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

Judith Sills, PhD

Her Message: ax “age appropriate” A clinical psychologist and the author of Getting Naked Again, Sills dishes on how to stay young (and sexy!) and why she never says age appropriate.

Some people believe that to age gracefully, we first need to “mourn” our lost youth. Are you one of them? No! My philosophy is, “Look back but don’t stare.” I make a distinction between youth and being young. Youth is a life era, from birth to thirty-something. Being young is an attitude. It is something you should work to develop and hang on to till they carry you out of the nursing home.

So what does it mean to “be young”? It’s not about maintaining your boobs at the same level they were. You can have the perkiest boobs in the world and be dead to life. Being young means having certain traits: curiosity, a sense of possibility, a willingness to take risks. That’s an attitude you can have at 30 and at 60. Granted, it gets harder as you go along, especially if your health gets hit. But you have some con-trol even over that. You are way more likely to maintain your energy if you exercise six days a week.

What role does sex play as we age? Sex is life juice. It’s like, “Hello, I’m awake. I’m alive. I batted my eyes, you batted your eyes, we held hands, we danced, we rubbed up against each other—who cares if I’m not 25? I’m still here; it still feels good.” It’s about a connection with another person. It’s about spark. Have as much sex as possible in any way possible.

What else can increase our self-esteem as we age, particularly when it comes to our looks? Cosmetics have always been an attitude enhancer. We don’t paint our faces just to attract the opposite sex. If you’re feeling schlumpy and depressed, a manicure, a haircut and a little lipstick can work like medicine. It’s easy to dismiss all that as superficial, but it has a deep impact on our sense of self and our willingness to connect with other people. It says, “OK, I’m going back out into the world now. I’m not in retreat.”

What about plastic surgery? If at 14 you were experimenting with glitter eyeshadow and at 50 you’re experimenting with Botox or a little nip and tuck, it’s all in the same category. Heavy makeup didn’t work at 14, and overdoing plastic surgery in a desperate effort to look 15 years younger doesn’t work at 40. But a light hand in all these things can put a smile on your face. That’s their purpose. For some women, just getting a massage works. It may be letting your hair go silver or finally becoming a redhead—whatever gives you the feeling that you’re fabulous.

Why do women judge one another so harshly about things like Botox? It’s like in middle school, when one girl wore a lot of makeup and we judged her and called her a slut. We are all trying to justify our own choices, and sometimes it feels as if we’re in a contest. But the more comfortable and confident you are with where you are in your life, the less you need to be upset about another woman’s choice.

Any advice for women who are freaked out by their first wrinkles? My advice is, stop thinking about yourself so much. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you can to look great. But once you’ve done that, stop looking at yourself and look out at the world. It’s where everything interesting and exciting is. Do something new. Challenge yourself. Don’t hide in a little pod of everybody at your age, everybody you’ve known forever.

Why do you dislike the term age appropriateSocial judgment is a premier way we have of confining women. Don’t be so sexual: It’s not age appropriate. Don’t be so enthusiastic. Don’t have such a high profile. Don’t be so competitive. Age appropriateis a way of saying that whether you’re 35 or 75, there are certain expectations of what your sex life should be like, what your clothes should be like and where you should be professionally. The expectation is that the older you get, the less curious you’ll be, the less comfortable you’ll be on your own, the less sex you’ll have, the more fearful you’ll be. The expectations are all negative. The phraseage appropriatenever envisions older people having fun.

How can we fight that attitude? The more invested you are in life, the less worried you are about what other people think. My attitude is, every passing year, get sexier, looser, have a better time, be out there more, dress for yourself more, speak for yourself more, flirt more, because who the hell cares anymore?

Jacque Lynn Foltyn, PhD

Her Message: silence your “self monitor” The author of Fashions: Exploring Fashion Through Cultureand a professor of sociology at National University in La Jolla, California, Foltyn is conducting a 30-year longitudinal study of women’s attitudes toward beauty. Here she talks about the psychological concept of self-monitoring and how it can affect our confidence.

