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Worrying about getting older might be worse than actually getting older

Worrying about the future can thwart present happiness. (iStock)

For the December issue of Vanity Fair, the British author Zadie Smith completed a Proust Questionnaire, which asked: What do you dislike most about your appearance?

“I like it all,” replied Smith, 41. “Self-hatred is for younger, prettier women.”

Fashion designer Norma Kamali shared a similar sentiment with Allure in September, asserting that age does not bring inevitable decline.

“The perfect image in the fashion industry is that maybe five- to six-year period of time in a woman’s life when her skin has no age on it when she’s really the most insecure,” the 71-year-old said. “The irony is I feel more pretty today than I did then.”

Smith and Kamali both dismissed society’s beauty standards, driver of the $140 billion global anti-aging market. But their outlooks are not unique (or reserved for those with especially resilient DNA). New research from Florida State University suggests women in their 20s worry more about their looks than women in their 50s and that fixation dampens the younger set’s emotional well-being.

Our youth-obsessed culture teaches girls that time zaps their worth, said co-author Anne Barrett, director of FSU’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy. That “affects not only older women, who are challenged with avoiding ageism,” according to the study, published this month in the Journal of Women and Aging, “but also younger and middle-aged women, who are faced with negative and potentially anxiety-producing images of their possible futures as devalued older women.”

Barrett drew this conclusion from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, which seeks to measure how people see themselves over time. The MIDUS data showed that the youngest respondents, 25 to 35, were eight times as likely to report anxiety about declining attractiveness as women in the 66-to-74 bracket. This particular source of aging anxiety, Barrett found, drops with maturity.

The researchers analyzed the responses of 872 women, ages 25 to 74. Each filled out the survey once between 1995 and 1996 and again 10 years later. They were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, how strongly they felt a range of emotions, including happiness, sadness, peacefulness and hopelessness. They also rated their anxiety around attractiveness and health, as well as self-assessed physiological changes and their perception of how “old” they had gotten.  

Barrett found young women experienced greater unease about declines in health and appearance, which flattened their moods. Older women, however, tended to feel younger than their birth certificate stated, which enhanced their psychological health.

In other words: Young women’s apprehension of their future body, and the way people might react to it, appeared to bring them down.

“But as women got older, getting ‘over the hill,’ they became more satisfied with perceptions of their body,” Barrett said. “They focused more on functioning than appearance. Their priorities changed.”

The young women, however, worried less about deteriorating health. Those ages 36 to 45 exhibited the most pronounced health-based concerns. “Perhaps because they have begun dealing with their parents’ or their own health issues,” she said.

Barrett cautions the study focuses on women of relative privilege. The participants' average income was $60,000, and most had earned a college degree. Older women in poverty might report unhappier outcomes. They are more likely to approach retirement age with little financial cushion, and previous research has found that age discrimination tends to be worse for women.

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