How to Let Go of Wanting to Look Young

No matter who you are or how much money you throw at a plastic surgeon, you will age. What you can control? How you do it: in denial—or with dignity. Psychologist Vivian Diller lays out a plan for those who choose the latter

By Emily Listfield
vivian diller
Vivian Diller
Photograph: Chris Fanning

There’s an uh-oh moment in every woman’s life, whether at the first gray hair or the first fine line, when we realize that the first blush of youth is gone. Yes, we can panic (and pluck). But the key to weathering this transition with aplomb, says Vivian Diller, PhD, author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change,is to redefine how we think about beauty. “Our generation owe it to ourselves to find another way to feel beautiful rather than trying to turn back the clock,” she says. Here, Diller, 58, a former ballet dancer and model who has decided to age without significant nipping or tucking, explains how a change in attitude can help us regain confidence and even improve our looks.

Why are the most confident women—even those who never cared much about their appearance—thrown when they start to see changes in their looks?
We have an attachment to the image we see in the mirror, and barring illness or major weight fluctuations, that image remains much the same in your twenties and thirties. But when it begins to change, it doesn’t just affect your looks; it affects your identity. These changes reach down to a deeper place: what your future holds, who you are as a woman.

So this is about more than just looks?
Yes. Most of us grew up assuming that assets other than our appearance—education, experience, achievements—would be in the forefront of our identity.Yet at some point in our thirties, forties or fifties, depending on the woman, we hear another message: that if you don’t take care of your looks, you will disappear. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose your husband. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself what you are feeling when you have that first uh-oh moment. It can bring about panic, as if you’re losing control. Some women feel they must do something, to “fix it.” Others become apathetic.

Why is it a mistake to think aging is something we can fix?
If we look at aging as an illness or as something un-natural, it can lead to rash decisions. After other losses, people may renovate houses.Unfortunately, with the loss of looks, some people renovate their faces. But no matter what you do, your youth is something you have to let go of. And to let go, you have to let yourself feel sad about the loss.

Letting go of youth—that’s hard to do in our culture.
You can’t change society’s attitude, but you can change your own. To start, you have to leave behind the youthful image we associate with beauty. Once you have your uh-oh -moment—in your forties or fifties or sometimes even in your thirties—you have to begin a mourning process as you let go of that aspect of yourself. If you don’t go through that, you can’t open up to the possibilities of what you can become. Remember, we’re not just talking about the next 20 years anymore; we’re talking about the next 40.

Your own uh-oh moment came early—when you were a twenty-something dancer.
Yes. So much of my self-esteem was connected to being a ballet dancer, and then I injured myself. I was just 21 when I realizedI was going to lose my spot to someone younger, healthier. I felt scared at first; if I wasn’t a dancer anymore, I didn’t know who I was. So I had to broaden my self-esteem, basing it on more than just looks and youth. I had to find something I could get better at as I got older. The process I went through is very similar to what women go through in midlife as their looks begin to change. I ended up going back to school and becoming a psychologist because I wanted to help others going through similar situations.

Why is it so detrimental to avoid coming to terms with these changes?
We’ve noticed that in midlife there’s been an increase in eating disorders. There’s a rise in alcoholism. There’s drug abuse. I wouldn’t say they’re all related to our appearance, but I have no doubt that if your aging face is hard for you to accept, you might take that extra drink. You might go on an excessive diet. Sometimes we mask our feelings. I had one patient who was absolutely- determined to have a fourth child, even though she was in her fifties. Her husband didn’t want more children, but she was dead set on it. When I talked to her, it wasn’t really about wanting a child. She was beginning to see her body and face change, and she thought one way to retain her youth was to be pregnant. She had to work to redefine her sense of worth.

How do you navigate the process of mourning your youth and looks?
It’s not unlike what occurs when you lose a loved one. At first, there is a feeling of, Oh no, this isn’t happening.Then there is a gradual understanding that you can’t hold on to the past. There may be a deep sadness that life has turned a corner, but you have to let go. If I tried to be the ballet dancer I once was, or you cling to the idea of preserving the look you had in high school, it will only make us sad and anxious. When you truly accept that your life stage is changing, it doesn’t feel so sad in the end. You can have a big cry and then move on with your life.

