Many women are defying their age and embracing their looks

IT’S obviously a First World problem — but within the context we live in, continually bombarded by mass media “anti-ageing” messages, how do we deal with the loss of our youthful looks as we still live on for decades afterwards?

It’s a question being voiced more frequently as this generation of ‘baby boomers’ — those born between 1946-1964 — are living longer and healthier lives than their parents.

It’s not as superficial as it sounds, as the mismatch between feeling vital physically and mentally, while being told by society that ageing is unattractive, is creating a type of identity “panic” among post-menopausal women, according to 60-year-old New York-based psychologist, Dr Vivian Diller.

And with 65-year-old women in Ireland now expected to live an extra 19 years, based on the CSO’s Measuring Ireland’s Progress report(2012), they may be counted among those “smart and wise women” who, she says, have to address this issue.

Admitting that appearance matters can be painful — women can be “slightly insulted by the fact” — after fighting so hard for the past several decades to “put looks on the back burner” and define themselves by their accomplishments, says Diller.

“But let’s face it — we live in the real world and looking and feeling great matters at every age,” she says.

Prior to this, our mothers might not have expected to live beyond a decade after the menopause. And they certainly didn’t have the options to get work done on themselves, apart from colouring their hair.

Now we have emerging baby boomer icons still intelligent, active, involved in society and looking good, contradicting the outmoded view of ageing which silently suggests “giving up”.

“One of the dilemmas facing women now is what I call the beauty paradox,” says Diller. “Do women defy the ageing process by desperately trying to turn back the clock, or do they grow old ‘naturally’ by not doing anything?” Neither extreme needs to be the case, she argues, but whatever they choose, should come from a place within, where they have made peace with themselves about the inevitability of growing older.

A former ballet dancer and model, Diller became interested in what happens to a person “who ages out of their career” and did her PhD thesis on this subject; this led to a book called Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change, which was published three years ago.

For 20 years she has specialised in helping women deal with the emotions brought up by their changing appearance and now also advises beauty corporations on altering their anti- ageing bias.

She argues that just as adolescence is a transition of letting go of childhood and moving on to adulthood, so is the menopause and after; mourning needs to take place.

“It’s important to mourn — to let go of the attachment to youthful self image which resonates with the core of your identity and replace it with a new definition, rather than ‘it’s over’. This loss is rarely talked about among women — the letting go of that psychological equation that equates youth with beauty, rather than owning their attractiveness, which is fluid and changeable.”

She tells the beauty corporations she advises that older women no longer want to deal with advertising geared towards “smooth unlined perfection”, but rather that products “prolong the vitality” of their skin; that clothing reflects their changing figure; and that the menopause is a ‘transition’ not an ending.

Ultimately, each woman needs to find to find her own path to become comfortable in her own skin, literally: Diller admits she is “part of that generation who have used drastic measures”, quoting the controversial unflattering plastic surgery sported by actresses Goldie Hawn, 68, and Kim Novak, 81, at this year’s Oscars, as “not a good solution”.

However, she points to some other high profile role models she admires who are not “doing dramatic things” to their faces, such as Meryl Streep, 65, Helen Mirren, 69, Hillary Clinton, 66 and Arianna Huffington, 54.

“In the midst of all this we are seeing a wave of women who instead of using those drastic measures are looking at other options — staying fit though exe rcise, drinking less, eating well and wearing clothes and hairstyles that bring out their best qualities, rather than trying to appear younger.”

Diller says she herself felt “turning 60 was a great birthday” and she looks forward to her 70th and 80th.

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