This essay was written as part of an empowerment campaign, “Wear Yourself In,” led by eco-luxe skin care company Kari Gran. In response to the beauty industry pushing an impossible idea of flawless youth for years, the campaign encourages women to be kind to themselves, and their skin, as they reflect on beauty, aging, wisdom and self-acceptance.
Leslie Irish Evans is an author, blogger, and radio/podcast host. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, and various travel and lifestyle publications. You can find her best-selling book, Peeling Mom Off the Ceiling: Reclaiming Your Life From Your Kids at Amazon.com.
When I was a child my family would take long car trips. My great-grandmother would sometimes accompany us on these trips and would sit in the back seat with us little ones. I remember being utterly fascinated by her hands.
Great-Gram must’ve been around 80 years old then. I was six. She grew up on a farm. I remember her wearing an actual sun bonnet when she’d go out for a walk in the mid-day sun. But gloves? Not so much. Her hands had the most remarkable age spots. One time I reached over and gently started tracing them. She laughed at my innocent fascination, and let me keep exploring. Gram had spots, like a leopard. And she had veins. And I could see bones. Utterly fascinating.
A few years later, when I was about 12, I remember looking at my mother’s hands. Mom would have been in her early 30’s then, and I remember marveling at the veins that were raised up on the back of them.
“I want that.”
Mom laughed. “Really?”
“Yes,” I told her.
“I’ve got boring little patty-cakes for hands. I want my hands to have those.” I pointed to the raised veins.
“Oh, you’ll get them.”
They say in medical school, when the students are studying anatomy on donated bodies, there are two areas that are the most challenging to the students’ emotions. The first, of course, is the face. Seeing the actual face of a no-longer-living person makes them very real. The second is the hands.
We use our hands to grasp, to feel, to caress. We use our hands to feed, to wash, to pleasure or harm. We shake each other’s hands to say hello. We clap our hands together rapidly to show our approval, or once or twice loudly to get attention or make a point. Many of us make our living with our hands: laying brick, typing code, turning a wrench. Our hands are one of the main ways we interact with our world. It makes sense, then, that when those med students see the donated body’s hands, some of them feel emotional. They’re now seeing that person’s humanity.
My hands scar easily. I’m not sure why, but a good scrape will leave a permanent mark. I’ve got a Z-shaped scar in the webbing between my ring finger and pinkie on my right hand. I remember exactly how I got it: I was 7 years old and was attempting to get my bike out of the garage so I could ride it. My father’s car was parked in the driveway, which had large stone walls rising up on either side. I wasn’t sure there was enough space to walk my bike past the car, so I decided to ride my way out.
I almost made it, save for one particularly jutting rock and my right hand. The injury was nothing more than a good hard scrape. Nothing a good squirt of Bactine and some haphazard bandaging couldn’t fix. All that remains now is a cool Z-shaped scar and a good story.
These hands have kneaded countless loaves of bread, typed a hundred stories, and soothed, diapered, and cradled two babies. They have strong, healthy nails that grow like crazy (Thanks, Dad!) and a left ring-finger that curves in at the base from decades of wearing my wedding rings. After my brief stint as a massage therapist, I finally got those bulging veins that my 12-year-old-self wished for.
Have you ever seen stories about hand models? You know, the people whose face you’ve probably never seen, but who serve as models in ads for rings, nail polish, hand cream, etc.? It’s a fascinating job, and the requirements include having smooth, unblemished, slender hands with long, tapering fingers. These models have to guard and pamper their hands religiously, to keep them smooth and unblemished. It’s their livelihood. But do you realize what that means? It means they can’t do anything with their hands.
I don’t mean that quite literally, but it’s close. They have to wear gloves at all times because scrapes, scars, or sun damage could put them out of work. They can’t do a lot of typing or manual labor that involves using the hands a lot because that leads to bulging veins.
Our culture’s ideal of beautiful hands are hands that haven’t lived.
I recognize this contradiction intellectually, but I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t gotten to me on some level emotionally. In the past few years what were always a light sprinkling of freckles on the back of my hands have begun spreading into age spots. Leopard spots! Like Great Gram. Their appearance rattled me a bit. I’ve never been a terribly vain person, but I suddenly became so about my hands. I became more diligent with the sunscreen, hand creams, and manicures. Remember that old Ivory dish soap ad that asked you to try to identify a mother and daughter based on their hands? I think those ads got to me. I didn’t want my hands to be the giveaway.
But here’s the thing. My hands tell my story. And I’m proud of my story. I think “keeping them under cover and never using them so they don’t get marred” is a silly idea for hands and terrible living advice. When I turned 40, I told everyone I felt I’d finally grown into my age. At 50, I’ve finally grown into my hands.