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

It happened to me in the fall of 2010, when I was 41. The economy had pummeled my professional field, razed my husband’s and left me a haggard, frantic, work- and money-obsessed mother of three. One morning, post-shower, I glanced in the bathroom’s foggy mirror and burst into tears. I felt chewed up and spit out, and I looked even worse, with anxiety lines between my eyes so deep, they could have held a pair of chopsticks. It hit me: I couldn’t control much about my life, but I couldn’t stand looking as if life had hammered me like a linebacker. I needed to put on a game face.

Brooding over my options, I had a thought: Earlier in the year, I’d read a study published by researchers at Columbia University reporting that paralyzing certain facial muscles can decrease the intensity of certain feelings. Now, I decided, if zapping my “worry” muscles can make me look and feel better, then sign me up immediately. That very day, I—who could not possibly justify any nonessential expense—took $400 from a book advance I’d recently received and spent it on Botox injections.

They changed my life. Within 36 hours, there was a softening of the “11” lines between my brows and along my “five-head” (derma-slang for a deeply grooved forehead). My best friend, without knowing about the shots, said earnestly, “I’m happy to see you finally looking so well rested. I can tell you’re finding your way to the light at the end of the tunnel.” My husband said, “Did you cut your hair? It looks great!” My children bubbled, “You seem happier, Mama!” Over the weeks to come, experiencing the continuous-positive-feedback loop and being incapable of furrowing or scowling, I did begin to feel calmer, less panicky and better able to think about how to dislodge my family from its financial rut and end the chronic fear that had come to shadow us.

As time went on, seeing a well-rested, lineless face in the mirror inspired me to ditch the self-pity and begin thinking of new ways to deploy my career skills. I could teach; I could develop websites (I’d done it in the mid-1990s—why not get up to speed again?). I felt lighter with my children, with my life. Change seemed possible. I grasped the old Buddhist adage: Sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. And I never wanted to go back. So the cosmetic surgeon and I shook hands on a barter deal, in which I’d redo her extensive but poorly executed website and she’d keep me Botoxed. Three years later, I fully accept the principle of cosmetic therapy: One small but good change, even a haircut, can trigger a seismic burst of confidence that can propel you to take positive action. On practically anything.

One small step for beauty, one giant step for life
For me, the motivation to reclaim my looks was a series of financial setbacks. For other women, it may be a divorce, a milestone birthday, a particularly rough patch at work. Whatever the genesis, the scenario is this: You realize your life has spun way off its axis. You look in the mirror and zero in on an aspect of your appearance that you’re not happy with: a snaggletooth, a Janet Reno haircut, the muffin top that has turned into a rubber tire. And that day, for some reason, you decide to take charge of your appearance. As if by magic, that seemingly minor tweak ends up jump-starting a new life direction or outlook. According to marketers, psychologists and medical professionals in the aesthetics business, many women have this kind of aha moment. “It used to be that we thought that kind of action was simply impulsive and the result of a midlife crisis. Think of the man who buys a red sports car so he can deny his mortality by having a hot young thing sitting beside him,” says Vivian Diller, a psychologist and author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change and What to Do About It. “There’s another dimension now, especially with women, when we begin to see the end, and instead of thinking our time is up, we focus on how to make the most of the years we have left. Part of this is evaluating how we look and feel.”

Indeed, mortality may be the most common trigger for life-changing decisions. Time and gravity, only theoretical in our twenties and even into our thirties, become a reality and are now often scary, implacable companions. Demoralized, we may tell ourselves there’s no point in fighting back. We are what we are. But that’s where we’d be wrong. Thanks to better health care, we are living longer—and it begins to dawn on us that, as Zen thinkers have always said, the only constant is change. Tweaking your looks may seem superficial, but in fact it can be the first step in shifting your entire perspective on life.

Some women start by changing their hair. Toloria Allen, a 61-year-old employee of Houston’s Port Authority, is one of them. She had always chemically relaxed her hair and had it professionally dyed the minute any grays came in, paying through-the-nose fees for salon upkeep. Then, in her midfifties, postdivorce, Allen had a revelation: She had always presented herself the way her former husband thought she should look, and that way was not her. Allen decided it was finally time to “do me,” she says, “to become comfortable in my own skin, not to be what others expected of me or what I thought they expected.”

Part of her self-actualization was growing her hair longer, embracing the grays and beginning to style her hair in a two-strand twist (think Lauryn Hill in the 1990s—that gorgeous two-twist bob). It took some getting used to, but now, says Allen, “whether I’m at my job or out in the world or just looking in the mirror, I feel like, This is me—this is who I actually am. And I feel good. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not, this self--conscious person wanting to please everyone. As long as I’m doing a good job at work, I can be myself, be open to new experiences, get to know me.”

Meeting other people’s beauty expectations is a familiar story to Jennifer Russell, 43, who since her twenties had bleached her hair to match her teenage color, a hue she calls Texas blonde. Russell now wonders if all those years of maintaining the image of her younger self might have been tied to the subconscious wish to hang on to naive dreams—some of which were not materializing. “Maybe I somehow held on to this vague notion that staying blonde would keep me young and attractive, that it would help me land a committed relationship or a husband and a family,” says the Austin-based elementary school teacher, whose focus is on helping children with special needs. “But at 40, I woke up and realized that (a) my adult complexion no longer matched the hair color I’d had since my twenties—so staying this blonde was actually aging me, and (b) I was still single and had no kids.”

