Beauty: What's Age Got to Do With It?

The truth is, you can do only so much about the physical signs of aging. So if you’re fretting about your changing looks, sit down and listen to these three provocative experts, who say feeling happy with your looks is more closely linked to what’s inside your head than what’s on your face

by Emily Listfield
mannequin with flower as a head image
Photograph: Illustrated by Eddie Guy

When does self-monitoring become a problem? When it constricts your life emotionally, mentally or socially. There was one woman in my study who learned to sleep on her back so she could wear false eyelashes to bed. She would whip out lipstick after just a few bites of food. She couldn’t stop herself. Another woman who is a very accomplished professor was overly dependent on others’ views of her when it came to her appearance. She went out and bought a new outfit, but when she wore it to work, no one in the office complimented her on it. The next day, she returned it, even though she liked it. She wanted strategies to stop being so affected by other people’s opinions.

What advice did you have? The first step is to be aware of the self-monitoring and think of it as a bad habit you can break. Brain science shows us that the more you obsess about something, the more it gets set in the neural pathways, so you need to interrupt the thought process. I’m not saying you should stand in front of the mirror and say, “I love my wrinkles.” But you can tell yourself, “Oh, I’m obsessing again. That’s kind of silly.” To break the habit, some people put a rubber band on their wrist and snap it when they are obsessing. Think of it as giving yourself the gift of relief from a way of thinking that ultimately makes you unhappy.

Any other strategies? Consider taking a beauty break, even if it’s just when you go on vacation. I had one woman in my study who was a very high self-monitor. She never left the house without full makeup. Then the man she fell in love with persuaded her to take some of it off. Now she loves going without makeup at times. I’ve seen lots of women helped by just letting others see them with clean faces and realizing the world doesn’t end.

Does this kind of self-scrutiny tend to lessen as we get older? When you’re an adolescent, it’s normal to be self-conscious about your appearance; your body is changing, and you are cementing your presentation to the world. Most people leave behind those intense concerns and develop new sources of stability, so anxiety about their position on the beauty ladder goes down. Aging can beget a new serenity about your personal appearance. That is one of beauty’s most beguiling paradoxes: Body image can improve as you grow older even if objectively your looks haven’t improved or are fading. Some people in the study jokingly told me that what happens is your eyesight gets bad. The truth is, we focus on other things in our lives, other accomplishments, and our sense of self is less driven by appearance. But for some women, aging can act as a trigger, especially those who feel their looks wouldn’t change if they just took care of themselves. Some women are truly shocked when they see themselves aging.

How can we navigate that change? You don’t have to give up on beauty, but you have to accept the transition or you’re going to be unhappy. Make a conscious decision to cut down on the kind of self-monitoring that leaves you at the mercy of everyone else’s ideas about how you should look. Giving all that power to others can make you feel bad about who you are when you should be celebrating your accomplishments and all the good things you’ve done in your life.

Geoffrey G. Jones, PhD

His Message: understand that beauty is relative A professor of business history at Harvard Business School and author of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones explains how the definition of beauty is constantly changing—and why that’s a good thing for women today.

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