Portrait of the author as a 40 year-old woman

Susannah ConwayMy grandmother was in her 40s when she gave birth to my mother in 1943. She already had two grown-up children, so to be pregnant again at her age was quite a shameful thing. When I compare my experience of being a 40 year-old woman to that of my grandmother, or even my mum, I know that I got the better deal. Despite living in a culture that places such ridiculous importance on youth and beauty, turning 40 no longer signifies the end of your juicy years; in many ways it feels like just the beginning. Yet every time someone tells me I don’t look forty — which is always appreciated! I’m as vain and insecure as the next person — I still wonder what is forty supposed to look like?

Susannah ConwayAfter years of making do with Polaroid and iPhone selfies, I thought it was about time I got some proper author photos taken. In Unravelling — actually, in all of my classes — I talk about the value of self portraiture. I don’t know many women who enjoy having their photograph taken, so taking your own portrait is a way to take back some control. You can play with angles and light; figure out which side is your best; finally get acquainted with the woman whose eye you studiously avoid in the mirror. But it has to be said that photographs usually lie. Being photogenic has nothing to do with how attractive you are and everything to do with how the bones of your face translate into a flat image. If, like me, you have a particularly expressive face you’ve likely had a shock when you see snaps of yourself. Really? That’s what I look like? But it isn’t. It’s your face caught in the split second of the shutter opening and closing. Thankfully we don’t live our lives on camera.

So when I asked Xanthe to take some portraits of me I had to let go of my need to control the outcome. Obviously we talked about best sides and angles and what I think works and doesn’t because I’m a perfectionist and that’s what i do — if this rattled her she was professional enough not to let it show :) We spent an hour walking around my neighbourhood, finding walls for me to stand in front of, awkward at first but gradually loosening up. Despite having absolute faith in Xanthe’s abilities as a photographer I was convinced we’d have to redo the shoot. I thought it might be easier to do it inside. I thought perhaps I should have worn something less…clingy. Fret fret fret. But as it turned out, my sweet friend had done what she does best. Looking through the 40 images she sent me I was quick to skip past the ones I didn’t like… and then there it was — a photograph of me that looked like I feel. She’d caught me through her lens when I’d let my guard down. She saw me.

Susannah ConwayIt’s nice to be seen through the eyes of another — taking portraits was one of my favourite things to do when Polaroid film was in plentiful supply. And as uncomfortable as it can be to have our picture taken, think of them as gifts for your future self to find. I’m grateful for all the self portraits I took at art school, glad to have those reminders of who I was trying to be:

1993I look at this photo from 1993 and wonder what the hell I was so worried about. I had such great skin! Great hair! I want to pat that girl on the head and say there there, you really don’t know you’ve been born, eh? And I know my 60 year-old self will want to say the same to me when she looks back at these new portraits. And boy, does that put everything into perspective on the difficult days.

Today, right now, is the youngest we will ever be. Let’s make the most of it.

29 responses
  1. Jay Schryer

    You’re beautiful, Susannah. Simply stunning.

  2. Catherine

    Hello Susannah, being a few years older, I can tell you : 40´s are the best ! + you definitely don’t look look like 40 whatever it´s supposed to look like … Really, deeply, fully enjoy. I wish you the best. Happy birthday.

  3. susannah

    thank you, hon! though it’s not my birthday :)

  4. susannah

    thank you, Jay, you’re very kind x

  5. Carol

    Great post Susannah.. I turned 40 on Tuesday and I’m feeling surprisingly good about it. A new page for me.

    And I must say, you do remind me a little of Jennifer Aniston ;-)

  6. CJ

    What beautiful photos, you must be very happy with them, you look absolutely lovely.


    Wow. Just gorgeous. You still have such great skin and hair, lady! (and love your necklaces). x

  8. Kristy Daum

    Yep, I’m one of those that absolutely hates having my photo taken. The problem was that I was definately not comfortable in my own skin. I’m 34 now and while it still weirds me out, I’m slowly but surely getting there.

    As to your photos, they are fabulous; which of course means that you are fabulous!

  9. Jet Harrington

    Susannah, how lovely and brave to allow Xanthe in that way. What a gift for her to *see* you in the way you know yourself to be. That photo is utterly feminine – something you inhabit fully.

