photo, and I now see why. It’s beautiful. But back then, all I could see were the countless sleepless nights, and the fact that I never had time for my hair. Childhood trauma was catching up with me. I’d battled postnatal depression, taken a blow torch to a decent marriage to a good man, and embarked on a very different path in life, which, ironically, meant I never had time to write the next novel. I’ve not needed another author headshot until now. This photo marks a screeching halt to writing creatively, and the start of a year’s long battle for myself. The period between these two photos to be exact.

I entered, what I now call, the vortex of the forties. Exit somewhat intact out the other side and there are profound rewards. But first, you tie yourself in knots of stress and exhaustion. You prioritise everyone and everything but yourself, teaching others to do the same. You’re hard on yourself. Often unkind. Any unaddressed trauma will now come home to roost. The perimenopausal shitshow does nothing to help. You clutch onto youth, discounting the gift of age. You lose sight of who you are and what you want. You lose sight of yourself… and then, you notice something else taking place. A sense of being ignored, overlooked, not seen… and the penny drops…

You’ve become invisible to others too.

At least, that was my experience. But talking to countless other women, it doesn’t seem to be unique to me.

Not long after the first photo was taken, and after I’d completely lost sight of myself, I was handed a gift, though at first it didn’t seem that way. I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and told I was going blind. Fortunately for me, I was misdiagnosed, however it took three months and further testing to confirm this. For three months, I was possibly going to lose my sight. It was the circuit breaker I needed.

I reflected on a life without sight. I obsessively researched life as visually impaired but then went further into the eye body connection and the works of about a dozen specialists who were taking ophthalmology into new realms. I read about blind people who had been taught to see through their chest. Was our vision a reflection of our reality? Can light heal the eye? Where is the mind’s eye? Do we even see with our eyes?

I also realized how our language is full of sight analogies. I’ll see you later. Look here. Nice to see you. Focus on this. See what I mean? And it got me thinking… what does it really mean to see? If I was going to lose my sight … how would I see things? How would I see myself?

Almost overnight, something strange occurred. I experienced a shift in perception. I looked in the mirror and didn’t criticize myself. I looked at my body and I liked what I saw. The idea that I wouldn’t see myself age horrified me. And if I want to see myself age, then why would I erase that age? Why try to beat it, deny it or ignore it? Why not fully and utterly embrace it?

A good friend of mine once said that the most rebellious thing any woman can do is like herself. But that’s harder than it sounds. If face filters had existed when we took that first photo, I would’ve used one on it. And by doing so, I’d miss the opportunity now to look back and see myself authentically, for who I was then, and who I’ve become.

The woman in the second photo has shed a thousand skins. I’ve grown more accustomed to the weight of loss and the impermanence of everything. I am at peace with my regrets. I reject the no regrets mantra. We should have regrets. I could pave my way to Mars with my regrets: the way my marriage ended, not wearing sunscreen in my twenties, allowing my next relationship to consume a decade of my life, going to that trendy eyebrow artist who plucked my brows into oblivion. I regret not prioritising people over long, meaningless hours at work, and not picking up the phone to call people who are no longer here. People like Markham, who somewhere between my two photos also needed to be seen.

There’s an infamous meme featuring Angela Basset from the film Waiting to Exhale, where she’s walking away from a burning car. That’s most women I know leaving their forties behind. We emerge, into our fifties having learnt some profound lessons, and can find freedom there. We discover that how the world sees us, how other people see us is meaningless. What’s important is how we see ourselves. We become visible again through our own eyes only.

I love that first photo now, but I love this older me more. It’s a blazing reminder of how much I’ve fought to simply like myself. And how comfortable I am to admit that I do. It took the threat of losing my sight for me to see myself clearly. On the eve of turning fifty-five, I am visible.

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