When I saw the finished product after a photographer took new head shots of me last September, my first horrified reaction was:
“Where did those wrinkles around my eyes come from?”
And no wonder I felt horrified. Let’s face it: gravity is no friend to women of a certain age. Little jowly pouches begin to sag below what was once my strong jaw line. Eyelids droop inexplicably southward. And where once I could bounce a dime off each tricep now hangs delicately crepe paper-like flab.
Week in and week out, I read the same women’s magazine headlines at the grocery checkout that all women do, such as:
- “8 Ways to Fight Aging!”
- “How to Look (at Least) 10 Years Younger!”
- “Anti-Aging Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know!”
That last one came from cardiologist-turned-embarrassing-huckster Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose website boasts things like:
“Looking and feeling young has never been so easy! Dr. Oz has cutting-edge information on anti-aging techniques and guidelines! Learn how to slow aging from the inside out! Get pertinent information on beauty products, supplements, diet and nutrition, mental health, and fitness routines to turn back the clock!”
Urgent memo to Dr. Oz: In case you missed this lecture back in med school, we are all getting older – yes! including you! – and not even the anti-aging hypemeisters you trot out on your TV show can “turn back the clock” despite their blatant attempts to parlay women’s insecurities into their personal financial benefit.
In fact, if you really wanted to improve the lives of the millions of women who watch your show, Dr. Oz, how about promoting fewer anti-aging Botox injections, or miracle neck creams, or that obscenely humiliating “Can You Guess This Woman’s Age?” campaign of yours?
I may just be a tad oversensitive about this topic lately. Living with a chronic and progressive diagnosis like heart disease has made me ponder issues like fussing over external appearance in a different way.
Quite frankly, I have far more important things to worry about every day than a few wrinkles or another new grey hair – particularly when struggling with ongoing distressing cardiac symptoms that often make me stop and wonder: “Is this something? Is it nothing? Should I call 911?”
The surprising truth is that last fall, when I took my first horrified look at that new head shot of myself and those newly-discovered wrinkles – and once I had picked myself up off the floor and braved another look – I have to admit that, yes, I actually liked what I saw in that photo.
There! I said it.
This was definitely no airbrushed, photo-shopped, Dr. Oz-approved, soft-focus version of the Me I may still keep locked hopefully in my muscle memory.
This instead was the face of a woman of a certain age who has earned every last one of those laugh lines. This was the face of a woman who had worked hard, played hard, been a distance runner for 19 years, popped out a couple of babies the old-fashioned way, endured death, divorce and a whack of other family crises, gone back to university in her 40s, and somehow survived that “widow maker” heart attack five years ago.
The University of Florida’s Dr. Eboni Baugh believes that aging women like me are even more susceptible to appearance messages from Dr. Oz and others than our younger counterparts are.
These not-so-subtle messages not only affect the $160 billion-a-year global sales in beauty products, cosmetic surgery, diet programs and other products and services to enhance youthfulness.
They also influence how we perceive ourselves.
For example, Dr. Baugh writes:
“As women age and encounter the normal stages of the aging process, they also become more concerned with comparisons to the ideal thin, young body type.
“Older women confront both personal and societal realities as they age: their own internal fears of their aging bodies (gerontophobia), and the external messages about becoming old (ageism).
This gerontophobia (which is the fear of old people, the elderly population, or of growing old) can cause women to critically analyze their naturally aging bodies. And anytime that there’s a comparison of an aging body to the young, thin societal ideal, warns Dr. Baugh, such analysis gives way to diminished self-worth coupled with a high degree of self-loathing. (In the U.S., 51% of cosmetic surgery patients and 69% of patients getting minimally invasive procedures like Botox or chemical peels last year were aged 51 years or older).
Dr. Baugh adds that ageism (society’s obsession with being young) upholds standards of beauty that are based upon an ideal embodied by media as the young, thin woman who strives for perfection.
“An aging woman must therefore combat ageism and stereotypes such as ‘old maid’ or ‘hag’ as these standards of beauty threaten to marginalize her.”
Not only do unrealistic beauty standards marginalize women, they may result in doomed expectations. Forty percent of women undergoing cosmetic procedures last year were repeat patients; 34% had multiple procedures done at the same time. It’s almost as if instead of being more satisfied and happier with one’s post-procedure appearance, women just keep on seeking more and more “improvements” - as if this time, this one will finally make them happy.
Naomi Wolf wrote her best-seller The Beauty Myth over 20 years ago. Last year, she told The Washington Post that when her book was first published, young girls were still learning that they would, like hothouse flowers, bloom briefly in their late teens to mid-20s:
“After that? Well, it was a steady decline, as the power we derived from our physical appearance dwindled. Our only hope to hang on to an increasingly precarious sexuality and sense of self-esteem lay in magical potions and powders, or perhaps in the surgeon’s hands.
“Older women were encouraged to see their younger counterparts as threats and usurpers, and young women were expected to see the women who should have been their mentors and role models as faded has-beens, harbingers of their own future decay.”
Happily, Wolf now believes things are (slowly) changing and improving for us “faded has-beens”.
