In Up In the Air, the spunky, young, female worker bee says to the sultry, older, female airborne bee, "I really appreciate everything your generation did for me." The older woman pauses, as if to fully absorb the meaning of her words, then graciously replied, "It was our pleasure." A backhanded compliment or true gratitude for the path that has been paved for contemporary women?
Surely, we can take credit for creating a culture that in many ways has gotten us away from traditional female roles. "I Work Hard for My Money" has replaced "I Feel Pretty" as the theme song in our modern-day mirrors. We have more professional opportunities, greater financial independence and generally more freedom in how we live our lives. We are raised to expect we will be admired for our abilities and accomplishments and that our appearances will take a back seat to more sustainable attributes. No small thing, considering our lives will extend much longer than ever before. Weren't we the generation who planned to be forever young? We intend to be vital and productive at least into our 80s, and if science continues on course, even well into our 90s, right?
In which case, women today face a unique challenge as we try to reconcile these new prospects and increased potential with everything that came before. Let's remember for millions of years our primary goal was to procreate, a biological imperative that continues to pull us back to our original function as females in society. It wasn't that long ago that a woman's currency was based on her ability to attract a mate who could take care of her. And, in spite of our hard-earned freedoms and enlightened attitudes, we are still governed by our biological and cultural roots—not as easily removed as our gray ones.
Millions of baby boomer women, now hitting middle age and beyond, are heading full speed into a collision course created by these conflicting forces: the post-feminist movement, our basic biological urges and a culture obsessed by youth and beauty. It's as if we have one foot on the accelerator (we can have it all) and one on the break (don't dare look our age) and the gears go crunch as we experience a crisis of identity. Call it the "no-way-to-be-perfect storm," leaving otherwise stable, strong women feeling unanchored as they come to terms with their aging appearances.
Powerful, successful women are breaking all sorts of barriers and crashing higher glass ceilings. Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Diane Sawyer, to name a few, are living the feminist dream, showing us how make it on our own. Clearly, we no longer need men to be successful, even if we chose to have them by our side. But can we (or should we?) ever stop caring how we look while doing all that crashing and breaking? Some women appear to have struck a good balance, but many others are struggling to find their equilibrium. We may admire these role models, or reach success ourselves, but what does it mean if we are simultaneously grabbing up books like How Not to Look Old and Marry Him? Too many women are fearful of losing ground and seeking desperate measures to remain in a race we never expected we'd be running. One need only look at the rising numbers of women—and they get younger and younger, undergoing repeated plastic surgeries—to know we are lost and confused.
Women of all ages want answers about how to walk the line between incompatible feminine urges. We want to have it all, be productive and active as we age, but look good and youthful along the way. We want to enjoy all that a woman can now be, but we have to deal with what we biologically are programmed to be. If we learn to identify and negotiate between these forces, perhaps we can successfully look and feel good as we age. And then, when some spunky young woman thanks us once more for what our generation did for her, we can say, "It wasn't easy, but it was our pleasure."
Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Changeby Vivian Diller, PhD, with Jill Muir-Sukenick, PhD, and edited by Michele Willens is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. As models-turned-psychotherapists, Diller and Sukenick have had the opportunity to examine the world of beauty from two very different vantage points. This unique perspective helped them develop a six-step program that begins with recognizing "uh-oh" moments that reveal the reality of changing looks, goes on to identify the masks used to cover deeper issues and ends with bidding adieu to old definitions of beauty, so women can enjoy their appearance—at any age!