The fashion and cosmetics industry has created unattainable images of youthful beauty. It’s a standard of perfection that defies the reality of women’s real-life bodies. Growing up in the ’60s, my image of beauty was embodied by Peggy Lipton, the Mod Squad’s gorgeous, groovy female “fuzz” and Twiggy, whose stick-like physique was a far cry from my more zaftig curves. My generation proclaimed, “Never trust anyone over 30.” And so I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Iris Apfel, a 91-year-old design iconoclast, was the face of a MAC cosmetics line–splashy shades of bold bright lipsticks, with names like Pink Pigeon and Flamingo Lustre. The idea that a woman–10 years shy of being a centenarian, can represent beauty and the pinnacle of fashion was until recently, unimaginable.
As I approach my 54th birthday, I find myself reflecting on my own aging appearance: more wrinkles, an increasingly saggy neck, and numerous grey hairs that stubbornly appear just hours after my one-process hair coloring. On the other hand, I find that I’m embracing a broader definition of beauty. It’s a matter of knowing how truly ephemeral life can be. I feel thankful that my body is able enough to hike on the Appalachian Trail, do a downward dog, and enjoy an occasional Zumba class. Aging, with all its narcissistic injuries, can also provide the gift of appreciation.
A generation ago, Lucille Ball, the beloved comedienne suggested, “The secret to aging is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” While many women still heed this advice, there are others, an increasingly vocal generation, who embrace aging with renewed vitality – and a more nuanced definition of beauty. At a recent “Better after 50” party, I heard stories of women who were widowed, divorced, battling cancer, and newly unemployed. At the same time, these women were starting their own businesses, writing blogs, training for marathons, and pursuing passions that had been dormant for years. We shared beauty tips (many were shocked to hear I had never tried eye cream) and confessed that shoehorning one’s butt into a pair of Spanx still beats trying to lose five pounds.
In my work as a social worker, I help families care for their parents and loved ones. Often, I am struck by how many women express fears about their own aging. “If I ever end up in a nursing home, just shoot me” an adult daughter recently confided as she reflected upon her mother’s spiraling health crisis. Personally, I’m not so afraid of aging and infirmity these days–perhaps thanks to my father. Despite suffering with dementia for over 10 years, he is remarkably sanguine about life in the nursing home. My father has taught me that quality of life can persevere despite a devastating illness and that the profound capacity to give and receive love need not be extinguished by dementia. My mother, who tends to my dad with daily visits – feeding him, shaving him, and dancing with him in his wheelchair – continues to sustain and enrich my father‘s life and bring out his smile. So it’s no surprise that as my father gazes on my mother and the lines that etch her 83-year-old face, he sees only her beauty.
As another birthday approaches, I think how my parents continue to be role models for me as I age. I also think about Iris Apfel, whose cheery flamboyance proclaims a new image of aging and beauty. If companies such as MAC can embrace the beauty of an aging face, those sinewy creases that hint at life’s anguishes and joys, then the next generation of women in line to join the ranks of seniors, should do so too–unapologetically, and with a bright flashy flamingo lustre smile.
previously printed in the Huffington Post