The Pain and Beauty of Growing Old and Aging Gracefully

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If there is anything behind a face, that face improves with age. Lines show distinction and character: they show that one has lived, that one may know something. ~ Karen de Crow

.   .   .    .

If you think about aging in a very basic way, stripped of its social implications, what is it about the accumulation of years and experiences that distresses so many? With every tick of the clock and turn of the calendar’s page most people can find some benefit to time’s passing. After all, sayings like you live, you learn and time heals all haven’t rooted themselves in our vernacular for nothing. When the Pew Research Center asked a group of American senior citizens what they thought about future inventions, only 3% of those polled had interest in time travel or the reversal of aging. The were fundamentally happy just the way they were. And yet, we are continually bombarded with anti-aging products and tempted with youth restoring plastic surgery.

aging-gracefully
Linda Rodin

As modern women we now enjoy unparalleled freedoms; we vote, have access to higher education, hold positions of power (albeit fewer then men) and conduct ourselves sexually as we see fit. And yet, beauty and its inevitable fading is a silent inhibitor lurking around the edges of women’s progress. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, the pressure or desire to be beautiful is a heavy weight to carry.  According to Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, “The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.” In her book, Wolf outlines how the beauty industry and it’s booming anti-aging sector could be seen as a capitalist backlash against feminism. Though statements like that are easy to cast aside as exaggerated or unwarranted, it’s hard to deny that images of female beauty, with their impossible promise of youth and physical perfection, are the very basis of everything we buy. They are used to sell everywhere from milk, to laundry detergent, to french fries, to men’s cologne. Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, these advertisements can be a weapon against women’s advancement.

The burden of everlasting beauty exists in our everyday interactions with society and our own internal processes. It starts the moment we wake up and look in the mirror, the moment we decide we are not good enough and think about the things we would change. The burden of beauty is in the sideways glance at the women on the bus and our thoughts of comparison or competition. It is in the fear that as we age we will lose the power that has been allocated to us based not on merit but on the value of our youth. Fearing and combating the natural process of aging is not something innate to the human experience. Sure, as women age we lose our fertile abilities, but in a society that supposedly values women as integral members, getting older should not be such a big deal.

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The idea that women become less “beautiful” with age exists for the simple fact that women grow more powerful with time, and our culture does not yet find power attractive in a woman.

Does a woman’s life experience have value if our culture tells her to be ashamed for it to show on her face? What is so great about looking young? With age we lose our youthful naiveté, we get smarter, more confident and much better at sticking up for ourselves. Of course, this is immensely positive for you, but less so for those that profit from women’s insecurities. Current beauty standards are based around the pillars of youth – baby smooth skin, long lashes, narrow hips, slenderness – features only natural in prepubescent girls. Women are essentially encouraged to aspire to look like children, an appearance closely connected with helplessness, obedience, and malleability. Children are naive and controllable. Perhaps it’s no wonder that it can be so difficult for women to be taken seriously in politics and as corporate leaders. Could it be that as long as we continue to resemble youth, we will be patronized and treated as if we were just as inexperienced and meek?

According to Naomi Wolf “If we could see a sixty-year-old women who looks her age read the news [on tv], a deep fissure would open in the beauty myth”. Basically as social creatures it’s important for our development that at all stages of life we can identify with a designated role in society – that we feel incorporated into the fabric of life. The shocking lack of older women’s faces in mainstream media and advertising is part of a vicious cycle, the less we see the appreciation of female elders the less women will feel empowered to fill the role. If young women have no positive connections to the aging process, of course it’s going to terrifying. Older women are taught to feel threatened by younger women and younger women are in turn taught to fear older women. It is no mistake that we are pinned against each other and cross-generational relationships must form in order to humanize all demographics. The best aging tip we can give you is to hang out with older women.

how to age gracefully

What’s imperative here is not throwing out your makeup bag, but finding a way to toss out normative beauty standards that devalue women as human beings first and foremost.

In all of this it is important to remember that loving makeup or fashion or skin care or hair dye is perfectly normal! It’s alright to want to look your best and feel healthy as you age, what isn’t alright is feeling like you have to alter your appearance to look more youthful just to be accepted in society, whether you want to apply makeup or not. In other words, only do what feels good to you. “The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don’t, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is our lack of choice.” ~ Naomi Wolf

In the media, men are often portrayed as aging like fine wine while women are compared to expired milk banished to the back of the proverbial fridge. In most cases, aging gracefully for women is synonymous with, you can stop trying now, you’re not fooling anyone. The actresses who are most applauded for “aging gracefully” are those that look old, but not too old – beautiful but not in a way that would make it obvious that they’ve used any botox of plastic surgery. In other words, they appear to age youthfully.

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Grey hair, smile lines, and wisdom are beautiful accessories. Lets dismantle the oxymoron of “aging youthfully.” We must start teaching young women to develop a sense of self outside of their appearance, and encourage them to deepen that practice with time. 

If an aging women is distracted by a futile attempt to remain ageless, not only is she funneling a large percentage of her hard earned income towards maintaining the status quo, she is basing her identity and worth on her exterior, remaining dependent on outside approval for her self-esteem. A woman focused on fighting off the hands of time may not be as psychologically present to fight for equality (or for anything else for that matter). After all, “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance” ~ Naomi Wolf

If you are interested in critically examining the underbelly of the beauty industry, we strongly recommend reading The Beauty Myth and no, it won’t take the fun out of using makeup and hair products, it will only make you a more conscious consumer. Wolf exposes the collective repercussions of The Beauty Myth though powerful statistics and lyrical prose, lifting the veil that leaves us feeling neurotic and isolated, then shedding light on the power of collective femininity. Happy reading!

8 Comments
  1. None of the women featured in the article have any “smile lines” … emphasising the fact many women love to write about empowering women, but subtlety reinforce the fact that we are to look young, despite out age. yes those women are older, and stunning, but they have 100% either been airbrushed or undergone the knife/ syringe. its like writing an article about how being over weight is OK as long as you’re healthy, and featuring 10 super models throughout the article.

    1. To confused: I too noticed the lack of marionette lines and sagging neck skin. I agree with your observation.
      Naomi Wolf is a truly amazing woman and I am inspired by her work.

    2. To Confused: I agree. PLEASE can we have photographs of ordinary-looking older women in this article and across all media. Let the photos provide a tone of utter dignity, power and respect to women in them, who happen to have lots of wrinkles and slightly sagging jowls. Get those two things together in photos everywhere: imperfect facial appearance with dignity, power and inner confidence. Let’s face it, the sagging skin has not reduced our wisdom. The photos have to reinforce this.

  2. We don’t have to adopt the term of growing old, it’s a mindset from yesterday. We should say a radical NO to graceful aging, as it still is aging. We can stop decay on many levels. Its about finding that essence of who we are and embody it – forever. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 16 or 36 year old self that we might refer to, its not a number its what we feel we are. It means dumping of a lot of old beliefs. Ageless is the road to take, a rebel road which grows our courage and resolve. I will never grow old. Check in with me when my passport says 120 – I won’t be what that number would suggest. The path to agelessness is a mind, body and spirit combo and the tool is thought, feeling and action. Holy trios all over again:) (Of course I’m writing a book about it…)

    1. Debra Tate says:

      Absolutely spot on!! Hope you write that book….Ill buy it!

  3. Such a beautiful article!! We need more of those and we need to be in it together as women to change the poor image of an aging woman. It doesn’t make any sense to consider aging as something unattractive and undesirable as it is a natural process that noone can avoid!

  4. white middle-aged male says:

    (albeit fewer then men)

    fewer than men*

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