Older Women and Beauty

August 22nd, 2017

A recent article by Michelle Smith addressed “tracing our attitudes to older women and beauty.” She cited examples on a rambling path through both praise and derision, and therein lies the problem. The term “older” is completely relative, but for argument sake, let’s say that an older woman is from age 48 and up. Thanks to the boomer generation, there are a whole lot of us around right now, and we’re all being judged on our appearance.

The article reminded me of the first time a library invited me to give a talk about my murder mystery series featuring a menopausal protagonist. I was describing some of my characters, one, in particular, was an “older woman” who was slightly overweight. But as I envisioned her, she was perfectly coifed and made-up and fashionably and elegantly dressed.

I was making the point that, even though society would deem her to be overweight, her impeccable grooming rendered any dissension absurd because overall, she made a stunning appearance, illustrating that we shouldn’t be judged by weight. As I was finishing my point, I heard a shout from the audience.

“That’s your opinion.”

I gazed out to see an “older woman” with long and frizzy gray hair, no make-up and a long and flowing flower-child skirt and gauzy top.

“That’s exactly right,” I responded, feeling somewhat nonplussed by my aging heckler. She had stopped me in my tracks. I had been envisioning my coifed character and the impact she would have on people. But, in reality, that was just her impact on me.

“Make-up and hair dye are not what makes beauty,” declared my floral-skirted heckler. “What you’re saying is ridiculously shallow.”

Wow, that was a gut punch.

“I envy you,” I said. “I was brought up to think that an adult woman, an older woman, has to work harder to maintain an attractive appearance. That a little make-up, a stylish outfit and hair-do were necessary to support a positive self-worth.”

“I don’t need that to feel attractive.,” she pressed defiantly.

“I wish I had the confidence to remain completely untouched by modern cosmetics and fashion trappings. But honestly, I don’t,” I responded.

Does that make me shallow? It was true that I envied her confidence, but I did not envy her appearance, I would never want to look like that. I was judging her harshly, but I would never openly criticize her appearance choices. Was I shallow because I felt that way? Or was she judging me too harshly because I was wearing a fitted skirt and a little mascara?

There are older women who believe in being true to nature. They wouldn’t consider dying and styling their hair, wearing make-up or caving in to fashion dictates by wearing trendy, form-fitting clothing. Does that make them frumpy and old-fashioned, or are they lovely expressions of nature’s creation?

What about the women who color and style their hair, wear fashionable make-up and dress in stylish clothing targeted to the mid-thirties and older crowd? Are they painted floozies, or devoid of necessary self-confidence? Should they be admired for trying to enhance what nature gave them or denounced for being shallow?

And how about the women who wear heavy, thick make-up, color their hair to an unnatural hue (usually platinum blonde) and wear clothes designed for 18-year-olds, showing as much skin in as many places as possible? Are they all hookers, or just creepy and desperate? Do the rest of us throw them sideways glances and feel superior? Would we admit it if we did?

Where does the line get drawn?

I used to think I knew. Now I’m less sure. I know I respect and appreciate people for their individuality, but to my horror, I might be just the tiniest bit shallow. How about you? I do know that I’m sick of reading about what I should be doing at my age. No cleavage, cover that gray, ditch those Mom jeans, but leave your hair natural – all things I’ve read as absolutes. There is no end to the advice out there for older women and their appearance, and it covers a range longer than the Rockies.

All things considered, I have this to say about beauty and older women: Do what makes you feel beautiful and ignore all dissenters. Yes, even your mother.