what older women should look like

“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, as a culture, celebrate older women, 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.

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 yet another 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.

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 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  62-year-old American Apparel model.


(source. when I followed this link I found this fashion blog, with fun photos of and interviews with “advanced” models)

Her image floods me with immediate, unquestioning 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?

When I take a moment to consider,  I can’t help but notice that, of course, O’Shaughnessy is very, very thin. Thinness, the great equalizer, except that not everyone can or should be or is very thin. (I am also interested in her long hair. What does long hair mean on an older woman? What does short hair mean on a younger one? Remember this piece by Dominique Browning in the NYT? I wrote about that a little bit here.)

Still, small steps can go in the right direction. Look! we can point to her. Look how beautiful with white hair!

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 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.

*  *  *

How do you want to look when you’re a couple decades older than you are now?

Unroast: Today I like a little bit more the weird, floppy way I move in videos. It’s funny and unique, and I don’t know why that’s what I do and how I look, but it just is. (I’m seeing myself in videos way more than I ever have, because we are taking a million videos of Eden all the time)

A version of this piece appeared originally on Daily Life


Kate on April 2nd 2014 in beauty, body, fear, perfection

16 Responses to “what older women should look like”

  1. Emily responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    This is such a tough topic. So many variables.
    I am not aging with much grace. I turned 39 this year, and seem to have hit a wall. I do not recognize the person in the mirror. I do not have pictures taken of me in them if I can help it. It’s not about being ugly, or fat, or wrinkly…I just don’t feel comfortable in my own skin.

    I miss that feeling. That’s how I want to “look” moving forward.

  2. Vicky responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Great post (i think). As a 42 year old who beat herself up about her looks continuously throughout her late teens, 20s and 30s, I’ve personally found I just don’t have the mental energy to torture myself about my own appearance anymore and signs of ageing. Don’t get me wrong, I do care and perhaps by nature I’m just philosophical, but maybe the fight about certain things just goes out of a lot of us after a while. Now I just think, well, if I had the funds to do this and that I might, but I certainly wouldn’t want to look like a caricature of myself anyway. There’s something kind of creepy about a 40+ person looking like they’re still 23! I certainly don’t miss the endless obsessing and neurosis about how my profile looks from a certain angle and whether or not my skin is perfect enough etc etc…in fact if anything I find it quite amusing and almost encouraging when I do still get a pimple like it’s 1987 again!!

  3. Mia responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    At 64, I am prematurely aged in appearance, thanks to breast cancer and melanoma and their treatments. It is humiliating for women to grow old—and look old—in this society. Much of our social worth is bound up in our youthful appearance, and to lose it is to lose our standing in our world.

  4. Kate responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    My mother is supremely unconcerned with appearance. She wears no makeup, at all, ever. She cuts her own hair because salons are too expensive. She covered grays at home for a while in her 40s, but by 50 decided that was too much trouble and gray would be just fine. She spends almost no money on clothes. At 60, she looks her age, she looks like herself, and she looks perfectly nice.

    When I was a pre-teen and teen all of this not-caring embarrassed me. Other people’s mothers wore makeup and got their hair done and wore things that were new and fashionable. But now as an adult my habits are pretty similar overall to mom. I dress a little nicer than she did, because I have a different kind of job, but I spend almost zero time or energy on hair/makeup/etc. And frankly I am not at all concerned about being 34 and looking my age, and I’m not really worried about getting progressively gray and wrinkled either. I have no idea how she became the way she is, but I’m really grateful.

  5. JH responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    “So let’s celebrate women for being, and looking, themselves.”

    Remind me of the following:


    As I grow in age, I value women who are over forty most of all. Here are just a few reasons why: A woman over forty will never wake you in the middle of the night to ask, “What are you thinking?” She doesn’t care what you think.

    If a woman over forty doesn’t want to watch the game, she doesn’t sit around whining about it. She does something she wants to do. And, it’s usually something more interesting.

    A woman over forty knows herself well enough to be assured in who she is, what she is, what she wants and from whom. Few women past the age of forty give a hoot what you might think about her or what she’s doing.

    Women over forty are dignified. They seldom have a screaming match with you at the opera or in the middle of an expensive restaurant. Of course, if you deserve it, they won’t hesitate to shoot you, if they think they can get away with it.

    Older women are generous with praise, often undeserved. They know what it’s like to be unappreciated.

    A woman over forty has the self-assurance to introduce you to her women friends. A younger woman with a man will often ignore even her best friend because she doesn’t trust the guy with other women. Women over forty couldn’t care less if you’re attracted to her friends because she knows her friends won’t betray her.

    Women get psychic as they age. You never have to confess your sins to a woman over forty. They always know.

    A woman over forty looks good wearing bright red lipstick. This is not true of younger women. Once you get past a wrinkle or two, a woman over forty is far sexier than her younger counterpart.

    Older women are forthright and honest. They’ll tell you right off if you are a jerk, if you are acting like one! You don’t ever have to wonder where you stand with her.

    Yes, we praise women over forty for a multitude of reasons. Unfortunately, it’s not reciprocal. For every stunning, smart, well-coiffed hot woman of forty-plus, there is a bald, paunchy relic in yellow pants making a fool of himself with some twenty-two-year-old waitress.

    Ladies, I apologize.

    For all those men who say, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free,” here’s an update for you. Now 80 percent of women are against marriage, why? Because women realize it’s not worth buying an entire pig, just to get a little sausage.

  6. Kate responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    There’s a lot to like in JH’s comment (and the pig/sausage line is hilarious).

