aging · body image

Women who care most about their looks have the toughest time aging

I love the photo of Lauren Bacall that was circulating among friends on various social media last week. It’s the on the right below. True, the mainstream media seemed to stick with the classic movie star Bacall of more than 50 years ago, like the one the left, but I liked this older image too. She looks to have character.


Bacall age 20 on the left, 88 on the right
Bacall: ‘Your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that.’

It’s tough for women, aging in a society that equates youth and beauty and that values beauty in women so highly.

From Psychology Today: Aging presents a particular challenge for women’s appearance self-esteem because with each passing year, the media define their beauty as fading away. Cleopatra may have been able to avoid this fate, according to Shakespeare’s play, in which it was said, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” For the rest of us, though, our seeming fate is to wither away steadily—at least according to our current representations of aging women. And women high on appearance-contingent self-worth will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of aging in a society that equates youth with attractiveness.

According to the Psychology Today piece it’s women who care the most about looks who have the hardest time coping with aging. That’s not a surprise.

In my blog post about body shame, Loving the body you’ve got: Body positivity and queer community, I speculated that aging is harder for those who’ve lived most of their lives successfully within mainstream beauty norms.

Being thin doesn’t seem to help with body shame either. Often it’s my thin friends who are the worst, especially as we age. It’s like they’ve never had to think about these things, to worry about how they look, until now. And I’ve been thinner too and I haven’t felt less anxious or less self conscious at a smaller size. In a weird way it’s worse. In the game of looks, I’m then ‘in.’ and it matters more. Better to be outside of those beauty norms all the way maybe.

That’s true for anxiety about weight. Most of the angsty hand wringing posts about body image are written by women who are actually within the normal weight range, it seems to me. My fat friends don’t agnst so much. The downside of being inside the borders of normative beauty/body size, is I think continual anxiety about status.

I have three thoughts about this stuff.

First, we should expand the boundaries of beauty. See, for example, some of the ideas in Ten ways to feel better about looks and aging.

“Throw away your conventional, media-defined ideals of beauty. You’re not going to change society’s definition of beauty, but you can change your own. Don’t focus on the beauty you see in ads but, instead, to the beauty you see in the real-life people you admire.”

I also like to remind myself that many of the people I find beautiful don’t match society’s standards of what counts. Find older people you find attractive and think of them when you need to push past the idea that beauty ends at 30, 40, 50 or whatever silly age you have in mind.

Second, we should care less than we do about beauty anyway. I know lots of women who seem more obsessed with clothes, hair, make up, etc as they age. They’re worried about “letting themselves go”–heaven forbid. But I think caring more sets you up on an anxious, downward spiral. It’s time to care about things that matter much more than looks, such as character and having happy, healthy relationships.

Define yourself in ways other than how you look. Make your self-esteem contingent on your inner, not outer qualities. Focus on what you like about your abilities, personality, relationships, and perspective on the world. These almost invariably show improvement over time and are often more changeable than facial or bodily features.”

This blog post, Not Everyone is Beautiful, made me smile and it made me think.

Nobody says, “Everybody has a pleasant laugh.” Nobody says, “Everyone is athletic to somebody.” Nobody says, “You are an amazing writer, whether you know it or not.” I keep waiting, but they never say it.

Beauty is the only trait that everyone gets free access to. Why?

Because we have created a culture that values beauty above all other innate traits…for women, at least. Men are generally valued by their success, which is seen as a result of talent and hard work, despite how much it depends on luck and knowing the right people.

But women are pretty much a one-note instrument. Society says, you’re hot, or you’re not. Your looks affect your choice of mate, the friends you have, and even your job. And this factor that will affect every part of your life is something you have next to no control over.

Third, caring less about beauty doesn’t mean caring less about looks. Really, what most of us care about is having people, particular people, find us attractive. But that’s not beauty.

Again in the post on body image, I wrote:

Think about it this way, it doesn’t make any sense to think about being attractive simpliciter.  What exactly would that mean? There’s only attractive to particular people.

Whatever you look like I can assure you there’s someone out there who thinks that thing that you have is THE thing to which they’re attracted. In the world of the internet there’s probably even a group for women with big breasts who like to wear neon green bras and the men and women who love them.

So when friends say. I don’t look attractive when I’m this size, my first response is to wonder to whose standards they’re appealing. Who is the person who would like them but doesn’t because they’re too fat?

Mostly when straight women say they just want to look attractive they mean to look attractive to men. But still I wonder, which men?

The desires of men who like women are far more diverse than the world of men’s magazines would ever have you believe. Men whose desires don’t fit-maybe they like hairy legs, or women with crooked teeth, or they’ve got a thing for women with glasses or women in their fifties on motorbikes –are hurt by gender role stereotyping and hetero conformity too.  Don’t believe me about the diversity of heterosexual male desire, read John DeVore‘s The Types Of Women That Really Turn Us On over at The Frisky.

