By Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick and Dr. Vivian Diller
February 16, 2010
Though we came of age in a post-feminist time, women still seem tethered to a single dispiriting message: "Beauty equals youth, and youth equals beauty." Advertisers sell products and services suggesting that you can be beautiful if you just deny aging, defy aging or at least slow it down.
Women today are in a quandary. When the AARP polled those 50 and older to ask what was the most important factor in attaining well-being at midlife, women chose "inner beauty." Yet in 2008, the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported a 162 percent increase in the number of cosmetic procedures performed in the United States since 1997, with women ages 51 to 64 accounting for most of them. Any way you do that math, it doesn't add up.
If women are paying lip service to the notion of inner beauty, yet are opting in huge numbers for short-term exterior fix-its, clearly they're responding to something outside their comfort zone. You have to recognize that the blaring cultural message itself is not responsible for the power you give it. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." While you can't change the physical process of aging, which is inevitable, you can change your experience of aging by identifying what you are feeling, why you are feeling it and what you can do about it.
It is important to begin by recognizing how what you see as the diminution of your beauty limits you in various ways. We call these uh-oh moments, and they can be telling wake-up calls.
Look at what your behavior is telling you. If you go past a clothing store but never venture inside, is it because you don't like what's in the window or because you are thinking you would feel foolish trying on clothes? If you are 40 and trying still to look 20, you may indeed appear foolish; but if you're a self-aware, confident 40-year-old, you can wear anything you want. Are you avoiding taking a gym class because you are fearful that you'll be the "old lady" in the room? By never trying, you never have a chance to change that perception.
How many times a day are you self-critical? Many women relentlessly chastise themselves about shortcomings that connect to what they consider waning beauty: "I should lose weight," "I should exercise more," "My skin is sagging," "My hair is thinning." Any of those inner dialogs sound familiar? The feelings of inadequacy that result from this endless litany can erode your self-esteem to the point that they immobilize you and become self-perpetuating.
How much is your world narrowing because of your negative self-image? When you hear someone say, "I'm planning a new career," "I took a trip to Buenos Aires to take tango lessons" or describe another pursuit that sounds tantalizing, do you ever consider doing the same? If not, why not? If you have the means, the energy, the credentials and the will for such an adventure, do you refrain because you think you look old and unattractive?
When women feel that they are losing their looks, they are often stunned to find themselves re-experiencing the same insecurities as they did in adolescence. Yes, for many otherwise successful and evolved women, 50 is the new 15. But though it can feel the same, it is important to realize now is not then. Now, you can overcome your insecurities with an arsenal of other attributes and resources. The remedies should not be endured but embraced.
In our book Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change (Hay House, 2010), we offer a six-step psychological process, but some overall guidelines include:
Give yourself a corrective experience. Don't let your fears get the upper hand. It is unlikely someone will laugh if you are the worst one in the art class or you cannot scale a rock wall or whatever else you have been too afraid to try. Even if they do, trust that it will not sting in the same way. Unlike your adolescent self, you may even be laughing along with them.
Don't fix yourself. Instead, nurture yourself. The notion of "fixing yourself" works against your self-esteem, but nurturing expands it. If you don't like how your skin looks, treat yourself to a moisturizer or a facial—or a visit to the dermatologist, for that matter. Help yourself feel the way you would like to feel in a completely positive way. Instead of being self-critical, be self-interested.
Expand your definition of yourself beyond what you see in the mirror. Don't try to deny, avoid or minimize the loss of your looks—mourn and acknowledge it—but recognize that you are the sum of your experience. See all those qualities when you look at yourself, and exploit them: Volunteer, follow a passion, and develop a skill. Instead of seeing yourself as becoming invisible, make yourself more vibrant. Bottom line: See yourself as more, rather than less!
Dr. Vivian Diller , is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Prior to becoming a therapist, Dr. Diller was a professional ballet dancer with the Cincinnati Ballet Company and a model represented by Wilhelmina Models. She left modeling in the late 1970s to begin her PhD in clinical psychology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University. After completing her PhD, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. As a psychologist, she often works with young adults, specializing in helping dancers, models, actors and athletes as they leave their youth-oriented professions.
Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick , a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in New York City, is a former Ford model who also did television and film work. Dr. Muir-Sukenick, who also received her PhD from NYU, often treats models in her private practice. She has been a consultant to modeling agencies and the beauty industry.