The Aging of Beauties

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A Quebec City flower shop.

I was riding my bike on the rail trail recently, and catching up on my podcast listening, when my ear was caught by an edition of Slate’s Double X Gabfest.  “Hey,” I said loudly (as one does when wearing headphones).  “That’s exactly what Angela was just talking about on the blog!”

A few weeks ago, Angela posted about The Beauty of Aging, asking the question “How do we embrace the beauty of our age?”

The ladies on the Gabfest (DoubleX writers/editors Jessica Grose, Nina Shen Rastogi, and Hanna Rosin) were discussing two articles in major American newspapers which also dealt with this topic:  Dominique Browning’s ‘The Case for Laugh Lines’ from The New York Times, and Naomi Wolf’s ‘A wrinkle in time: Twenty years after ‘The Beauty Myth,’ Naomi Wolf addresses The Aging Myth’ in The Washington Post.

If you have the time, you might like to read these articles and their comments for yourself.  I think they are both fairly light pieces, each with some nice writing and interesting aspects.  Here’s my take (and feel free to correct me).

Naomi Wolf, now 48, revisits some of the points she made in her book The Beauty Myth and especially her observation that back then, women hated and feared the idea of aging, and this fear was reinforced by the media.  But now, she says, there is much less to fear about aging.  Beauty is tied more to fitness, and there are many more ways to be beautiful than there were in the ‘90’s.  She says,

Fashion arbiters such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour used to set a bar for style; today, there is a far greater sense that what you see on the street, in surfing the Web, in a friend’s delightful outfit, is just as powerful. A co-worker who has let her hair go fabulously gray in a flattering cut, or wears enchantingly offbeat glasses, can be as great an influence as the September issue of Vogue.

Wolf herself has not experienced the sense of “loss of self when [her] appearance began to change” which she expected to feel as she got older.

Wolf says things have changed in the past 20 years.  Younger women now admire and envy older (that is, midlife) women for their “status, sense of self-esteem and sexual cachet.”  Older women are no longer threatened by younger women, and like themselves more in midlife than they did when they were younger.

The article is based almost entirely on people of Wolf’s acquaintance (and the journalists from Slate are appalled by the lack of research in the article), and it seems to me to have a ‘whistling past the graveyard” kind of feel.  But that’s essentially what we do to survive in the face of aging, isn’t it?  Here’s something rather neat that Wolf writes near the end of the article:

Certainly, it takes more effort at the gym to maintain a certain level of fitness. But at midlife, you also know what an incredible gift a healthy body is. And while I don’t love working harder for an outcome, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for a body that can move and hike and swim, seduce and be seduced, be exhilarated and overjoyed, and all of this in the blessing of being free of serious illness.

Dominique Browning is an author, blogger and the final editor of the defunct House & Garden magazine.  Her article is a humourous piece arguing for sanity in the race to disguise the signs of aging.  She’s not opposed to simple cosmetic procedures if they make you happier, and says, “I’m not categorically against a helping hand, as long as it has finesse.”

But Browning draws the line at Botox.  She objects because it makes it difficult to read people’s facial expressions when they’ve had the treatment.  This limitation came home to Browning when she was doing her book tour, and looking out on audiences who appeared unimpressed by what she was saying, yet would approach her individually afterward to tell her how much they’d enjoyed her reading.  Browning concluded that Botox was creating a disconnection between the emotions of her audience, and their abilities to show what they were feeling on their faces.  (Probably be ideal for poker, then.  Or car buying.)

Browning suggests that the solution to all the angst about aging is to deny it is happening.  She says, “In this, as in so many matters, we could just keep calm and carry on.”  Her true opinion may be expressed in this (somewhat throwaway) statement toward the end of the article:

I get it: some people simply don’t want to go quietly into the years. It is too much to ask that we embrace our changing faces — that we celebrate our mother’s beauty in our own graying hair, that we remember the joy that created those laugh lines, that we recognize our father’s forehead in the way ours wrinkles when we are perplexed, or we catch a glimpse of our aunt’s eyes when our own crinkle with delight.

