Friday, February 17, 2012

Being Real is Really Beautiful

Several years ago I was asked to write an editorial responding to the question “How do you feel attractive as you age?”  It was an interesting question as I wasn’t quite “there” yet in terms of seeing myself as aging.  And while I am intimately acquainted with my hair stylist and I like a new outfit as much as anyone else, I am pretty busy and preoccupied with other pursuits that don’t leave much time or interest for the relentless pursuit of beauty and youth.

However, a number of recent conversations have had me thinking about how important it is to still value our appearance and recognize our own outward attractiveness and worth even  as we age.  Women over forty are almost invisible in the popular culture.  The ones we see most often have had collagen injections, botox or cosmetic surgeries in order to hide the normal process of aging.  

I am pretty comfortable with getting older (because, really, what is the alternative?!)  However,  I seem to offend some of my peers and even my mother when I refer to myself as “mid life” although I see no shame in it.  In my 47th year,  I do see myself as “in the middle” of my life..  that is if all goes very well and I live in to my nineties.   I can fully appreciate though, this resistance to aging.  If aging means disappearing from view and no longer being valued for your contributions to society.   This week I saw a new anti-aging cream directly marketed “to women over 20”.  Seriously.   So in protest to the anti-aging industry and in support of beautiful mid life and older women everywhere..  I offer you this article, edited slightly from the original published by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2009 and no longer available.

Finding Beauty in the Imperfections

My house is over a century old and despite some labor-intensive face-lifts, it is showing its age. There are cracks on the living room ceiling and it is almost impossible to nail something on the wall without creating a 4-inch gaping hole revealing horsehair and crumbling plaster inside. This house constantly needs care and maintenance – everything from new plumbing to new wires – but it is, without a doubt, beautiful.

Like my charming house, I believe it is the imperfect but natural beauty that makes a person unique and interesting. Many women only become of aware of their own true beauty with age. Friends often tell me that they finally began to feel attractive only in their 30s or 40s. Do we feel more beautiful as we age because our definition of beauty changes? Or are we finally more comfortable with our own imperfections? I think it’s a little of both.

Of course that doesn’t mean mid-life and older women don’t have appearance pressures of our own! We are expected to be thin and work at weight loss into our later years despite our body’s natural tendency to gain weight in order to protect our bones after menopause; we are expected to maintain shiny white teeth despite decades of dinner dates over red wine and hundreds of Sunday brunches with coffee; and we are expected to color, cover, and contour ourselves into eternal youth despite the completely normal and unglamorous process of aging.

my sister Lynn Crowder - this is what beauty looks like
The good news is that despite these pressures, most of the mid-life women I know, while still relatively interested in their external appearance, are no longer consumed by it. For many of us, our lives are like my old house, made beautiful with the riches of love, laughter and creativity. Instead of focusing solely on outward appearances, it’s about the love and energy emanating from inside that shows our true beauty.

In my work and in my life in general, I am surrounded by many pretty girls. Often, these girls are catwalk-thin with wrinkle-free skin, wearing the latest body-conscious fashions. They have shiny highlights, chemically whitened teeth, faux tans, carefully straightened hair and are waxed free of body hair in places that my generation never thought about. These girls are growing up in a generation of beauty pressures and prescribed solutions that surpass anything I experienced at their age. And unlike my bra-burning role models, many of today’s young women don’t seem interested in resisting these pressures.

As a mid-life woman, I could easily feel threatened by them but most of these gorgeous girls simply have no idea of the beauty they possess. Despite their tremendous efforts to achieve this youth-fueled perfection, I can see that they still often feel unloved or unworthy. They are frightened of weight gain, they believe they are unattractive, they focus on imperceptible details of their appearance. I have known girls who spent an entire year obsessed about the shape of their cheekbones, or tormented by how their pants clung the wrong way to their hips. The carefree beauty of youth is lost on them as they struggle against low self-esteem and the culturally-driven illusion that appearance is everything.

The most interesting women I know are those who have made peace with their appearance as they’ve grown older. There is a certain grace about embracing the now that comes with age, regardless of how you look. Beauty is no longer tied so closely with the physical, especially when time takes it out of your control. I have people in my life that are grappling with debilitating arthritis, battling progressive neurological illnesses and fighting cancer. Yet, to me, their strength, courage, determination and spirit make them so much more beautiful than any airbrushed supermodel. Facing adversity or reaping the riches of a life well lived remind us of what really counts and, more importantly, what’s real.

One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken on a beach when my hair was windblown and I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I was completely unaware of the camera and was smiling up at the kite I was flying with my daughter. In one fleeting moment the photographer captured my sense of joy, relaxation and concentration. It was real. I look beautiful because I am completely engaged with life.  Now, when I feel stressed or am lacking confidence, I shut my eyes for a moment and try to remember the kite-flying feeling. This makes me feel instantly capable no matter what I look like that day.

How do I plan to hold on to this confidence as I move into my 50s and 60s? My body and my face are like my beautiful old house. Time will continue to slowly reveal the flaws and I will require upkeep and maintenance to stay healthy and vibrant. Maintaining good nutrition, getting enough sleep and staying active while respecting my body’s decreasing abilities is a practical start.  But it is the laughter, the creativity, and the optimistic quality of my life that will determine my real beauty as I age.

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