Aging Gracefully in a World of Anti-Aging

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953. Gelatin silver print © 1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953. Gelatin silver print
© 1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art

by Sally McGraw

My girl Audi made this request:

I’d love to see you do a piece about embracing our bodies and faces as we age. It bums me out to see so many attractive women succumbing to the pressure to look “younger” through cosmetic surgery and Botox and all that. You’ve written a lot about loving your body the way it is now, rather than the way you imagine it will be in the future — how about the other tack; loving your body now and not the way it used to be when you were younger?

I love my body now, at 34, more wholly and truly than I did when I was younger … so, to some extent, I am ill-equipped to give advice on making peace with your body as it ages. I seem to become more comfortable and more confident as I age, not less. And I know that to be true for many women.

But I also feel myself becoming more attuned to negative messages about aging: Fine lines, dull skin, loss of muscle tone, gray hair, all these trappings of a mature body that society has deemed shameful pop up on my radar now more than ever. Some of these traits are starting to show up in my own body and some are yet to arrive, but the messages about their insidiousness are penetrating my consciousness now when they used to just bounce away like so much noise.

That doesn’t mean I put stock in them. No, indeed. Just as the diet industry exists to make us feel like we’ll never be thin enough, just as the cosmetics industry exists to make us feel like we’ll never be pretty enough, anti-aging products exist to make us feel like we must, must, MUST remain young-looking forever. And while we can choose to change our body masses through food and fitness, choose to highlight certain aspects of our faces with makeup, we can’t truly control how the passage of time will affect our physical forms. Botox and facelifts, anti-aging creams and treatments, these things encourage us to pretend to be other women, younger women, women we simply are not. Encouraging women to take actions that will “turn back the clock” encourages them to feel dissatisfied and uncomfortable in their bodies, encourages them to postpone contemplation of age and aging, encourages them to feel bitter and envious when they encounter young or younger-looking women.

That said, I can’t completely disregard all anti-aging measures, just as I can’t completely disregard all weight loss programs or cosmetics. I would never say that all women who go on Weight Watchers are betraying themselves or all women who wear mascara are sell-outs, and I’d never say that all women who dye their gray hairs are cowards. It’s about choice. Each woman must choose how she presents herself to the world, physically, emotionally, stylistically, wholly. The important and often-overlooked step in making decisions about changing your body is asking WHY: Why do you want to dye your hair? Why do you want to spend $150 on a pot of eye cream? Why do you want to appear younger? You may find that the answers have more to do with your peers, your family, relentless advertisements for anti-aging products, or messages from movies and TV than your own inner musings. Consider carefully before taking action, and ask these questions of yourself:

  • WHO gets to decide what my body should look like as it ages? WHO has given me helpful or harmful feedback about aging? WHO do I consider to be an older body image role model?
  • WHAT bothers me about my aging body? WHAT can I do to make peace with it? WHAT aspects of my physical self will always make me feel proud, no matter my age or their conformation?
  • WHERE do I feel safest talking about aging? WHERE can I find images of or information about the aging process as it pertains to women? WHERE do I turn when I have questions or concerns?
  • WHEN did I become aware that my body was showing signs of age? WHEN do the positives of anti-aging products or procedures outweigh the negatives? WHEN will I feel comfortable allowing my body to be an older body?
  • HOW can I find balance between societal notions of aging and my own beliefs? HOW do I want to describe my beautiful self now that I can feel my body changing? HOW do I want to see myself and feel about myself 10, 15, and 20 years from now?
  • WHY is looking younger important to me, and to others, and do those reasons differ? WHY are younger-looking women valued more by our society, and is that relevant to me?

Our bodies are in a constant state of flux, no matter our ages. Some changes are easier to track than others, and the changes that begin to appear after a certain chronological age may seem more pronounced and alarming. But that’s because of the constant stream of alarmist messages that’s piped into our collective consciousness.

It’s also because women who struggle with body image generally begin their struggles early on. We look back at photographs of ourselves at age 16, 17, 18 and remember HATING our lovely, developing bodies. We look back and wish we’d appreciated what we’d had when we were younger. But the hard fact is this: Until someone builds a time machine, we can’t go back and shake our teenage selves out of that self-loathing. Until someone discovers the fountain of youth, we will never again look like we did as young women. So we must leave the past, and embrace the present. Loving your body is about loving it NOW, as it is today, 100%, no exceptions. Your today-body is just as beautiful as your yesterday-body, just in different ways and for different reasons. Identify those ways and reasons, and move yourself toward aging gracefully.

How do you feel about aging? I’d love to hear from those of you in your teens and 20s in addition to 30s and up since the aging female body is something we ALL contemplate. Are you strongly against or in favor of anti-aging measures like covering gray hairs and minimizing wrinkles? Who do you consider to be an older body image role model?