    What does forty look like? FIIK. I know that when I tell people I have a daughter in college, they laugh and say that’s not possible and tell me I look great, and then I see them calculating in their heads, and then their faces go stony when they realise that if I’m the age they thought I was, then I must have been the slutty teenager they warn their sons about. Never mind that I was nearly 26 when Kristina was born. Why can’t 40 or 45 or 60 or 80 whatever look great? And when did it become a shock that women can inhabit their bodies, their skin, their lives, at ANY AGE?

    You embody living well, and the ways you live and tell your story are an inspiration. Keep on keepin’ on, dear one.

  10. CLarice

    These are beautiful photos! My mother was 43 when she had me (a surprise). I think it has always given me a different sense of age than many women have…

  11. Kathryn dyche dechairo

    As someone who had a hard time turning 40 a year ago and who also has a hard time stepping in front of the camera, your post made a lot of sense. I look back on photos from the past when I thought I was overweight or unattractive and I wonder what I was thinking. I recently bought a remote control for my camera so I could explore self portraits a little more but I’ve been feeling fat and insecure so wanted to wait until another day. Thanks for the reminder to get over myself and live in the now.

  12. sas

    i adore and respect the tits off whats inside that glowy skin. our gran’s got a pants deal. xxx

  13. Sheila Bergquist

    Very nice photos. You will always look fabulous because you have a face that shows your soul.

  14. pen

    You’re totally rockin 40. Gorgeous captures… Gorgeous you.

  15. Kate

    Just wonderful, Susannah. You truly inspire me. X

  16. Krista

    I love this post so much. :-) My brave thing this year has been self-portraiture, one photo of me, every day. It has been terrifyingly glorious. :-) I love your photos. You truly are stunning and brave. :-)

  17. emma

    I LOVE these portraits Sus, so beautiful x

  18. Mary

    Lovely portraits, Susannah, really lovely! Your photographer captured your essence, not your age, which is what makes these images so beautiful.

    Keep on shining your light out into the world and never allow a number to define you.

    Does life begin at 30? At 40? At 50? It might. It might not. The beauty of life is that it begins as soon as we choose to start living it. The key, I believe, is to tear the wrapping paper off each day you are blessed with, like an excited child at Christmas. Drink it all in. The good. The bad. All of it. Every moment is a gift. -xox

  19. d smith kaich jones

    i had to smile when you got to the end – when you mentioned your 60 year old self. i will be 60 in about 6 weeks, and have been playing with the words i will use to talk about that. i haven’t worked up the courage for portraits. :)

    40 is fun. 40 is not 20 or 60 or even 30. it is its own fabulous self. embrace it, baby. smooch each day right in the mouth, as bill murray once said.

    love you!

  20. Katherine

    This is why I take the time open your emails and read your posts. So many others I receive in my inbox I delete before reading and could care less they had to say. Yours speak to me.
    Thank you.

  21. Steven Andrew

    I am honestly in awe. I find you to be so beautiful, inside and out. I love that you’re embracing your age and you’re not afraid to bare yourself.
    These pictures are so gorgeous and that last one from 1993, wow. You are one stunning woman!

  22. Sandra

    Lovely portraits Susannah! I especially like the third one against the tagged wall as you go within yourself!
    Forty is so young these days! This year I celebrated my seventy years on this planet Earth by doing a self-portrait class! You can visit my celebration here: http://reflectionsandnature.blogspot.ch/2013/05/whats-girl-to-do.html

    Life has its ups and downs and yet we can find our joy again and again as we come back to us!

  23. Ninie Pouce

    You’re perfect !

  24. Shauna

    Hi Susannah! I’ve been reading for a while but have never commented. I just wanted to tell you how much I love this post and you look really beautiful in these photos! I hope I can retain my sense of creativity and exploration and loving self-reflection that you have (I’m about to turn 25). You glow! My mother spent a lot of my life being very concerned about how she looks and her age. Since all her kids moved out of the house and she has been able to spend time with herself, she has grown into a very beautiful and active and creative and thoughtful almost-63-year-old. Thank you so much for this advice– this is really a great post :)

    Much love.

  25. Meg

    Just wanted to say… one of your best post! Plus, you look fantastic. x

  26. xanthe

    Dude, it always works out in the end… I just knew it would. Imagine what we can create next time.
    Thanks for your kind words… xxx

    I often use this quote with my clients –
    “In twenty years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.” Mary Schmich

  27. elke

    oh. my. god. these are stunning lady. stunning. as you are. and your words~ as always~ beautiful and inspiring. xoxo

  28. ShanLeigh

    STUNNING. No other word.

  29. Renee Bell

    beautiful photos!!!

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