Not too long ago a man I know -- and like -- said to me: "I'll bet you must have been pretty when you were younger." Then he paused, as though waiting for a reply.

Reply? What was I supposed to say -- "Thank you very much?" But it didn't matter because before I could answer, the man moved on to another subject. Politics or the weather or maybe it was baseball -- I really don't remember.

I don't remember because I had not moved on. I was still hearing the words, "I'll bet you must have been pretty when you were younger." And to tell the truth, my heart sank. At least a little.

But I was too busy at that moment to analyze my feelings. I did it later, in front of my bathroom mirror.

Studying my face in the mirror, I wondered: What did his remark mean and how upset should I be about it?

But instead of thinking about that, I found myself thinking about this: It would never occur to me to assess whether this man, now in his late 40s, looked better or worse when he was younger. Although when I try to imagine it, I tend to think he's probably more attractive, not less attractive, now.

Then I found myself thinking about how a friend of mine, a beautiful woman of 42, recently plunked herself down at the lunch table and announced: "I've lost my looks. I looked in the mirror this morning and realized they were gone. Forever."

Then, in what was turning into a stream-of-consciousness, free-association experience, I thought suddenly of a question raised by another friend on the subject of youth and beauty. Or, more precisely, the passing of youth and beauty:

"When is a woman too old to flirt?" she asked. "I mean, I think that must be a sure sign of aging -- when you don't flirt anymore for fear of seeming silly."

For some reason I thought of Marilyn Monroe, who, when she died in 1962 at age 36, was widely considered to be "washed up" as a sex symbol. Not only by Hollywood producers but, I have read, by herself. I have also read that near the end, when the always insecure movie star was suffering from paralyzing self-doubt, she would spend almost an entire day getting ready for a brief public appearance.

And that association brought me to Colette -- who understood women as no other writer does -- and of her observation that a woman's attempt to look good while suffering is a form of heroism. "The heroism of a doll," she wrote, "but heroism just the same."

But getting back to Marilyn Monroe: Thirty-six may have been old in 1962, but look, that was 30 years ago. Today is different. Isn't it? After all, we've got Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch, Sophia Loren and Gloria Steinem, all in their 50s now. And all glamorous.

Thinking of Gloria Steinem -- who in two years is due to announce to the press that "This is what 60 looks like" -- led me to think of another feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Although she wrote of the need to free women from stultifying, preconceived ideas about age and beauty, she apparently was unable to follow her own advice.

"All her life, Simone de Beauvoir worried about growing old," writes her biographer, Deirdre Bair. "Indeed, many of her attitudes, such as thinking herself too old to be sexually active or attractive before she was even 40, might be laughable were they not so sad."

Which says, I guess, that being a feminist does not protect you from the hurts and losses that accompany the aging process. And that deep down it doesn't matter whether or not the losses have been foisted upon you by a male-dominated concept of beauty and desirability. The fact is: A loss is a loss is a loss.

And what a huge loss it must be to the woman who has staked everything on physical attractiveness and desirability when time drains that away. It seems unfair that the attractiveness of men -- their sexual value, particularly -- is derived not from their appearance, as with women, but from their achievements.

So I look in my bathroom mirror and wonder: How upset should I be that a man I know -- and like -- has said to me, "I'll bet you were pretty when you were younger." But instead I find myself thinking about how there was a time, historically, when people had no mirrors and therefore had no idea of what they looked like.

I can't imagine it: not knowing what you look like. But it occurs to me that if you weren't able to check out the aging process in the mirror, you'd just go through life always feeling like the same person -- regardless of age.

But mirrors do exist. And so does the aging process. In fact, there's a word for the process that takes us from youth to old age. It's called: Life.

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