We need more older women to look their age

62-year-old American Apparel model, Jacky O'Shaughnessy.

62-year-old American Apparel model, Jacky O'Shaughnessy.

“Sharon Stone Tells Shape She Doesn’t Want To Be ‘An Ageless Beauty,’ Is Still One Anyway” goes the Huffington Post headline. It’s refreshing, says the reporter, that Stone doesn’t long for eternal youth. It’s refreshing, also, we’re clearly meant to agree, that she looks eternally youthful.

This is how we celebrate older women, I’ve noticed, when we celebrate their beauty. And often, unfortunately, we are celebrating beauty first and the rest later, in a smaller room in the back. We praise those women who, like great illusionists, amaze with the magic trick of their appearances. We are impressed with women over forty for looking like they’re not yet. We admire women for confusing us at first sight, we show respect to the ones who can manage, mysteriously, to look nothing like nature suggests they should look.

I am in my late twenties, and it would be nice if the future of my face wasn’t so dire.  

62-year-old American Apparel model, Jacky O'Shaughnessy.

62-year-old American Apparel model, Jacky O'Shaughnessy.

But maybe that’s just life. Maybe these are the cold, hard, disappointing facts. You get older, you look worse, so deal with it.


OK, fine. I think that would be fine, if we could all agree that looking “worse” isn’t a big deal. Actually, I can imagine a world in which everyone agreed that we all look crappier and crappier with each passing year, but simultaneously, we care less and less about the way we look, so it’s practically irrelevant. Sounds like fun! I picture myself, seventy-seven and sloppy, my hair buzzed for convenience, sunbathing in the floppy nude on a European beach. Now that’s the life.

The problem is, we can’t agree on this vision for the future (what? The rest of you don’t want to see me naked on the beaches of my sunset years?). Every other commercial directed at women over forty trumpets the miraculous properties of its anti-aging formula. The models demonstrating the product’s effectiveness appear to be twenty-three. The goal, it’s always implied, is to look as close to twenty-three as is humanly possible, no matter how many decades past it you happen to be.

Sharon Stone on the latest issue of <i>Shape Magazine</i>.

Sharon Stone on the latest issue of Shape Magazine.

The lesson is learned. Many of the older women I know seem to be wrestling with their own biology in order to look more like my peers and less like themselves. That’s why I’m so glad to see examples of women looking like they aren’t twenty-three anymore in the sphere of fashion and beauty, like Jacky O’Shaughnessy, the American Apparel model. Her image floods me with relief and pride, but that’s part of the problem. Right now, she stands out like a radical statement, like a shout in a quiet room. The relief is a result of her unexpectedness. We need to join in and raise more voices until it sounds more like a party and less like a museum.  What would it feel like to live in a world where being beautiful with wrinkles and white hair was normal?

Of course, we should look up to older women first for their accomplishments and wisdom. But obviously, and automatically, we are looking to them for clues about our whole futures. We need more examples of women looking comfortable looking like themselves. When we get them, it’ll be much clearer that what matters about being a woman isn’t primarily superficial, and that our experience of the way we look shouldn’t revolve around trying to look different.

As young women, we need that message. We are steeped in a culture of endless dieting, exercise fads, cosmetic surgery, and unrealistic beauty standards. The ceaseless subtle urge to change just a little, just a little more, until we are different enough to finally look better begins early and often relentlessly pursues us throughout our lives.

And yet, as Sharon Stone ironically said in the article that accompanies her ageless, airbrushed photos: “… This idea that being youthful is the only thing that’s beautiful or attractive simply isn’t true. I don’t want to be an ‘ageless beauty.’ I want to be a woman who is the best I can be at my age.”

In my late teens and early twenties, I fought hard to look different, to change myself in order to fit an image of beauty that loomed so large it felt inescapable. A couple years later, sitting around a table with friends, it turned out that most of us had grappled with one or another form of disordered eating. “Can you look at this?” my smart, serious twenty-seven-year-old friend asked the other day, leaning in, pointing at her forehead. “Is that a wrinkle? I’m scared it might be a wrinkle. Do I look old to you?”

We’ve learned that looking old is like a vicious beast, panting at our heels, always about to catch us and drag us down into the pit of eternal ugliness.

“Definitely not!” I said immediately, reciting my lines, “I don’t see anything! You don’t even have to think about that. We’re so young!”

We won’t always be so young, though.

Does it have to have such an ominous ring?

It’s been a long road for me, already, to feeling OK about myself, inside and out. To not harassing myself over my reflection every time I see it. I’d like to keep feeling more comfortable with who I am, including my appearance. I don’t want to look forward to a future of looking backward. None of us should.

So let’s declare war on anti-aging. Let’s celebrate women for being, and looking, themselves. It’s not only important for women over forty, it’s important for me, and for my friends, and for teenaged girls and little girls, too. It’s important for the thirty-somethings. It’s important for everyone to see and believe that there is no shame in being a woman, at any age.