From hair-color treatments to Botox to surgical "mommy makeovers," it seems there is no limit to the ways women can try to hold on to their fading youth. But are these healthy self-improvements or simply vain attempts to look younger?
It depends on whether women can accept that aging is a natural part of life, says Vivian Diller, a New York City psychologist and coauthor of the 2010 book "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change." In a recent interview, the 58-year-old former model and ballet dancer discussed ways that women can achieve a healthy self-image as they get older.
What is the most important thing for women to keep in mind as they age?
I tell women that when they see their looks changing, it's helpful not to dismiss their feelings as irrelevant, silly or superficial. It's an experience that hits us at the core of who we are, and that runs deep — physically and psychologically.
Do women realize this all at once, or does it creep up on them slowly?
There's some point in our life — it usually happens in the transition to menopause, sometime in our 40s — when we start to feel there's a turning point. For many, it is sparked by hormonal changes and by the visual changes we see in the mirror.
There is some evidence that fears of aging are starting earlier and earlier, as our culture has become increasingly focused on youth and aging has become viewed as an illness. In fact, it's a natural process. When you see lines around your smile, your eyes, it's part of this process. Healthy aging is learning how to see those lines as natural and being comfortable with saying, "That's who I am."
Is there a specific age that's challenging for women?
It's not any one particular age. Generally, it's somewhere between 40 and 50, with the lowest point most commonly being around 45. If they weather that period, altering their perspective and shifting expectations, they may feel more confident and good about themselves.
Is this a new problem?
Historically, women have relied on our primary feminine role for our self-esteem — attract a mate and procreate — and then we died. Now we live well past our childbearing years and have many more roles in society. We are trying to redefine what it means to be attractive, vital women in our 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. There are few role models.
Where is the line between accepting your changing appearance and doing things to appear younger?
There are a lot of things we can do to prolong the health and beauty of our bodies that help us more comfortably get past that "Uh-oh, my body's changing" experience. But our goal needs to be to achieve a balance as we try to look the best we can for our age.
It's not about trying to look like our former selves. Keeping that in mind stops us from constantly trying to look younger than our age. Accepting that you're aging means saying, "When I am 47, I'm not going to look like I did at age 37. I can look great for 47, but my looks will change at some point, no matter what I do." And unless we accept that, we will be fighting the same fruitless battle in our 80s.
How do plastic surgery and other procedures fit into the idea of aging gracefully?
As long as a woman is healthy, can afford them and thinks carefully about their impact — psychologically as well as physically — I think they can serve some women's needs. These procedures can have positive effects on self-esteem. But the jury is out on whether they truly help all women feel more attractive.
We also have to consider whether one surgery leads to another surgery and another. Sometimes, it starts with, "I'll get my breasts done," but when you have those plump breasts, your arms might look like they don't match. Then it may be your neck, your eyes, your behind and so on. Hand rejuvenation has caught on recently, as they are often the last revealing sign of aging when everything else has been redone. You have to ask yourself, "Do I want to go down that road?"
So what should women do to maintain a healthy self-image as they age?
It's a balance every woman has to strike with looking after yourself but letting go.
One step is recognizing the things we do to ward off our "uh-oh" moments. We don't really want to think about the end point, so we do things to avoid having feelings about it. You might be one of those people who becomes obsessed with having another child, even if your mate is disinterested. Some people get plastic surgery. Some people say they're going to run marathons. Before we act on these impulses, we should think carefully because the choices we make are going to impact the rest of our lives.
How do you put this into practice?
We need to listen to how we talk to ourselves — especially about how we look. The way women talk to themselves is often hyper-critical. I say to people, "Imagine talking to your closest friend or your daughter about her appearance. I'm sure you would be kinder."
How can aging women make peace with where they fall short of the societal standard for what is beautiful?
We live in a culture where beauty has been elevated to being more important than other traits. We've got to counteract that. Clearly, beauty will always matter, but there are so many other aspects to who you are that have to matter more. To make peace with our looks, especially as we age, is to have a sense of self that sees our looks as only one aspect among others that make us feel good about ourselves.
Is that what prompted you to write your book?
Having been a dancer and a model, I knew that the role our looks play in life was more complicated than most psychologists and beauty books talked about. Looks are part of a person's identity. They can't just be dismissed by saying, "It's what's inside that counts."
This isn't an issue only for women whose professions involve their looks. We live in a culture that is focused on youth and beauty. Looking beautiful has become a huge part of our definition of well-being. And the more beauty is equated with youth, the more difficulty we have with our aging appearance.
This interview was edited for space and clarity from a longer discussion.