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

Compassion. Flexibility. Confidence. Perspective. Those were the hallmarks of women who had made peace with their body bugaboos. They had also rejected the idea—where did it come from, anyway?—that how women’s bodies look is more important than how their bodies feel. For these women, strength and vitality trumped aesthetics. “Not long ago, women only lived until their fifties, and those changes of aging signaled the end,” Diller says. “Now we have another 20 to 40 years of life left. So instead of the focus being on ‘Uh-oh, I’d better hold on to youth,’ it’s becoming, ‘What can I do to live those decades feeling strong and good about myself?’ ”

Growing up, Naomi Cahn, 56, a law professor in Washington, D.C., envied her mother and sister their long, elegant legs. Hers were short and stubby, with thighs she describes as large. “My grandfather would try to comfort me by claiming I had big bones,” she recalls. “But that was like acknowledging, well, you have fat legs.” Then, in her forties, she began biking the 15 miles round trip to work. As a result, she says, “my legs haven’t actually gotten slimmer, but I’ve started to look at them differently. I have an enormous amount of respect for their ability to do what they do. They will never be long, thin and elegant, but they’re really strong. I’m so happy they’re part of my body.”

a world that glamorizes the smooth browed, the straight haired, the blonde, the thin, the figure that is unattainable whether we are 16 or 20 or 60; a world in which youth is currency and without it a woman can feel bankrupt, asexual and potentially unemployable. Those are hard truths. Yet how does it serve women to cling to those fears, to let them define us? After all, where has that decades-long adversarial relationship with your cankles really gotten you?

Erik Erikson, who pioneered the theory that we develop psychologically throughout our lives (and who coined the term identity crisis), believed that as we hit midlife, we begin to think about our legacy. “Making a mark on society becomes more important than making a mark on yourself,” explains Chrisler, “which is what you’re doing when you’re younger and trying to lose weight or getting a nose job. As life goes on, the balance shifts, and other things begin to outweigh youth and beauty: Your relationship with your children. Your grandchildren. The people you mentor. Your volunteer work. Philanthropy. Creativity.”

Shirley Burgess remembers feeling a little traumatized when her first laugh lines began to show in her forties. Now 83, she believes her wrinkles tell “the story of my life, my sorrow and my happiness.” “I’m vain,” admits Burgess, who dresses smartly and puts on makeup each morning before heading to her full-time job selling women’s clothing at a Massachusetts department store. “I still like to look good.” But, she adds, it’s her joy in her family—eight children, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren—that makes her feel beautiful. “The body changes,” she says, “but the spirit does not.”

I know she’s right. I know that what I find beautiful in other women is their charisma, their passion, their life force, not their poreless skin or slender midsection (well, OK, I still envy the slender midsection). It just might be time to apply those standards to myself, to disrupt my endless cataloging of faults, to stop dwelling on what I’m not—on what I will never be—and, finally, to revel in the genuine beauty of who I am.

Peggy Orenstein is the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Her previous article for More was Call of the Wild: A Trip of a Lifetime

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First published in the March 2014 issue

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