Originally posted on Already Pretty. Cross-posted with permission.

8 thoughts on “Aging Gracefully in a World of Anti-Aging

  1. I’m almost 47 and I feel so much more comfortable in my body now than I did in my 20’s. I’ve had a vaginal birth, miscarriage, c-section, gall bladder surgery, knee surgery, and went through a long bout of sciatica. But I’ve also recently earned my 3rd degree black belt and discovered I love jogging (3 miles about 4 times a week). I’ve learned to not care what people may think of me, because usually people are too absorbed with themselves to think of others. This is the one body I was given and the one chance I was given to live my best life. Yes, there are things I’d like to change (I’ve had spider veins around my knees since I was a teen), but this is the body I was meant to have. I take good care of it and wouldn’t alter a thing. But I do want another tattoo.

  2. At the age of 65, I guess I must be the oldest person posting on here! A fascinating article and some good comments. I don’t think I worried about ageing when I was your age either. Now I can see my wrinkles, especially when I smile, however I still say that the best anti-ageing secret is to smile. I look grim – almost frightening! – in photos where I’m not smiling but receive compliments about photos where I have a smile on my face.

    I use moisturisers as my skin is a bit dry and daily sunscreen because I live in Spain, but I wouldn’t spend a fortune on my face in an attempt to look younger. If people say I look good for my age, it’s a lovely feeling to have, but it’s not something that obsesses me.

    At the moment I dye my hair but that’s because I still have mainly dark hair, with a few grey patches, plus some light bits where the sun has bleached my hair. The colour looks messy, so I dye it for a more natural look. I wish it would all go grey and save me money!

    I do exercise, but not to keep the weight off (I’m probably half a stone more than my ideal weight). I do exercise that I enjoy such as Zumba, dancing and walking our dog. In spite of this my body has lots of droopy bits, but I have learnt to accept that.

    To be honest, once you are in your sixties, the most important issue is your health and I am lucky enough to be pretty healthy.

  3. Lovely message! I am turning 24 in just a few days. I am excited to be getting older unlike a lot of the ladies I know. I have a lot of friends ALREADY complaining about wrinkles, saggy body parts and the number they are turning this year. I am an avid reader of this blog so I am at a stage where I do love and appreciate my body for what it is and does. (I’m still working on it though but have come a LONG way and I am very proud of myself). I have not seen many signs that I am aging… I’ve noticed my motabolism is not the same as it used to be. I would say right now I am strongly against anti-aging measures. I don’t dye my hair now, and I don’t think I will in the future. I am agaisnt all kinds of plastic surgery and even botox. I hope that I still feel this way as I age. I think others can do what they want but I hope they will find appreciation and love for their bodies instead.

  4. Dear Readers,
    I am 32 and i totally agree to the above article in terms of the pressure created by the peers, friends & in some cases even cultures and family around! Being beautiful in my eyes is being a nice person from inside! Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder! For some grey hair is beautiful & for some pink. Some girls use Botox as early as age 30 and some women have not used it ever in their lives. ! Ageing is a natural process & yes i have been through the scare of noticing the lines on my face , however i then discovered my anti-ageing medicine called “exercise”. It does wonders to your skin. It takes a lot to push yourself to exercise but once you start it , it has many benefits one of them being a glowing skin.
    For now i am happy, who knows once i start greying i might help the companies with their sales for hair colour! To each one’s own …

  5. Nice post! Honestly, I’ve always looked forward to aging, because as long as I can remember, I have thought what a relief it must be to have the pressure to be pretty lifted off you. Some of that pressure, culturally speaking, has lifted- but that’s mostly due to social progress made by women in my lifetime. Now more than ever, we’re valued for being things other than pretty.
    But, at the same time, I feel this new pressure to “age gracefully.” That growing older no longer takes the burden of having to look sexy away. It’s the negative side of the same coin that has us accepting older women as sex symbols. It would be better if, like men, women could be sex symbols for something other than their physical appearance! Now, that would be progress.

  6. I’m 32. I’ve never been afraid of aging and have always seen the signs of age as something wonderful. Wrinkles and laugh lines and grey hairs are just symbols of a life fully lived. Perhaps it’s because, as a growing child and young adult, I spent so much of my time around my grandmother and the other older ladies she taught in her ceramics classes 4 days a week. These were funny, vibrant, friendly, wonderful women from so many walks of life who just made me thing that being “old” must be really fun. I also relished in Claudia’s grandmother and the relationship they had (and the respect she got) in the Babysitter’s Club books. Add to that many episodes of Golden Girls I’ve seen. I’ve been so fortunate to have a glimpse into what an awesome thing aging can mean that I’ve never felt compelled to use makeup, anti-aging creams, etc. in an effort to preserve my youthfulness. I’ve never been afraid of or ashamed ofmy age, and I have never nor will I ever lie about it.

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