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

At the other end of the breast spectrum is Kari Adams, host of The Killer Confidence, a syndicated TV show out of Princeton, New Jersey. Adams has disliked her substantial curves since they emerged in junior high. “Having big boobs at a young age was awkward, and I learned to hate them,” she says. Nor was she enamored of her rounded tummy, hips and tush. For decades she waged war against her size, dieting more or less continuously until, at age 41, she landed in treatment for an eating disorder. “I learned that all those things I believed about my body were lies,” she says. “I finally gave up that striving and allowed my body to be what it wanted to be. And you know what? Nothing blew up.” Two years later, she has sworn off shapewear. She appreciates her décolletage and the swoop of her rear in jeans. It was hard-won wisdom, she says, but “I dress proud now. I am proud. This is who I am. This is me.”

broader, more flexible idea of beauty may be a gift, or it may be a survival imperative, but it’s certainly healthier for women—body and soul—than the quest to look like an eternal Bratz doll. And I get it, I do. I agree with White that sexiness is about confidence, not cup size. Like Bender, I long ago tossed my flatiron. Yet while I’ve learned to love my curls, I can’t say the same about my hair’s natural color. In truth, I don’t even know what that might be—I haven’t glimpsed it since the Sun-In experiments of my midteens, and I have no intention of investigating. As with many women, gray hair is my Waterloo, the thing that I’m sure would marginalize me if I surrendered to it, rendering me invisible as a woman.

Or maybe I could be inspired instead by Emiko Omori, 73, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco whose glossy hair went silver in her forties. And when it did, she remembered what had happened to a friend who went gray. “My friend told me how she was totally ignored by a waiter while having dinner with another woman,” Omori recalls. “They each had a theory about why it had happened. ‘You’re just prettier than I am,’ said my friend. The other woman responded, ‘No, it’s your gray hair.’ So my friend dyed it. That weekend she went to a bagel shop, and the counter guy said, ‘Let me get you some warm bagels right out of the oven.’ Then he asked if she lived around there. She said she did—and that she’d been coming into the shop every Sunday for the past two years.”

Hearing her friend’s story brought Omori up short. “I thought, Shoot! I’m going to dye my hair, too!” she says. And she did—jet black. “But I didn’t like the process; it stung my scalp. Keeping up the roots was awful. I never wanted to color it again.” Instead, she went with her silvery hair and ended up embracing it. Rather than rendering her invisible, her hair has become her trademark. “People remember me because of it,” she says.

In fairy tales, the aging adult woman—the witch, the wicked stepmother—is pathologically jealous of the heroine’s youth, preferring to commit murder rather than endure graying hair or a withered complexion. The story, of course, never ends well for her. Today’s midlife women are writing a new happily-ever-after: We prefer looking our best now (with or without a little pharmacological help) to chasing what once was. Maybe that’s because we know our value as women is more than skin-deep. That was the conclusion of Lindsley Raines, 50. After her divorce eight years ago, she began to focus on what she calls “the road map on my forehead.” She tried Botox but didn’t like the needle sticks. She tried bangs, but they weren’t her style. It would be overreaching to say she now loves her wrinkles, but her day-to-day experience as a clinical social worker in a New Jersey hospital has helped her put aging in perspective. “I’m surrounded by death and pediatric cancer and car accidents,” she explains. “And also very sweet and wonderful things like someone dying in hospice care, surrounded by loved ones. A few wrinkles or scars are nothing.”

First published in the March 2014 issue

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