“The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.
Okay, I admit it. I had a face lift when I was fifty years old. And I don’t regret it. At that time, a frequent topic of conversation among my female business partners and me was – how we needed to look “young” to get the consulting assignments we wanted. Three out of the four of us had face lifts within two years of each other. I don’t think my business partners have regretted it either. However, we all found it disheartening that professional men didn’t seem to worry about their aging faces or figures.
So, now it’s twelve years later and I’m the only one who retired early among the partners of our boutique consulting firm. Interestingly, the talk about cosmetic surgery has resurfaced among my former business partners. One plans an eye lift while another gets regular botox injections. Me? Well, I don’t want more cosmetic surgery, thanks to my early exit from the workplace. At least, I’d like to think I don’t have the need to look young anymore. I recently read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. The book is over 20 years old and has a strident tone that feels a little outdated. However, the basic premise is still relevant; that is that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure we feel to adhere to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. (Wikopedia) This pressure leads to toxic behaviors by women and a preoccupation with the appearance of women by both men and women. When a woman passes 60, our culture discards her upon her lifetime heap of used-up make-up, diet and beauty supplies. She is no longer a “player” in business, purchase power, or decision-making, so she no longer matters. This rings true to me and it gives me pause to imagine how mindfulness in retirement might empower women to consider new, more fulfilling definitions of beauty.
To be honest, retirement hasn’t erased my desire to look younger than my years would suggest. I went to the hairdresser today and spent over $100 to touch up my hair color. I visit the nail salon every two weeks to keep my hands looking “pretty.” I try to watch my diet (with limited success!) and exercise because I don’t want to look “dumpy.” Why do we women continue to hide our aging? Last night I told Jim about my hair appointment today and he said, “Why do you keep hurting your hair with all those chemicals? You don’t need to do that.” I replied without much reflection, “If I didn’t color my hair, I’d be completely silver. Do you want me to look like you?” Jim laughed and said, “What’s wrong with looking like me?”
Wow – what a wise man I married! I’ve been thinking all day about his comment and what I’d look like with silver hair and how I’d handle looking my age! It’s tempting to write off Jim’s comments as cultural ignorance, because; after all, men aren’t expected to stay young and beautiful. They don’t have advertisers bombarding them through multiple media outlets to color their hair, spend a fortune on make-up and clothes, and use every conceivable beauty product to look young. They can’t possibly understand the pressure women feel to maintain their youthful appearance. But, Jim is a loving man and he tells me every day how beautiful I am. He says he loves how I look without make-up and he loves it when I don’t dress up. He says he wants me to relax and enjoy retirement. Yes, Jim is a wise man.
After a lifetime of buying into the beauty myth, can we redefine beauty in retirement? I think we can – as long as we are gentle with ourselves. It is hard for women to let go of long-held perceptions about what beauty means. However, with so many baby boomers entering retirement, I’d like to suggest that we use our strength in numbers to start advocating a new appreciation for the beauty of aging. Instead of automatically accepting a cultural definition that is a myth, e.g. defined by the advertising, fashion, and cosmetics industries, let’s use mindfulness to consider the beauty of how we experience and portray every moment of our lives as we age. Naomi Wolf says:
“…you could see that a woman is healthy if she lives to grow old; as she thrives, she reacts and speaks and shows emotion, and grows into her face. Lines trace her thought and radiate from the corners of her eyes as she smiles. You could call the lines a network of ‘serious lesions’ or you could see that in a precise calligraphy, thought has etched marks of concentration between her brows, and drawn across her forehead the horizontal creases of surprise, delight, compassion and good talk. A lifetime of kissing, of speaking and weeping, shows expressively around a mouth scored like a leaf in motion. The skin loosens on her face and throat, giving her features a setting of sensual dignity; her features grow stronger as she does. She has looked around in her life and it shows. When gray and white reflect in her hair, you could call it a dirty secret or you could call it silver or moonlight. Her body fills into itself, taking on gravity like a bather breasting water, growing generous with the rest of her. The darkening under her eyes, the weight of her lids, their minute cross-hatching, reveal that what she has been part of has left in her its complexity and richness. She is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.”
― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Of course, in order to enjoy what we look like during our retirement years, we must do a lot of work on ourselves – from the inside out. Here are a few psychological tips toward acceptance of our aging looks:
- Look in the mirror. We need to acknowledge what we see. Do we have negative feelings? Embarrassment? Dislike? Shame? It’s important to be honest with ourselves about how we feel and why. It’s okay – really! But don’t dwell on it. Acknowledge and accept. That’s it.
- Take off the mask. Listen closely to the words you hear inside your head. We need to come out from behind the beliefs and actions that keep us from what we really feel. It’s okay to say, “You look old and I don’t like it.” If you’ve been hiding behind garish make up or an unnatural hair color, confront that and acknowledge it.
- Say goodbye. This is the hardest part but also the most important. Let go of our youth, with its attending beauty myth. It is about letting go of that psychological story that equates youth with beauty. It is about detaching our sense of attractiveness from a narrow definition to make room for a broader, more flexible self-image. What it means to be attractive at age 30 does not mean the same thing at age 65, or older. So it’s time to say goodbye, and then embrace our ever-evolving selves. Let’s not look back!
Are you ready to let go of the Beauty Myth? I’d love to hear your thoughts.