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Why smart women still agonize over aging

Intellectually, we understand aging. So why does the first wrinkle or gray hair send us into an emotional tailspin? As smart women who were raised to believe that success and happiness are based on intelligence and accomplishments, many of us never expected to feel this deeply about a seemingly superficial issue. But let’s face it, we do! As models turned psychotherapists, Vivian Diller, Ph.D., and Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D., examine the world of beauty from two very different vantage points — one where looks are all-important, and the other where they are often viewed as irrelevant. They share their findings in the book “Face It.” An excerpt.

Introduction: To care or not to care about beauty? That is our question
Marlene is 57 and by all accounts successful: she is a wife, a mother of two, and a top salesperson in a major department store. She takes great pride in being able to balance time with her family with the demands at work. Yet lately the only “work” on her mind has been what she wants to do to her face. Something, anything!

And then there’s the ambivalence and guilt. She says, “I know it goes against everything women of my generation should care about, but I just don’t like what I see ... my sagging skin, puffiness around my eyes. I’m bothered by the idea that if I don’t do something — or even if I do — it might affect my career. I want to be true to who I am inside, but I also want to look as good as I feel. I am not a superficial person so it amazes me that I am having such a hard time getting older and looking my age. I feel so many mixed emotions.”

Let’s face it: this is a journey Marlene — and most of us — never expected to be taking. We may be reading about marriage, mothering, and even menopause, but a book about aging looks? Sure, some women sneak a peek at an infomercial and others find a spare hour for a facial or a waxing. But do any of us really want to spend more time going deeper underneath those surfaces? We have worked too hard and long to ensure our lives would be governed by equality and choice simply to end up feeling trapped by such superficial concerns. In any case, weren’t our physical features supposed to take care of themselves?

Well, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?”

The truth is, millions of us now in our 40s, 50s, and 60s are preoccupied with thinking about the physical realities that come with growing older. We anxiously stare into our mirrors like insecure adolescents and are frankly surprised and embarrassed that we care so much. We reject the idea of being solely the object of desire and fantasy, yet who among us does not want to be regarded as attractive? We try seeking comfort from the age-old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but modern reality tells us not to age, that good looks are our currency, our power, and what makes us vital in today’s world.

These conflicting messages are coming at us not only from magazines, movies, blogs, and tweets, but from our equally confounded contemporaries. We are not sure what to make of our smart, savvy friends who flaunt their feminism only to appear suddenly and mysteriously rested? We condemn 17-year-old wannabes trying to look 30, yet we condone 60-year-olds trying to look 40. Is this blatant hypocrisy? Or is this a reflection of an ambivalent and confused generation of women?

Sometimes the mixed messages come from our own loved ones, who give a year’s supply of Botox on Mother’s Day or suggest liposuction as a Valentine’s gift. We may joke about it, as Carrie Fisher did on national television when she admitted, “my mother offered to buy me a facelift for Christmas!” But the joke is on us when the cards attached to these alleged self-improvement gifts tell us we are loved for who we are! Surely they know aging is the gift that keeps on giving.

More than ever before, women are turning to quick fixes and cosmetic surgery to “solve” the bewilderment we see in our faces. Some of us are appalled that we have come this far yet are willing to go that far trying not to look old. Many have decided that dream creams and injected faces are more politically palatable than surgically tightened and lifted ones. Most of us seem flummoxed as we try to avoid coming in last in a race we didn’t expect to run.

Making matters worse is that all too often this battle is waged secretly, within our own minds and in isolation. Although we openly share our troubles about work, relationships, and children, we tend to keep concerns about our changing looks hidden from others. We worry as we witness wandering husbands, or peers passed over by younger colleagues, but we don’t dare expose our anxieties over what we suspect provoked these events. “Who, me? Concerned about wrinkles?” Ask yourself: have you told even your closest friends about your injections? Have they told you about theirs?

As modern women, we have valiantly stayed the course forged by feminism, appreciative of the path our predecessors paved. Yet when faced with our changing appearance, we find ourselves pulled in opposite directions, stuck in a paradox and bound for failure. Remember, we are the generation of women who subscribed to society’s unrealistic recipe for success: the ambitious professional, loyal wife, and competent mother. For decades we have come to expect — and are expected — to have it all and to do it all. The attempt alone is worth a medal, especially since we aspire to show little wear and tear for all our juggling and multitasking. This much is clear: we are buying — and buying into — an anxiety-producing cultural imperative to look younger than we truly are. And we are terribly uncomfortable as we succumb to the siege of internal and external pressures tugging at us from so many directions.

Comedian Tina Fey addressed the dilemma facing today’s women: “ ‘You can have it all and be serious,’ but also, ‘It’s great to get Botox,’ and ‘You should be really skinny but don’t be, but don’t not be!’ ” Surely it helps to laugh, but we need to bring these mixed messages into a more serious discussion to find a resolution. Otherwise we render ourselves more vulnerable to a culture that has us paralyzed by what we call the beauty paradox.

Paradox need not lead to paralysis
The beauty paradox is the predicament created by two incompatible messages that our generation has internalized. To navigate through this cultural quagmire, we first need to clarify the conflicting messages.

Message 1: Deny. Your looks shouldn’t matter. If they do, don’t let anyone know. Stay true to your real self. Let your looks take their natural course as you age.

Message 2: Defy. Your looks should matter, and don’t you ever forget that. Buy wrinkle creams, work out at the gym, and defy aging at whatever the cost, in any way you can. Oh, and be sure to make it look natural!

These contradictory messages present an obstacle course in the path women take toward feeling and looking good as they age. As therapists, we see an increasing use of maneuvers to avoid the pitfalls that stand in the way of reaching that goal. Some are extreme, like excessive dieting, alcohol or drug use, and repeated plastic surgery. Others are less radical, like age-defying cosmetics, new wardrobes, and young boyfriends. Some are mental maneuvers, less clear and less tangible — “this is not my issue,” or “who, me?” Women try to get out of the race — “I can’t win this one.” And,some are stuck, immobilized by opposing forces — “dare I care — dare I not?” Still others equivocate, going back and forth seeking different methods to relieve their ambivalence.

                        ***

Mark Twain once wrote, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Well, for contemporary women, it’s just not that simple. It is time to recognize that the disquieting emotions women feel about their changing looks are reflections of a deeper, more complex experience than what has traditionally and automatically been labeled as superficial vanity. We all need to accept the reality that our sense of well-being is at least partly invested in the face we present to the world. Our appearance matters in spite of, and perhaps even because of, all the advances that have led us to live long and productive lives.

Let’s face it: looking and feeling great matters at every age, and it is time to bring this topic into the conversations among smart and thoughtful women.

Excerpted from “Face It,” by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., and Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Hay House.

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