What exactly is self-monitoring? It’s an internal surveillance system, a way of gathering information about the impressions we make on others and adjusting our behavior accordingly. Part of becoming a grownup is to self-monitor. You learn to control your bodily functions, but you also learn to control how you present yourself to the outside world, because our sense of self is shaped to a large degree by social interactions. Sociologists call it the looking-glass self. Receiving positive feedback from others can lead to good things like self-confidence, jobs, love and friendship. The downside is that you can become hostage to living each day as a beauty contest that needs to be won.

Are some women more prone to this than others? Yes. Some people, high self-monitors, beat themselves up if they get any negative feedback. They think they’re the center of attention even when they’re not. They depend on the positive reaction of others to create their sense of self-worth. They often had very critical parents whom they were constantly attempting to satisfy. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter how objectively beautiful you are. Some of the most beautiful women are the most self-monitoring and therefore the most insecure.

What about women on the other end of the spectrum? Low self-monitors don’t care as much what others think of them. They are more concerned about conveying who they truly are than with winning people over. They tend to be less appearance oriented even if they are great beauties. Their parents were supportive of their interests and fostered their talents.

Can you be a high self-monitor in some areas of your life but not others? Yes. And knowing that can help you shut off that inner voice. For instance, if you’re hyperaware of your appearance but confident in your career, reminding yourself of that helps. Self-monitoring is a behavior you can control. You can train yourself to turn more of your focus to the things you feel confident about.

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.

Is the desire for beauty biologically rooted? There is convincing literature in support of that. The first person to put that idea forward was really Charles Darwin in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, which introduced his theory of sexual selection [that to ensure the survival of the human species we make ourselves desirable to the opposite sex]. We know that appearance and smell in particular send out signals of fertility. So do things like clear skin and [healthy] hair. The evidence is pretty convincing that we use beauty products because of the need to attract and reproduce. But, that said, societies have defined what it means to be attractive in very different ways.

How have definitions of beauty changed? If you look back thousands of years, you can see there’s no universal standard of beauty. Instead, the definition of what’s beautiful has varied enormously over time and between cultures: long hair versus no hair; dark skin versus light skin. These things are affected by the fashion cycle, and they shift between generations. Knowing that is empowering. Thirty years ago [in the U.S.], you had to be white to be considered beautiful, and that’s not true now. In 19th-century Japan, having very narrow eyes was the benchmark of being beautiful. And now [in Asia], very big eyes are in. In a hundred years’ time, I’m sure we’ll be in some other place.

How have cosmetics affected what we think of as beautiful? In the past, only rich people had access to beauty products. As the industry grew, it democratized access to beauty, and it gave women choices for the first time about how they looked. That continues to be important in emerging countries, where access to beauty products can be a liberating experience. The trouble was, as the industry developed, it started dictating what it meant to be beautiful, and that was very much associated with being under 35. But there has been a growing confidence and a reassertion by women of control over their lives, and part of that has been pressure against this restrictive idea of beauty.

Has there always been this emphasis on looking young? Romans and Egyptians dyed their hair to get rid of the gray. But until the modern age, it wasn’t much of a concern, because when you had candlelight and no cameras or television, you couldn’t really see as much. And before the 19th century, once women passed 35, they weren’t expected to be attractive. They took on other roles. As the beauty industry took shape, it introduced this concept that you should be beautiful after 35, and the way to do that was to look under 35. But it needn’t be that way.

How can we think of beauty differently as we age? Imagine an alternative world, one in which you look beautiful in a different way at different stages of your life. Beauty is not necessarily associated with being young and fertile. In the past, “beauty” was treated in the industry and by society in a very linear way directly linked to physical age. Now, as women have increasingly taken control of their bodies through diet and exercise (and plastic surgery), physical signs of age are less dominant. Women can define themselves by their lifestyle choices rather than by a prescribed notion of where they should be that’s strictly linked to their age. So, for example, now you can be single and sexy in your forties, whereas in earlier times beauty was no longer considered relevant at that stage.

What effect is social media having on how we define beauty? It has diminished the ability of beauty firms and fashion editors to dictate beauty standards. They remain significant influences, but now they share their space with bloggers and vloggers—and consumers who express their views on Facebook. It’s possible that this shift will make beauty ideals more legitimate as they are less manipulated by big advertising budgets. However, we are only at the beginning of the social media revolution; we still have a ways to go.

Next: 25 Celebs Who Keep Getting Hotter

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First Published Wed, 2012-10-24 10:50

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