I am a 43-year-old woman. I have been married and soon will be again. I do not have children.
Without sounding like an arrogant jerk, I am very pretty. I have taken this prettiness for granted my whole life while thinking (somewhat hypocritically) that "looks aren't that important." Certainly I have not consciously coasted on my looks -- I have held very senior positions in very well-recognized companies. My looks might not have hurt me in my jobs, but certainly I did not coast to the top of a highly competitive field without something to offer other than a pretty smile.
I've always known that people admire me for my looks; I'd have to be blind and deaf not to perceive my effect on most men. I've always been impatient with women who talk about how "lucky" I am, or men who presume that I can get whatever I want because of my beauty. Even pretty people have to earn a living; even we get taken to task for our capabilities, if we presume to test them, which I have. To that end, I am a well-rounded person -- I read a lot, I recorded an album of acoustic songs and sometimes play at gigs. I am good at a few sports -- very good at one. I am well-traveled, speak a few languages, and I'm a pretty good cook.
So it's been with some surprise that, as I entered my 40s, I have realized that my looks are becoming more, rather than less, important to me. I find myself scrutinizing women all around me -- usually in a critical way. It's horrible -- I don't recognize this voice that has suddenly taken over my head at all. It picks apart young women and derides older women. No woman, it seems, is spared from this internal critical monologue. As for women over 50, forget it. I see them dressed up or getting their hair done at my salon, and I think, "Why does she bother?"
I have always been somewhat "low maintenance" -- no makeup, simple hair, very little fuss. I like nice clothes but I frequently wear jeans and the kind of clothing you can find at REI. I do not dress to call attention to myself, and I've never consciously tried to appear sexy. When the Botox craze first came to light I was horrified that women would do that to themselves. I've always been pretty disdainful of plastic surgery, too.
And now, suddenly, I am buying magazines about just these procedures, surfing the Net late into the night, eagerly looking at all the things I can do to myself to preserve my looks.
I don't understand this at all. It makes me feel miserable about myself. And then I project that misery out onto the world and find myself making up reasons to resent young women and the men who are attracted to them. Which is silly -- I don't blame men my age for being attracted to women half their age. I certainly can appreciate the beauty of a guy half my age. I've dated a few.
Is it death that I am afraid of? Or just aging and losing the power of my beauty, the power of being the center of attention even when I don't seek it? And if it's the latter -- well, why are all of my many accomplishments suddenly not enough?
My boyfriend is two years younger than me. He is very good looking -- but looks his age. I have studied the signs of aging on his face and feel nothing but affection for them. His crow's feet and sun damage do not detract at all from his appeal, in my view. Why can't I relax and assume that other people can be as forgiving toward my signs of aging as I am toward theirs? I find myself very uncomfortable if someone stares at me. Whereas I used to dismiss it as another guy admiring me or trying to get my attention, now what I think is, he's noticing the lines on my forehead, or the way my skin isn't as smooth as it once was.
I read your column regularly and know that if you publish this certain mean men are going to eagerly jump out of the woodwork and gleefully tell me that I am finally getting what's due me, that men don't find women my age attractive ever. The thing is, I don't believe this. I don't believe this and yet I am afraid that it is so, that if every man in the universe were to take a quiz and be totally, totally honest about what kind of woman he'd prefer to be with, he'd pick "young" over any other attribute. But isn't it funny -- I never felt that way when I was young. In my 20s I always felt at a distinct disadvantage around the older, more sophisticated female executives around me. I never took the admiration of the men around me very seriously -- I felt their admiration was quite impersonal, not really directed at me, but at the idea of me. I could have been anyone -- there was nothing personal at all in their regard for me.
So what's causing this terrible antipathy toward aging (and not just aging -- female aging)? Why now? And how do I stop this?
Dear Aging Beauty,
I think this is not so much about death as it is about the loss of social power, and, moreover, the loss of a certain daily vitamin of high regard that sustains and energizes the beautiful.
Most of us are only really lovely for a few short years in childhood. But not so for the beautiful. In the day-to-day world, where most of us lose so much of ourselves and are granted so little in the way of courtesy and love, the pretty person absorbs love out of the air, off the street, in the stores, absorbs love like a child cared for by a loving mother and an adoring family whose faces light up every time she enters the room. The beautiful are constantly absorbing love from the world in a way that is scarcely recognizable to others and even to herself -- for has it not always been this way?
To accuse you of taking this for granted is needlessly unkind: How could you not become accustomed to it? It is not vanity, I don't think, but the lucky satisfaction of a natural need to be loved on contact, just as who we are, just because we are there. To whom does this happen otherwise than the beautiful? Only to children! Only a child can walk into a room and find herself a delight to all, having done nothing, having prepared no performance or recited no lines, just because she is who she is, we turn to her with delight and love.
But of course for most of us this period of automatic love and warmth is very short. We soon find that we are mostly a nuisance, and have to work for every smile of praise. But the beautiful? Go to buy a cup of coffee, walk down the street, sit on an airplane -- yes you are often the object of boorish affections and resentments, but you also receive a constant hidden dividend of high esteem. That is not to say that you have it easy. I do not mean that at all. I believe everything you say about your accomplishments and I do not for an instant think that your life has been all that much easier, only that you have had this more or less constant vibe of approval, of pleasure in the way people regard you.
And then it vanishes! One day the admiring glances cease!
It may have been happening gradually, but you notice it suddenly, in the loss of a table or an overlooked invitation -- We were going to invite you, of course we were, of course, how could you doubt that?
Your notice magnifies it all: Harsh disregard is everywhere now!
You would expect the sudden withdrawal of this wonderful feeling of acceptance to be painful and upsetting. And indeed it is.
So what to do? How to age gracefully? How to adjust to this new world in which your presence is either ignored or treated as a bother, in which your needs are attended to begrudgingly by unconsciously beautiful young things who do not even seem to see you really, who do not even seem to look at you, who make you feel, in a thousand little ways, that you do not belong in their world?
Argh. Well, you could just get plain nasty. You could use your money and prestige to make the lives of others a living hell. There would be some satisfaction in that, you must admit. But it would only make things worse in the long run.
No, I think really what we must do, those of us who experience this jarring shove into irrelevance, this undeserved demotion in the esteem of strangers, what we must do is content ourselves with our pleasures as we find them.
Oh, what a stupid, empty cliché that is! Jesus! Can I do no better than that?
And the truth is, no, not really. I have no solution. This is how it goes. This is youth's revenge. It was ever thus.
What can you do? You used to breathe in high regard from the very air; it used to be what you swam in. Now it is rare, hard to find, you have to seek it out. It is all around you but you have to dig for it. It is in art and music, in the love of friends, in all the other clichés that I now find spilling out of my brain.
You have to find it in your intimates, in your family, in those who love you and will always love you, to whom you will never be anything but spectacular.
"Since You Asked," a collection of your favorite columns by Cary Tennis: On sale now at Cary Tennis Books. Buy now to receive an autographed first edition!
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