A wrinkle in time: Twenty years after ‘The Beauty Myth,’ Naomi Wolf addresses The Aging Myth


“The Beauty Myth,” by Naomi Wolf, became an international bestseller when it was released 20 years ago. (Grant Delin/For The Washington Post)
May 27, 2011

Recently, I was at a party, and a man who, like myself, was in his late 40s, arrived with a woman 20 years younger. It took only a few moments of conversation before the rest of the group realized that the two had very little in common. And yet I did not feel the frisson of envy among the men present, nor did I see a bristle of jealousy from any of the stylish, accomplished women in their 40s. In fact, the mood of both genders was tender, almost pitying. The man may have imagined that he was showing off the youth of his date the way he might show off a new Maserati; but parading her around like an acquisition seemed only to make his friends feel sorry for him.

I had thought that getting older would be harder. The common cultural script tells us that women lose value as they age and that men will trade in their counterparts for younger versions (because, of course, that would be trading up). Middle-aged women are supposed to face the loss of their youthful selves with grief and anguish.

I look around at the magnetic and dynamic women my own age, I look at my own life, and instead that script seems more like a convenient fiction — designed, as so many aspects of “the beauty myth” are, to make women feel less powerful; in this case, just when their power, magnetism and sexuality are at their height.

***


(Grant Delin/For The Washington Post)

Twenty years ago, in “The Beauty Myth,” I argued that as feminism took hold and women gained new access to power, popular ideals of beauty were being used to undermine them. Ideals of femininity, such as the Victorian-era “Angel in the House” and the 1950s domesticity Betty Friedan attacked in “The Feminine Mystique,” tend to arise as a means of constraining women anew after each major step forward.

When my book was published in 1991, I noted that a burgeoning epidemic of eating disorders was engulfing what should have been the feistiest, most confident generation of women ever. The field of cosmetic surgery, especially breast implant procedures, was booming. Pornography was chipping away at young women’s sexual self-esteem just as insult-ridden advertisements for anti-aging creams were shaping the way women thought about the experience of getting older. The way we looked determined our value to society.

Since then, many of the issues I warned about have, indeed, gotten worse. The body size of fashion models and starlets has dropped still further; fashion ads showcase women who look as if they should be hospitalized. The technologies of cosmetic surgery have become so commonplace that there are communities in which women with unreconstructed faces are seen as bucking the norm. Breast surgery is almost universal in pornography, and pornography is almost universal in the sexual coming-of-age of both young women and young men; those images now have greater impact than they did when I wrote the book.

One would have thought that with all of this trending “worse” that the fear of aging would be worse, as well. But despite these pressures, a substantial subset of women are simply not buying the hype. In 2004, beauty brand Dove commissioned an international study to see how women felt about themselves and what it meant to be beautiful. Their results demonstrated that about 17 percent of women felt more trapped than ever by the ideals of attractiveness; about 53 percent have good days and bad days. The rest, about 30 percent, are “change agents” who are defining beauty for themselves.

Today, the notion that beauty ideals are socially constructed, manipulated by advertisers and marketed for profit motives is part of the conventional wisdom, not a fringe argument. Smart advertisers for beauty products court women’s raised confidence, and few use the hectoring, insulting tone of the early ’90s, when anti-age cream manufacturers would refer to wrinkles as “lesions” and aging as a “disease,” and the standard ad image was a barely middle-aged woman looking, stricken, into her mirror, as if finding her first wrinkle was the equivalent of getting word of a terminal illness.

The rhetoric today is focused on being as healthy as possible, whatever one’s size, rather than attaining an artificially low body weight. Celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson use this language of fitness, rather than thinness, in talking about their weight goals. There is also a new skepticism among women of all ages about the role of the old gatekeepers of the beauty myth. Fashion arbiters such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour used to set a bar for style; today, there is a far greater sense that what you see on the street, in surfing the Web, in a friend’s delightful outfit, is just as powerful. A co-worker who has let her hair go fabulously gray in a flattering cut, or wears enchantingly offbeat glasses, can be as great an influence as the September issue of Vogue. Fashion brands and magazines are now simply a subset of the many influences around women, competing for their attention rather than dictating how they should look and, more dangerously, how they should feel.

The fear of aging was certainly bad when I was 26. When “The Beauty Myth” was published, girls were still learning that they would, like hothouse flowers, bloom briefly in their late teens to mid-20s. After that? Well, it was a steady decline, as the power we derived from our physical appearance dwindled. Our only hope to hang on to an increasingly precarious sexuality and sense of self-esteem lay in magical potions and powders, or perhaps in the surgeon’s hands. Older women were encouraged to see their younger counterparts as threats and usurpers, and young women were expected to see the women who should have been their mentors and role models as faded has-beens, harbingers of their own future decay.

