Beauty Self-Acceptance at Last

You’ll never get back the hair (or the butt) you had at 26, but guess what? You just might decide you’re happy with the way you look right now. Real women explain how they came to love—not just live with—what they see in the mirror 

by Peggy Orenstein
Photograph: Geof Kern

For Joan Semling Bostian, 50, that reframing began when she gave birth to her first child nearly 18 years ago. The owner of a fitness center in Fairfax, California, she’d long fought a tendency to put on weight. But after a grueling 20 hours of labor, “I felt such profound respect and tenderness and love for this body of mine that had done such great work,” she says. “I thought, I will never say another mean thing about my body to myself or out loud. And I never have.”

The desire to drop a few pounds is still there, Bostian says, and sometimes she works harder toward that goal than at other times, “but either way, I don’t get any momentum from criticism.” She’s brought that philosophy into her gym as well: “I tell women, ‘There’s another way. You can be kind to yourself.’ ”

perfect beauty is perfect confidence; that fantasy drives women’s perpetual dissatisfaction with their looks. But here’s the thing: Among the women I spoke with, that self-assurance actually came when they stopped doing battle with their beauty demons. Michele Bender, 44, coauthor of Curly Girl: The Handbook, subjected her ringlets to decades of blowouts and chemical straighteners. “My whole life revolved around keeping my hair straight,” she says. “I loved how smooth it looked, but the truth is, I always felt like not myself.” When she hit 40, Bender decided to go natural.  It took two years of ponytails and bad hair days for her to adjust, but now, she says, “I feel more like a grownup because I’ve accepted this part of me. I’m more confident as a mother because I’m teaching my kids something about being true to yourself. It has even encouraged me to try new things, like running a half-marathon.”

Bender is quick to distinguish between cherishing her individuality and feeling indifferent to her appearance. “It’s not as if I’m just accepting the hair I had in college,” she says. “I take the time to make it look good. And honestly, if I’m at some event where everyone has their sleek hair, I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m a little crazy. But at least I’m not boring.”

Like Bender, many of the women I spoke with described a liberation, a deeper sense of authenticity that came with accepting their supposed imperfections. That doesn’t surprise Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College who studies body image among women over 50. “By that age, you’ve earned the right to be yourself,” she says. “Who do you really have to impress? Single or married, the attitude tends to be, ‘I am who I am; you can like me for myself or not like me.’ ”

That’s the philosophy of Tamara White, 46, an artist in Berkeley, California, who as a younger woman was not so appreciative of her less-than-ample chest. These days she locates her sex appeal a solid foot above her sternum (yes, in her brain). “I could afford to buy a pair of boobs now if that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “But I feel secure enough to say that if that’s what a guy is looking for, then I’m not the right person for him. Because if someone is assessing you by the color of your hair or the size of your chest, then you’re completely replaceable.”

First published in the March 2014 issue

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