For many in this demographic, much of the impact that aging’s toll inevitably takes on our bodies can be camouflaged by gauzy neck scarves, long sleeves or dark tights. But it is in the face – our wonderful, amazing female faces – that Mother Nature first shines her most honest magnifying spotlight.
I like Elizabeth Renzetti‘s wise take on the aging female face in her Globe and Mail column last November:
“I worry sometimes that old women’s faces will pass out of the public imagination, that they’ll go the way of typewriters and Kodak film, to be replaced by some wind-tunnel simulacrum of youth.
“A friend came up to me this week to complain about the picture of Queen Elizabeth on the new Canadian $20 bill.
“She looks terrible!’ he said. ‘She looks like Diego Maradona after a hard night on the town!’
“But when I went and investigated, I realized what was going on. The Queen doesn’t look terrible – she just looks older.
“She is in her 80s after all, and doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who spends a lot of time in Harley Street talking to her doctors about Botox. She’s earned her wrinkles and her laugh lines.
“There comes a point when your face is your badge of honour.”
And a badge of honour is just how I’ve decided to now consider my grey hair.*
I’d long suspected that I’d inherited some of the genes of my late father, who had shiny dark hair with nary a grey one among the lot when he died at age 62. It was when I was approaching that same age, actually, that I began to first notice that if I lifted up my bangs and stared very hard into the mirror, sure enough, there were most definitely one or two or nine grey hairs growing clearly in plain view.
Now they’ve started sprouting at my temples, where a short haircut reveals the grey for all the world to see.
Q: Why do women think men with a touch of grey at the temple look distinguished and handsome, while at the same time rushing to chemically hide every new grey hair on our own heads?
Those who research body image issues have asked the same question. In a U.K. study, for example, women viewed signs of aging (such as going grey) most negatively in terms of its impact on appearance, whereas men reported a neutral or even positive impact on appearance.**
As this study’s authors reported:
“Men and women construed the importance of their bodies differently: men tended to focus on functionality, and women tended to focus on display.
“These findings may help to explain gendered consequences of body dissatisfaction. Accounts about the aging of the body support a double standard of aging.”
A double standard indeed. Would Elizabeth Renzetti be writing about a friend who complained that the portrait of an aging Sir John A. Macdonald, the very first Prime Minister of Canada, looks “horrible” on the face of our currency? No! Because nobody cares if Sir John A. looked his age.
Don’t get me wrong. If you decide you want to dye your hair to cover the grey, or get lifted/zapped/injected/tucked, or spend your money on Dr. Oz’s miracle anti-aging wrinkle creams, go for it. And who knows – by the time my own head has finally turned completely silver, I too may be reaching for the Nice ‘n Easy!
But somehow, right now, I honestly can’t imagine that happening.
I’ve been duly inspired by role models like New Yorker Leah Rozen, the 57-year old former movie critic for People. She decided to stop dyeing her grey hair a few years ago, recently explaining to New York Times readers her key reasons:
- 1. being lazy (“Going to the hair salon every two months for a couple of hours was a hassle and a waste of time. I’d rather be home working or out riding my bicycle in Central Park or meeting a friend for lunch.”)
- 2. being cheap (“It was costing me north of $800 annually to tint my tresses at my neighborhood Manhattan hair salon. For that amount, I can jet round-trip twice to visit Los Angeles, where I proudly fly my freak flag as the only non-blonde of practically any race or age in the entire city.”)
Apparently, deciding to embrace your silvery locks may even be a decision for some women that’s up to one’s husband to make. Rozen added that since she’s gone grey, more than one female acquaintance has told her that she’d “like to do the same, but her husband keeps vetoing the notion.”
Read that one again, ladies: her husband is vetoing her decision?
“Blondes may have more fun, but we gray gals have it made in our shade. No having to worry about getting our hair colored, about bad dye jobs or our roots showing, or about trying desperately to look younger than our years.”
So how about it, Dr. Oz? How about a little less focus on marginalizing women’s normal (but apparently unacceptable) aging appearance, so that when we look at a new photograph of ourselves, we might avoid the inherent critical urge to start picking apart our external flaws as you seem to do with your studio audience volunteers?
And really, isn’t it about time that we tried to stop being so pervasively unhappy inside about how we look on the outside?
My head shot: 2012 Medicine X, Stanford University School of Medicine
* Grey vs Gray: According to Grammarist, grey and gray are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English, including that spoken/written here in Canada.
** Emma Halliwell, Helga Dittmar. “A Qualitative Investigation of Women’s and Men’s Body Image Concerns and Their Attitudes Toward Aging”. Sex Roles. December 2003, Volume 49, Issue 11-12, pp 675-684
The Brown Sisters
PS: In 1975, photographer Nicholas Nixon started taking annual photos of his wife Bebe and her three sisters, every year for the next 36 years. I loved these photos of the Brown sisters and seeing how (left to right in each photo) Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie aged beautifully and naturally over the decades, from 1975 (upper left), 1986 (upper right), 1994 (lower left) to 2007 (lower right). See all of the annual family photos, plus more about Nixon’s book about this project.
Q: How are you dealing with those new signs of aging?