I personally expected that when I entered the middle of my life, I would start to mourn my youthful physical self and that, even though I had thought long and hard about the dangers of the beauty myth, I would feel a sense of existential loss of self when my appearance began to change.

But I am coming out with this and hope that many midlife women will join me: Those pangs of loss have largely not happened. Not for me and not for the women I know and admire.

When I am at a social occasion, the showstoppers are no longer the young beauties in their 20s. Rather, those who draw all the light in the room are the women of great accomplishment and personal charisma — and these are usually women in midlife. (Indeed, at events I have attended recently, cadres of conventionally beautiful young women seem now to be treated almost like wallpaper or like the catering staff.)

The change in social norms around the issue of women’s aging is immense. There is now an influential and growing demographic of educated, well-off women whose status, sense of self-esteem and sexual cachet rise rather than fall as they head toward midlife. I do not see younger women looking at accomplished women in their 40s with pity or derision: I see them looking ahead with admiration and even envy.

The archetype of the Evil Queen and Sleeping Beauty has been laid to rest. Many older women no longer see younger women as rivals in the same way. “I have empathy for them,” said one 54-year-old psychologist. “I want to mentor younger women, not compete with them,” remarked another friend, a 48-year-old photographer. These women liked themselves far more in midlife than they had at an earlier age, and the older women saw younger women struggling with the same issues of self-awareness they had faced in their own youth.

Because of advances in health and well-being awareness, many women I know are entering midlife feeling as good as (and looking better than) they did in college. But they also have professional success, self-knowledge, sexual magnetism and awareness, and even thriving children, admiring husbands or ardent lovers. These signs of accomplishment merely add to the allure of many midlife women — women who, when asked if they would like to be in their 20s again, think of doing so with a shudder.

Certainly some men my age still date or marry younger, as our friend at the party sought to do; but in my own circles, at least, it is considered more macho for a man to have an accomplished woman his own age on his arm. His ego, it is understood, can take it. When I asked my single male peers why they were dating or having relationships with women their own ages rather than younger women, I heard variants of this: “Today, someone isn’t less cool as she gets older. She is just as cool or cooler. And, if a woman is taking care of herself, there isn’t really a difference sexually between a younger and an older woman — except that the older woman is more comfortable with herself and more sure of herself.” As one eligible man in his mid-40s put it, laughing, when he described why he was only attracted to women his own age, “I get a brain and a body!”

It is true that “taking care of herself” is not an insignificant issue. But that kind of self-care is not about being enslaved to external “beauty myth” pressures: It is about loving yourself, valuing your unique body and looking after it accordingly.

***

At midlife, the social “script” insists that we’re supposed to adopt a rueful tone — Oh, that first crow’s-foot, that first strand of gray. It’s simply more acceptable for women to be self-deprecating about the signs of aging. But when was the last time you heard an older woman say, in public — “Actually, getting older is more than tolerable — it’s great!” Let alone: “I really like it.”

So, at the risk of sounding socially incorrect, I am going to deviate from that script, and I invite all women of a certain age to join me. A great many of us don’t feel particularly wistful or rueful about our earlier physical selves. A great many of us really like where we are.

I like where I am.

Sure, I am startled when I forget to put a color rinse in my hair, and I look into the bathroom mirror and see a sheen of gray. But I look at it with a kind of gentle curiosity: So that is what that will be like! Certainly, it takes more effort at the gym to maintain a certain level of fitness. But at midlife, you also know what an incredible gift a healthy body is. And while I don’t love working harder for an outcome, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for a body that can move and hike and swim, seduce and be seduced, be exhilarated and overjoyed, and all of this in the blessing of being free of serious illness. A 59-year-old teacher said: “I’d rather look great for who I am than try to look 19. I feel happier in my skin than I did when I was younger.”

I asked a therapist who works with midlife women, “In your experience, is it true or not true that women get depressed about their appearance as they get older?”

“It is a myth,” she said. “You know more about staying fit. You know more about what feels good to wear. You are more able to like the way you look.”

There are many other delightful surprises about being at this stage on the journey. I don’t miss the brutal sexual harassment that young women receive from men — and I love the far gentler flirtation or civil compliments from cab drivers and park chess players my own age or older. On the street, young women are told: Give me some. Older women hear: I love your eyes. That is not a bad trade.

I know — finally — what I like to wear and am comfortable not bothering with what I don’t. I love not being in physical competition with other women. I love being able to appreciate the beauty of other women and feeling appreciated myself — and appreciating myself.

To anxious young women, I want to say what I wish more older women had said to my generation: Relax, enjoy the journey and do not worry about the future. There are no wicked witches. It is all good. Really, really good.

And it only gets better.

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