How do you redefine beauty?
When you glance in the mirror, instead of worrying about appearing younger, think about looking good for your age. Don’t lead yourself down the path of “But I don’t look like I did when I was in my twenties” or “But my neck!” Think about whether there is anything you can do to look the best for your age—not for 20, not for 30, but for your age now. Changing that internal dialogue takes practice. You have to become aware of what you say to yourself when you are in a dressing room or looking in a mirror, and start shifting it. We have to be kinder to ourselves. You would never say to a friend, “You look old” or “You look fat.” The notion of perfection isn’t healthy for young kids, and it is definitely not healthy as you get older. There are certain aspects of your face and your body that don’t change that much,and you should concentrate on those. Your eyes, or for some women, it’s great legs. It’s up to you to take those features and wear them with pride.

Looking good versus looking young is a big shift.
Yes, but once you accept that you can’t turn back the clock, you can take positive steps. You might go to a dermatologist to have sun damage treated. Or have your teeth whitened. I play tennis, I look after my skin and wear makeup, but I don’t spend an obsessive amount of time on it. The best way I take care of myself, besides staying active, is by making sure I’m involved with something I feel passionate about.
Have you ever considered Botox?
Every woman in the world probably considers it. I feel strongly, though, that there is no turning things back and that ultimately it’s a short-term solution to a long-term issue. I do feel there are increasingly better procedures that are not so radical and are probably going to be what dyeing hair used to be. One example is the new light-based, nonablative laser therapies. These have fewer risks than cosmetic surgery, create more subtle, gradual changes in aging skin and appeal to women who want to look better rather than younger. But again, none of these procedures replace the necessary internal work that helps us age with grace.

What about plastic surgery?
I don’t judge anyone who has it, but once you get that face-lift or neck job, it’s a slippery slope, and it’s very hard to enjoy the changes unless you change the inside as well. If you’ve done the work of going through the mourning process, you have a better chance of being happy with the results. I had one patient who wanted to have plastic surgery because she thought she’d lose her job if she didn’t look younger. We worked on that, and she was feeling better and taking care of herself, but she still looked tired. She was a good candidate to get her eyes done, and she was happy with the results because they matched how she was feeling inside. But there are other women who are going through a divorce and want their breasts done or a face-lift, and they come to me afterward and still feel unhappy because the new breasts didn’t get them what they wanted. You need to work on feeling better about yourself first; otherwise you will be disappointed.

What are the benefits of consciously letting go of youth?
The mourning process usually takes about a year, but at the end you will see yourself differently. You will feel more hopeful. You will create a solid foundation from which to grow for the rest of your life. Yes, there is loss. But you also gain something on the other side of it. There’s a comfort level, a renewed energy for other things. When I look in the mirror now, what I see reflected back looks like age-appropriate beauty. It’s not because I’m wearing a particular kind of makeup; it’s because I like my life.

The Four Stages of Beauty Mourning
It’s OK to cry. But then move forward with these four steps from author Vivian Diller

1 Face your uh-oh moment head-on
Acknowledge that your appearance is changing. Dig deep to discover what feelings this elicits beyond fear of losing your looks. Are you suddenly worried about your marriage, your career or your financial future? Being honest about what you are truly scared of will help you face the transition with more confidence.

2 Listen to your internal dialogue
Pay attention to what you tell yourself when you look in the mirror. Are you disparaging or overly critical of your skin, your hair or your weight? Rewrite your dialogues in the kinder tone you might use with a friend.

3 Learn to appreciate your appearance today
Fast-forward 20 years and imagine seeing a photo of what you look like right now. You’ll probably think you look pretty great—and might regret that you didn’t enjoy your appearance more when you had the opportunity.

4 Make some healthy changes
Instead of clinging to the past or trying to recapture the look you once had, ask yourself what positive changes you can make that will help you feel attractive right now. These might include exercise, visiting a dermatologist to discuss skin care or concentrating on healthier eating.

Related: 27+ Anti-Aging Superfoods

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First Published Tue, 2012-01-03 10:04

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