“I don’t like it,” Kylie Jenner says plainly. She flips her hair and stares into the camera, taking in the AI-generated wrinkles that the TikTok aging filter has superimposed on her face. Then, in almost a whisper, she adds: “I don’t like it at all.”
Videos like this one are all over my TikTok feed. Most users gawk, wide-eyed and horrified, as the viral filter generated through artificial intelligence gives their faces sagging jowls, sunken cheeks, deep grooves in the forehead and around the mouth. Like Kylie, most young people trying this filter out do not like what they see. In turn, most of the media response to the filter’s popularity has revolved around dermatology, procedures and potions that could potentially blunt the blow of nature taking its course.
For me, the filter brings up a different kind of discomfort.
I’m not some kind of virtuous exception to modern vanity. I’m 37 and just as shallow as the next person. But when I see this stream of instantly aged-up faces, I’m not really thinking about the aesthetics of wrinkles — I’m thinking about the older faces that I’ll never get to see.
Like the face of my little brother, who died suddenly almost 10 years ago now, at the age of 26. I think about his face, young and frozen in time in my memory, and wonder how it would look at age 60, 70. I think about how I took looking at that face for granted.
I imagine he’d be taking to his mid-30s pretty elegantly. He would’ve finally outgrown his babyish features. His face would show the permanent side effects of all the time spent laughing too hard, furrowing his brow too skeptically at the “Real Housewives,” sleeping with cheek blissfully smashed into his pillow. All the wonderful stuff of life that the skincare experts caution you against experiencing, for the sake of a smooth complexion.
Not everybody gets to grow old, the age filter reminds me.
My brother shed his skin suit so young. Too young. He was supposed to live longer, I feel sure of it, but somehow the wires got crossed. His pain was so heavy, and the drugs were too intense. He checked out too early and missed the complimentary brunch.
If only he could’ve known how tasty it can be to age, to keep on living. If he’d made it to the other side of his struggles, I imagine he’d have earned that look in his eye that I admire so much in people in recovery from addiction. The look that says: I’ve seen the void, and now I’m not taking any of this for granted.
Maybe engaging with our imagined older faces is a good way to remind ourselves that this body we live in, each and every one of us, is destined to be a corpse. No amount of eye cream can change this fact.
I don’t mean to come off as creepy or nihilistic — in fact, I hope to have just the opposite effect. This life is amazing! It’s incredible! It’s for a limited time only! Death doula Alua Arthur puts it simply: “The real gift in being with our mortality is the sheer wonder that we live at all.”
We have so little time here. It’ll take your breath away if you stop to think about how short the time truly is. An average lifespan is about 4,700 weeks. How many weeks have you rushed through blindly? I’ve rushed through practically my entire summer for no real reason at all other than general anxiety and dread at world events.
Meanwhile, my beloved old dog gets even older. My crow’s feet deepen. My time left with my loved ones clicks downward. And I’m supposed to channel this ambient sense of loss into chemical peels? There’s something so unsatisfying about the fact that our public dialogue about aging begins and ends with fine-line prevention.
Instead of obsessing over active ingredients, wouldn’t it be amazing to talk about what aging really means to us? Our fears, pains and aspirations? Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could learn to aspire toward age as we grapple with our impermanence? This still feels far away, but I think we’re getting closer. Even Barbie is thinking about dying these days.
We won’t wake up some morning and be forced to confront our drastically aged face all at once. It’ll happen slowly, over time, and only if we’re very, very lucky. I’m hoping that once I’m 70, I’ll be too up to my eyeballs in love and happiness to think about it at all.
As for the age filter, plenty of people on TikTok have moved past the initial shock and settled into something like acceptance. One ongoing bit on the app features millennials and Gen Zers using the filter while explaining things like AOL Instant Messenger, Raya and Four Seasons Total Landscaping to their imagined future grandkids. Others, like Amy Poehler, simply put the filter on and smile serenely, with a caption that says: “May I be so lucky.” Aging is a privilege, the adage goes.
While I go through my own skincare routine in front of the mirror, I sometimes look for my brother in my face. I peer closely for the traits we shared. Yep, there’s his squat nose, his Chiclets teeth, his thin, bowed upper lip. But my face also shows the signs of the last decade of aging. The grooves are subtle but they’re permanent now, visible even when my face is still, like dry little riverbeds.
My first reaction is, of course, panic. But while I cringe at my crow’s feet, it helps to remember how lucky I feel to be getting older, even if that means watching the signs of a well-lived life increasingly show up on my face.
What I wouldn’t give to have the pleasure of watching my brother get older, too.