There are men who like fat women, men who like muscles, women who like bald men, men who like men who are really hairy, women who think men wearing socks with sandals are the hottest (okay, maybe not that one) etc. My point is that it’s a wild weird world out there in terms of attraction.

Once you start thinking this way you realize that men who like skinny 18 year old blondes just have a particularly boring, mainstream fetish. You can kind of accept it, yawn, and move on. Oh, right, youth. Hmm. He likes thin women. That. That’s his thing. Ho hum. Too bad for him.

You can even work up to thinking, in an amended version of a common phrase, your thing is not my thing but your thing is okay, and move on.

And if that’s all he likes, you might even feel sorry for him for leading such a narrow, limited life in a world rich with possibility.

And yes, I know this is isn’t the whole story about body image and insecurity. Often it’s our own standards we don’t live up to. And queer people can struggle with body image as well. But to the extent that it’s about worrying that someone will find you attractive, I urge you to put that worry on the shelf, close the door, and say goodbye.

I hesitated when writing the above passage about using the word “fetish” but I did so because mainstream beauty standards are hard on men too. I’ve been writing a fair bit on this blog about men and the ways in which sexism limits their lives too. See here and here and here and here. There’s pretty strong indoctrination into what you’re supposed to like if you’re a guy. First, women. And then particular sorts of women. Not enough to be straight, to really meet the demands of normative masculinity you have to like the right sort of women. There’s lots of first person accounts of guys faking liking skinny young things around their friends, but having their fantasy lives run in another direction altogether.

So it’s normal to like young women and thin women and so on. Everything else gets labelled a fetish.

For all of our sakes, it’s time to move past it and revel in the rich diversity of human desire for all of our sakes.

9 thoughts on “Women who care most about their looks have the toughest time aging

  1. I agree with everything you say. I know there are lots of attributes I find sexy in women. I know I like smart, strong women. I know I like large breasted women. I know, I know, I know…. But the truth is I for one, and I’m just a straight guy who’s fairly normal in my tastes (or so I think) – I’m attracted to many women who objectively would be considered to be very different types – physically, emotionally and personality-wise. I think most people are actually built this way, unless they are very prejudiced or perhaps let their prejudices get the better of them.

  2. In other words, I think who I’m attracted to is so diverse, I’m not even sure I like the notion of “types” – I prefer the notion of women – individual women.

  3. ” It’s time to care about things that matter much more than looks, such as character and having happy, healthy relationships.”
    As someone who will be toasting the same “milestone” birthday on the same date as you, those wise words had a resounding effect!

  4. Well written! Women tend to be very critical toward themselves. I have a hard time ageing, mostly because I, as a child, felt ugly. I was a normal child, but just felt ugly. For years. In my late 20s and 30s I have felt good about myself, I think I am pretty. So, I just want to keep that feeling a little longer.
    I am so for building up a good sense of self, to not make the looks define who you are, at the same time, I like to dress up and feel nice.
    We have to stop letting media define what is pretty, so many different body types and faces are gorgeous! Diversity is good!

  5. Hurrah! Finally an amazing article on a touchy topic. I think you are a great writer btw! Very insightful and thought provoking! I will be turning 40 next year and have been struggling with the idea that my looks will gradually begin to decline. I am therefore proactively doing the fillers and Botox but I know that I am being a touch dramatic and that I still look great without it. These are simply my brainwashed mind’s insecurities acting out and I must admit that I am pleased with the results of these little injections. I don’t overdue anything like so many other vain women do. I simply look refreshed. I completely agree with your views on this subject. I have benefited all my life from the way I look. I was even a Playboy bunny 👯 at age 23. I definitely feel that the more beautiful a woman (or man!) is in their prime, the harder it is to accept anything less than perfection. You can’t really miss what you didn’t ever have to begin with!!! That’s actually a whole other set of problems, actually… Always feeling like you have to look your absolute best or you could disappoint everyone by looking human… Anyway, I just wanted to commend you for writing such a fantastic article!! The struggle is real.

  6. This article was written more for single women. What if you’re happily married, have great kids, a great career and you just feel a little bummed out that you’ve lost your looks? I’m 48 and 50 is only 2 years away. I spent my 20s being told I looked like Bridget Bardot; I was HOT. Well, now I’m NOT. I’m a pretty older woman who looks about 35 -37 and I’m successful in every way. I don’t mind aging; it just bums me out a bit bc I’m blending into the background of society. My husband loves me as do my kids and I’m very thankful for that. My husband has lost his looks too and it bothers him too. It’s not just women 🙂 Middle aged people are generally in the dumps.

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