How Do You Know When It's Time to Change Your Looks?

There comes a moment in life when many of us realize our outside no longer matches what’s inside. But what we may not expect is that improving how we look—our hair, our fitness, even our smile—can reverberate in profound ways

by Susan Gregory Thomas
woman looking in mirror image
Photograph: Geof Kern

“Taking the time to get fit also gave me time to think about my life, to daydream,” she says. One day, lifting weights, she realized she no longer liked the corporate design world; she wanted a more flexible schedule so she could spend more time with her teenage son before he left for college, and she wanted to return to her creative roots as a clothing designer and pattern maker. Her exercise routine helped her turn that epiphany into a reality. “In weight lifting, you use benchmarks to track your results so that you can clearly see that you’ve made progress and can set new goals,” she says. “I see now that I translated weight-lifting benchmarks to execute the launch of the women’s-clothing business I’d always wanted to build.”

A year into weight lifting, with her body measurably improved, Rego quit her job to found her own label, Cabe (cabestudio.com), designed for people like her: fit women from age 30 into their sixties who are serious about their careers and personal style. Whenever she finds herself stalling along the learning curve of running a business in a tough economy, Rego hits the gym—and then brings those benchmarks back to work. For example, she’ll launch a marketing campaign and break it into stages, just as she would create a plan for developing the musculature of her arms. She’ll systematically work at reaching these goals and expect to see progress. If she doesn’t, she’ll revise and refine her tactics until she does. New business or creative ideas often come to her during workouts. “Weight lifting always helps me to see things more clearly, to see the progress, to adjust goals,” she says. “It puts me back in control.”

Productive as asserting control can be, being obsessed about physical appearance can take control to a dangerous extreme, resulting in eating disorders. At 43, Kari Adams had suffered from anorexia and bulimia for 25 years, albeit with brief periods of remission, and her -livelihood—running a matchmaking -business—wasn’t helping. “Whenever I asked male clients what their first priority in a woman was, the majority of them said, ‘She has to be thin,’ ” Adams says with a sad laugh. “It was a horrible message to send to women and utterly toxic for me, who’d struggled to be the tiniest girl in the room since junior high.” But when her son was born prematurely, with some health issues as a result of her self-starvation, Adams finally heard the wake-up call.

Very ill herself, Adams enrolled
in an intensive treatment program and began to learn how to gain healthy weight. As she did, her self-image was revamped. She divorced her husband, who, she says, had enabled her disease, and she had one revelation after another. “My mother had instilled in me from day one this notion that men wouldn’t find me attractive if I wasn’t thin. But now that I’m dating, I realize the opposite is true—lots of men like a little meat on the bones because they think it’s sexy,” she says. “Since I’m adding weight, good things are happening. I’m discovering how to be the mother I want to be, learning how to appreciate my healthy body size and how to untangle my distorted thinking about who I should be from who I am.” Adams now hosts a local cable-TV show about women and body image, sharing her experiences, learning from her guests and passing on a message she wishes she had heard as a girl.

When a haircut isn’t enough
There are some genetically fortunate women who simply never look their age. Until they do. It was in her late sixties that “silver fox” model Mary Anne Stroud realized her face had grown old and gaunt. “At 65, I felt hot—gravity hadn’t gotten the best of me yet,” she says. “But after that, every time I saw my face, I thought, Oh, God, what’s happening?” Moreover, as someone whose earning power depends on her appearance, Stroud knew she had to do something to keep her look fresh and appealing; she just didn’t know what.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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