Beauty of a Certain Age
Newsflash! According to the New York Times, the holy grail for beauty for executive women is “eternal early middle age.” As if working women everywhere did not have enough to worry about, it is now crucial to achieve the “cosmetic sweet spot: old enough to command respect, yet fresh enough to remain vital.”
Phew, I am on trend. At 50, I am situated right smack in the middle of the ideal 45-55 age range. But I am closing in on 51. Only 4 more years left to remain vital! Only 4 more years to chase whatever elusive career goal I have been chasing. I still don’t have a corner office.
Maybe I never will.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
When I first started working in the business world, I was very proud and eager to succeed. I worked hard and moved up quickly. I started managing people well before I was 30 and felt I needed to look older in order to command respect. At 25, I was sometimes the only woman in the conference room which usually meant there was an expectation that I would clear the coffee cups. I was determined to look the part of a successful executive woman and not be the one waiting on the older executive men. Hello shoulder pads!
When I moved to a glamorous company in a senior managerial role, at 35, the first thing I did was makeover my image to be more sophisticated. Perhaps if I looked the role, I would prove that I belonged in the role. I bought new clothes with the help of a personal shopper and updated my hairstyle and took care with my makeup. My anxiety about whether or not I would be successful in this job was fixated on “looking right.”
When I was brave enough to ask for and talented enough to get a 4-day workweek after the birth of my son, I made the mistake of not cutting back on my shopping. You see, I was still ambitious for the corner office. Still optimistic that I would get promotions and salary raises, advancing in my career and paying for my shopping crutch. Still anxious that I needed to look a certain way in order to succeed, I filled up my insecurity with expensive clothes that the saleswoman picked out for me, because I did not trust my own taste to find my own style. As I spent more money, I became more secretive with my shopping expeditions, hiding the packages in the back of my closet. Of course this story ended badly. My husband found my credit card bill and was shocked. Rightly so. It was shocking. I had to take out a loan to pay it off and return to a 5-day workweek. I jeopardized my marriage and squandered my precious time, precious time with my children, just to “look right.”
When “early middle age” hit (newsflash, it’s not eternal) and I realized that I was not going to achieve the corner office (and didn’t really want to chase after it any more anyway), and that it mattered what I did not what I wore, and that my kids were quickly growing up, I went to the other extreme. Rather than cover up my gently sagging skin with more makeup and rejuvenating injections, I now wear less makeup than ever, barely managing a swipe of lipstick. I don’t want to spend money or time on extravagant trendy clothing or weekly manicures. What little disposable income I have now goes to the college fund. And my gray hair? So far, I don’t have a lot so I don’t color it. I refuse to color it. I’ve spent my whole life dressing up as someone I thought I should be. Now I just want to be me.
I feel sad and somewhat dismayed by how much time, money, effort and energy we women spend on our appearance. When young, we are so afraid we don’t deserve our job. When middle aged, we are so afraid we will lose our job to a younger, more stylish and up-to-date competitor. We are so preoccupied with other women and their appearance, judging them on how they look and not always on what they accomplish.
I am not naïve. I know attractive people tend to be better liked and more successful. I know that feeling good about how I look can help me feel and behave more confidently. I know that if I had the money and the time and the corner office, I might gladly be swayed to spend it on rejuvenating treatments. And who knows what I will do when I hit “late middle age.” It’s easy to be defiant, even disdainful, when you still feel in your prime.
But surely there is something to be said for a woman of a certain age. She has lived and loved and learned who she is. She has experience to share. She has earned her gray hair, her wider hips, her worry lines and her laugh lines.
I remember when Botox first became accessible for cosmetic use about ten years ago and thinking how strange it will be if no one’s face ages and no one’s face shows emotion. At that time I decided I did not want to succumb to Botox but wondered if I would be able to stick with that decision as I got older. My mother had a facelift after surgery left her with an ugly scar on her neck. I was surprised that my beautiful-to-me mother felt the need to look younger and prettier…more vital. If my mother couldn’t stand “late middle age,” how was I going to cope with it?
For now, the role models I admire are many. Annie Lennox baring her face and her soul, when she was 48, on her solo album Bare. Cyndi Lee embracing her gray hair in May I Be Happy. Jamie Lee Curtis writing empowering children’s books on self-esteem and discussing body image with More. Hillary Clinton, whose hair is still making the news and whose accomplishments are truly impressive. Perhaps the best role models of all are my beautiful middle-aged friends (early, middle, and late) who still dance at the ballet barre or ace their serve on the tennis court or stand on their heads in the yoga studio or rule the executive suite or cherish their families. My beautiful middle-aged friends awe me every day with their love, courage, resilience, intelligence, humor and grace. Beautiful because of their wrinkles earned from living life.
When I look in the mirror, I visualize the same face I’ve always seen in my mind. But when I really look in the mirror, and see, really see my face – I see the dark circles, the loosening skin, the mottled complexion with “age spots.” I see the jowls (yes, jowls!). I see the wrinkles. I also see my clear and hopeful eyes that are no longer too shy to make eye contact with anyone, not even with me.