    But I have to say it is FAR from universally true that women gain this sort of admirable self-assurance with age. Some lucky people seem to be born with it. Many learn and grow with age, of course. But far, far too many women are just as insecure about appearance and relationships at 60 as they were at 16.

  7. teegan responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    Yes to this!
    I sometimes wonder if my laissez faire approach to my appearance (hair, skin, etc) is something I’ll regret 20+ years from now. I mean, I wear sunscreen (mostly) and put lotion on after I shower, but that’s about it. Which is fine because I have the skin of a 20-something (duh). I hope I have the fortitude and self-confidence to continue not to dye my hair (even though there are grays! and golds, oddly enough!) or worry over that sort of thing later on. I want to keep my long hair and still do fun braids/buns/etc with it and wear what I want and say what I want. We’ll do that… right?

  8. Mandy responded on 03 Apr 2014 at 10:19 am #

    I have never understood why wrinkles are (or have the potential to be) attractive on a man, but if I spot the tiniest hint of what might be a pre-wrinkle on my own face, I’m supposed to dive head-first into a pot of “anti-aging cream.” Which is a myth, kids. The only thing that will stop someone from aging is death.

    I love the laugh lines around my husband’s eyes–I think they make him even more attractive. And I find that the wrinkles I’m getting on my forehead and at the corners of my own eyes don’t bother me at all.

  9. Kate responded on 03 Apr 2014 at 10:33 am #

    This cracked me up– the image of someone diving head first into a pot of anti-aging cream is hilarious.

    And yes! Laugh lines are good! Or they should be allowed to be

  10. Michele responded on 03 Apr 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Love this… genuine lines are good… and attractive. But mostly on men are they attractive :)

  11. Mia responded on 04 Apr 2014 at 10:50 am #

    But notice that Andy Rooney’s photo with that putative column of his about women over 40 looks considerably older than 40. Perhaps it would have been more delightful if he had written about the delights of women over 60, or 70, or 80 or ….

  12. San D responded on 05 Apr 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    As I get older I have found the women who were “lookers” in their youth, you know the ones, great hair, teeth, skin, perfect body, weight controlled, seem to be the ones struggling with aged looks the most. I knew right away which relative or friend would have the hardest time getting older. From my perspective it seems their self esteem and looks were intertwined. As gravity, sun, work, and genes started conspiring against them, I noticed erosion in their spirit. I used to tell my students that my body was a combination of the vehicle that got my mind from point A to point B, and a clothes hanger where I could wear interestingly crafted garments. I always admired the older women who still marched to a different drummer, and are still standing tall (albeit shorter) outside of the box.

  13. Snipe responded on 09 Apr 2014 at 5:51 am #

    I’ll probably look like my grandmother in a few decades. I look so much like her, and I see the resemblance more and more as time goes on. She has remained active and taken care of herself, she doesn’t worry about aging creams or such. Her main indulgence is getting her hair done every week.

    At 33, I am starting to see the wrinkles and sags that are a portent of things to come. I plan to take care of myself, but there is no point in surgery or useless anti-aging creams. It is what it is.

  14. Cinthia responded on 12 Apr 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    I am over 50 and love (love!) the way I look. I feel more comfortable in my skin than ever before. In fact, turning 50 was one of the best damned things that ever happened to me. I don’t use expensive moisturizers or anti-aging creams (I use regular handcream, lol), I don’t Botox or have fillers injected into my face. I don’t even wear much makeup, except for a little blush.

    I’m not conventionally beautiful, either, but what I am is strong. I run marathons and am training for both an ultra-marathon and a triathlon. I lift weights. I can run for 30 miles without stopping and I regularly run trails littered with bear scat. I’ve been charged by moose four times while running. I. Am. Strong. And fierce. And powerful.

    Does my face reveal my age? Totally. I’m proud of that. I’ve lived a lot of years to look the way I do and my whole life is reflected in my face: the birth of my son, the places I’ve traveled, the books and essays I’ve published, the mountains I’ve climbed.

    I find it ironic and a bit amusing that older women spend so much time worrying about their faces while ignoring their bodies (except, of course, trying to be skinny, which is not at all the same as good health), when it is the strength of the body that grants the opportunity to live a longer and more fulfilling life.

    Sorry to go on so. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. Thanks for reminding me of that, Kate.

  15. Corbyn Hanson Hightower responded on 16 Apr 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    I know this is a lil’ self-serving, but I wrote about this topic, too, and it might add to the conversation: http://corbynhightower.com/2014/04/16/i-am-crumbly-all-over/

    Forgive the plug . . . it’s not really a plug if I get nothing out of it, right? (No ad revenue, no nothin’ but people talking and sharing.)

    I saw your doppelgänger the other day; wish it had been you. I kept staring at her. I think I freaked her out. It was in West Sacramento.

  16. Becca responded on 18 Apr 2014 at 10:41 am #

    My random thoughts in response…thank you for your wonderful words that are so much more than the regular superficial blog fodder out there.

    Is this not the same argument as the woman who said, “STOP TELLING LITTLE GIRLS THEY’RE PRETTY?” (Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html).

    How many times have I heard older women say they feel invisible as they age? Is it because everyone else sees them less and less or is it because they don’t try as hard to be seen? That they don’t care anymore about being seen? Do they “lean out” a la Sheryl?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mental short cuts (conscious and subconscious) that humans take. A man can put on a power suit or an orange workman’s vest and gain access almost anywhere almost regardless of any other physical trait. Can the same be said about a beautiful, young woman?