Years ago, I had a friend whose husband gave her money for a face-lift as a 50th-birthday present. (Before you rail against him, let me clarify: She convinced him it was the only gift she truly wanted.) As she prepped for surgery, she began to talk to the other women waiting to go under the knife. Each of them was on the verge of turning 50. The face-lift, it seemed, was a rite of passage for a certain type of woman at a certain time.
That time is gone. Women have moved away from wanting to look as young as possible in favor of wanting to look as good as possible for their age. “In the past, women could go into a doctor’s office and end up looking ‘younger,’ but it was rarely a natural look,” says Jon Turk, MD, a New York plastic surgeon. “We’d rely on pulling and tightening. There’s nothing graceful about a face-lift pulled behind the ears. Now women prefer to maintain a more subtle, natural beauty. It’s not necessarily about looking younger. If someone looks good for her age, it implies that she has a healthy lifestyle, that she is happy.”
How we perceive beauty and how far we’ll go to achieve it depend more on social attitudes than on medical advances. In this case, the new line of thought stems from a backlash against the overly aggressive (and at times downright weird looking) face-lifts of the past, as well as from innovations in dermatology that allow for smaller, less expensive, more natural-looking tweaks. (Hello, Botox. Good morning, ?Retin?A.) Our notions of what it means to age—and what a particular age actually looks like—have changed as we stay fit and active far longer than any previous generation. Sexual attractiveness is no longer presumed to go AWOL at 40. We have more economic power and independence. We look better, we feel better—gosh darn it, we are better. It is not surprising, then, that women have come to think in terms of maintaining their looks rather than of turning back the clock—which, let’s face it, was always pretty futile.
“As the ranks of people hitting middle age grow, more and more women are refusing to be defined by old standards of beauty,” says Jacque Lynn Foltyn, PhD, professor of sociology at National University in California. “We can wear our hair long, put on a bikini to show off our toned bodies and accept slightly wrinkled skin. If we do get beauty treatments, we think of them as restorative, not as a trick or a disguise. Maintenance isn’t considered vanity but part of valuing yourself. On the other hand, when someone does too much work, they don’t seem authentic, and we wonder about their self-acceptance. We start to pity them. Plus,” she adds, “having a paralyzed, overly tight face looks not only expressionless but dead. This, we can agree, is not a good look.”
The fear of looking artificial or “not like myself” is one of the main reasons women have turned away from extreme face-lifts in favor of beauty baby steps. Better to have a wrinkle or two, after all, than wake up one day to discover you look like Catwoman. “I don’t want to have a face that’s so tight, a dime can bounce off it,” says Liz Kaplow, 50, who heads her own PR firm in New York. “I feel more confident and secure with every passing decade. I don’t want the face I had at 25. No one wants to look as if they’re trying too hard, whether it’s at a job or in a relationship or with their appearance.” Like so many other women today, Kaplow opts instead for a lot of sun block and a carefully devised skin-care regimen. “I would like for people to think I look good, not wonder how old I am,” she says.