Ok, so these were two fairly harmless and mildly diverting articles.  Midlife viewpoints based on personal experience, amusingly expressed, but not investigative journalism.  What I find most interesting is the way that the DoubleX Gabfest ladies respond to them.  I would describe their response as completely without empathy.  The eldest of the three is Rosin, who has just turned forty.  She calls BS on Wolf’s assertion that she has it all, especially sexual allure.  She and her colleagues figure that these articles spring from the aging of the boomer population, and we should be prepared for lots more of this sort of writing.  I find it telling that they seem to be unaware of how much of this sort of writing is already out there, in magazines and blogs (see the list at the end of this post for a small sample).

The DoubleX’ers suggest we should look to French culture for inspiration on graceful acceptance of aging.  Does anyone know what they might mean by this?

007

Same shop, different view.

It seems to me that we each have to come to terms with our aging on an individual basis.  We may become obsessed with the loss of bounce in our knees, or the inability to focus on fine print, or touching up our hair, or the latest miracle moisturizer formulations.  The woman in the mirror may suddenly be a sad stranger to us (What happened to her cheekbones, and why does she look so grumpy?).  But we have to live with that woman for a long time still.  Why not acknowledge that we are changing throughout our lives, and honour that process?  So long as we believe beauty is only the province of the young, we’re bound to be upset at outward signs of loss of youth.

We each have to work through this on our own.  What helps is to hear how others are dealing with the same thing, and to laugh (and moan a little) about it together.  In reality, we’re all of us aging at the same rate (unless some of us leave the planet and travel faster than the speed of light for a while).

Elizabeth

Some blogs which acknowledge and embrace the realities of aging (among other realities):

Advanced Style  Fashion mavens from the streets of NYC.

Rock the Silver  Grey hair is beautiful.

A Femme d’Un Certain Age  May illuminate the French culture connection referred to above.

Slow Life Love  Dominique Browning’s blog.

Materfamilias

Privilege

Let me know if you have any blog recommendations.

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4 thoughts on “The Aging of Beauties

  1. Elizabeth, I think we haven’t seen or heard the end of this topic yet! Is it because of our age? Absolutely! But I would suggest that women of “our” age are perhaps less stressed about aging and more interested in feeling good. I agree that the real benefit of exercise is not looking younger, but feeling younger. And I also think that happiness has a big impact on how we look. I have read that just by smiling, we feel happier! And when we smile we all look younger! But that is another topic! Well done Elizabeth!
    🙂 what did we do before we knew how to smile when we text? 🙂
    Angela

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Lots to think about from your post. It is unfortunate that so many women limit their definition of beauty and aging. Cetainly we all look in the mirror and see wrinkles and lines that hadn’t been there the year before. i think what does become more important is a women’s overall beauty. I would argue that most women become internally more beautiful as they age. I know this sounds cliche but whatever external beauty is lost is more than offset by a women’s growing understanding of who she is and what she can contribute in this world.
    Laurie

    • Good point, Laurie.
      As I think this through more, I think there are two unconnected ways of viewing aging. One, the actual experiences of those who are aging. Feeling like you are still 23 years old in spirit, but slightly less physically resilient than you used to be, for example. Yet with the added personal understanding that you mention, which I think is tremendously added value. And then two, the way that people (especially women) over 35 are viewed by society and portrayed in the media, as unhip, clueless, marginal, and unappealing. This glorification of youth by a society growing dominated by older people seems nuts to me. Even if we can come to terms with our own aging, we seem reluctant to look at the aging of others. And, maybe even, reluctant to make others look at our true aging self.
      OK, starting to rant here. Going round in circles. Perhaps I haven’t quite got that “coming to terms” thing under control. Or maybe I should take some gender studies courses, ’cause I’m sure those guys have already figured all this stuff out.
      Elizabeth

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