Russell had to face the prospect of not being able to conceive children, and with the fairy tale refusing to unfold, she was confronted with the big question “Now what?” Having forgotten what her natural hair color looked like, she did a grow-out and discovered she had a thick, glossy auburn mane. And she loved it. She realized she’d been forcing herself into a blonde rut just as she’d been insisting on certain ideas of how her life should be rather than appreciating how it actually was. Freeing herself from that prison allowed her to reflect. “I feel more confident because I now look like a genuine grownup woman—plus, ironically, I think the new color has made me look younger,” she says. Instead of playing understudy for a role in which she may never be cast, she has landed something she feels is far better: an identity as a smart single woman in her forties, with a killer head of hair.

Russell’s life stage most likely helped her make the transition from grooming herself for male attention to doing it primarily to please herself. “Younger women are more than twice as likely as older counterparts to shop for beauty products ‘to make me feel sexy,’ ” reports Karen Grant, global beauty-industry analyst at the NPD Group, an international market-research company. “But at a certain point, ‘being liked by men’ stops being a top priority for women, and by the time they’re in their midfifties, it drops way down the list. As they age, women are much more likely to be motivated by the desire to feel confident.”

Grant suggests that one key to a woman’s confidence is finding her personal “I look good” style. Whether we come off as Goth-y and avant-garde (Tilda Swinton, Helena Bonham Carter) or more like a Bratz mom (Jennifer Lopez), once we find ways to match our insides with our outsides, we are unimpeachably ourselves—and that’s our invitation to walk out into the world boldly. Because let’s be real: Our public face is important. Studies show that attractive, well-groomed people are treated more courteously and considered smarter than their less-well-put-together counterparts. Even our facial expressions matter. “If you have a chronically downturned mouth, people may avoid you, assuming you’re angry or depressed even if you aren’t,” says Eric Finzi, MD, author of The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships. Moreover, just knowing that your crow’s-feet are smooth, your legs are stubble free and your biceps are defined may make you feel prepared, well cared for and generally ready to tackle life. Conversely, if you neglect a specific aspect of your looks that you consider important, you risk inviting low self-esteem, negative judgment from others, even feelings of hopelessness.

The confidence continuum
What bothered 43-year-old Roslyn Pilla was her teeth. A childhood accident had left them chipped in front, a problem she tried—and failed—to solve with bonding, which eroded and became so discolored that it had to be redone. As a hardworking CEO in the marketing business, where image is everything, Pilla felt her smile was directly related to her ability to engage clients, impart confidence and sell. After a particularly intense stretch at work, during which Pilla put in 12- to 14-hour days, she decided: It was time for a permanent, fully satisfactory smile fix.

“I finally forked over the money for veneers,” she says. The results were astonishing, mostly to her. “Until I did it, I didn’t realize how much anxiety my teeth had caused me, how insecure I’d felt and how much that had affected my sense of myself and my work in sales.” Indeed, she attributes some of the boom in her company’s success to her investment in cosmetic dentistry. “I didn’t tell longtime clients, coworkers or most of my friends about the -veneers, but so many of them have said I look happy and rested,” she says. “I’m projecting a kind of confidence that keeps the positive feedback at a whole other level. I feel as though I’m working better, smarter.”

When she embarked on her own appearance-improvement plan, women’s-clothing designer Kathy Rego, 52, didn’t see it as a professional move—but she is now convinced that weight lifting contributed to her business’s success. Five years ago, Rego, a single mom, worked punishing hours overseeing the international technical-design division that serves Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Free People (all owned by parent company Urban Outfitters Inc.). She felt, she says, “as if my life was completely out of balance, out of control.” Deciding she had to do something, she thought she could at least get into better physical shape. But she hated aerobic exercise, so she chose to lift weights—and found that her training delivered results far beyond the physical.

“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 (, 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.

After some research, she talked to a plastic surgeon about a procedure called fat transfer, in which belly and hip fat is liposuctioned and specially filtered to get to the “liquid gold” (the component of fat that is rich in stem cells, which, according to a burgeoning body of peer-reviewed research, can repair the skin’s texture). The separated fat is then injected into deep lines and wrinkles, as well as the cheekbones, jawline and lips, for what cosmetic medical professionals call facial -volume—essential for age busters, since young faces are full faces. As a 70th--birthday present to herself, Stroud took the plunge. “The change is so subtle and natural, no one knows I’ve had work done. But they say things like ‘You look so healthy!’ and ‘You must be getting an excellent night’s sleep!’ ” she says. “But I know, and I almost want to wink at myself in the mirror. It’s my little magical refresher, and I just love the results.”

Inspired, I recently tried fat transfer myself—thyroid disease was
giving me a gaunt, hollow look—and I am very happy with how it turned out. During my initial consultation, Kevin Cross, MD, a Cornell-trained plastic surgeon, asked me what he said was the most important question he ever puts to patients: “Who are you doing this for?” I didn’t have to think about the answer. “Me,”
I said. “I’m doing this for myself.” Cross nodded, satisfied. I had the right answer.

SUSAN GREGORY THOMAS is the author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir and Buy, Buy Baby.
Next: My Bad-Hair Life


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First Published Tue, 2013-09-10 15:47

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