I can’t stand losing my beauty as I age!

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 I’m 43 and I’ve always been beautiful, and now I am in a state of shock at what’s happening!

 Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, NOV 15, 2007

Dear Cary,

I am a 43-year-old woman. I have been married and soon will be again. I do not have children.

Without sounding like an arrogant jerk, I am very pretty. I have taken this prettiness for granted my whole life while thinking (somewhat hypocritically) that “looks aren’t that important.” Certainly I have not consciously coasted on my looks — I have held very senior positions in very well-recognized companies. My looks might not have hurt me in my jobs, but certainly I did not coast to the top of a highly competitive field without something to offer other than a pretty smile.

I’ve always known that people admire me for my looks; I’d have to be blind and deaf not to perceive my effect on most men. I’ve always been impatient with women who talk about how “lucky” I am, or men who presume that I can get whatever I want because of my beauty. Even pretty people have to earn a living; even we get taken to task for our capabilities, if we presume to test them, which I have. To that end, I am a well-rounded person — I read a lot, I recorded an album of acoustic songs and sometimes play at gigs. I am good at a few sports — very good at one. I am well-traveled, speak a few languages, and I’m a pretty good cook.

So it’s been with some surprise that, as I entered my 40s, I have realized that my looks are becoming more, rather than less, important to me. I find myself scrutinizing women all around me — usually in a critical way. It’s horrible — I don’t recognize this voice that has suddenly taken over my head at all. It picks apart young women and derides older women. No woman, it seems, is spared from this internal critical monologue. As for women over 50, forget it. I see them dressed up or getting their hair done at my salon, and I think, “Why does she bother?”

I have always been somewhat “low maintenance” — no makeup, simple hair, very little fuss. I like nice clothes but I frequently wear jeans and the kind of clothing you can find at REI. I do not dress to call attention to myself, and I’ve never consciously tried to appear sexy. When the Botox craze first came to light I was horrified that women would do that to themselves. I’ve always been pretty disdainful of plastic surgery, too.

And now, suddenly, I am buying magazines about just these procedures, surfing the Net late into the night, eagerly looking at all the things I can do to myself to preserve my looks.

I don’t understand this at all. It makes me feel miserable about myself. And then I project that misery out onto the world and find myself making up reasons to resent young women and the men who are attracted to them. Which is silly — I don’t blame men my age for being attracted to women half their age. I certainly can appreciate the beauty of a guy half my age. I’ve dated a few.

Is it death that I am afraid of? Or just aging and losing the power of my beauty, the power of being the center of attention even when I don’t seek it? And if it’s the latter — well, why are all of my many accomplishments suddenly not enough?

My boyfriend is two years younger than me. He is very good looking — but looks his age. I have studied the signs of aging on his face and feel nothing but affection for them. His crow’s feet and sun damage do not detract at all from his appeal, in my view. Why can’t I relax and assume that other people can be as forgiving toward my signs of aging as I am toward theirs? I find myself very uncomfortable if someone stares at me. Whereas I used to dismiss it as another guy admiring me or trying to get my attention, now what I think is, he’s noticing the lines on my forehead, or the way my skin isn’t as smooth as it once was.

I read your column regularly and know that if you publish this certain mean men are going to eagerly jump out of the woodwork and gleefully tell me that I am finally getting what’s due me, that men don’t find women my age attractive ever. The thing is, I don’t believe this. I don’t believe this and yet I am afraid that it is so, that if every man in the universe were to take a quiz and be totally, totally honest about what kind of woman he’d prefer to be with, he’d pick “young” over any other attribute. But isn’t it funny — I never felt that way when I was young. In my 20s I always felt at a distinct disadvantage around the older, more sophisticated female executives around me. I never took the admiration of the men around me very seriously — I felt their admiration was quite impersonal, not really directed at me, but at the idea of me. I could have been anyone — there was nothing personal at all in their regard for me.

So what’s causing this terrible antipathy toward aging (and not just aging — female aging)? Why now? And how do I stop this?

Aging Beauty

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Dear Aging Beauty,

I think this is not so much about death as it is about the loss of social power, and, moreover, the loss of a certain daily vitamin of high regard that sustains and energizes the beautiful.

Most of us are only really lovely for a few short years in childhood. But not so for the beautiful. In the day-to-day world, where most of us lose so much of ourselves and are granted so little in the way of courtesy and love, the pretty person absorbs love out of the air, off the street, in the stores, absorbs love like a child cared for by a loving mother and an adoring family whose faces light up every time she enters the room. The beautiful are constantly absorbing love from the world in a way that is scarcely recognizable to others and even to herself — for has it not always been this way?

To accuse you of taking this for granted is needlessly unkind: How could you not become accustomed to it? It is not vanity, I don’t think, but the lucky satisfaction of a natural need to be loved on contact, just as who we are, just because we are there. To whom does this happen otherwise than the beautiful? Only to children! Only a child can walk into a room and find herself a delight to all, having done nothing, having prepared no performance or recited no lines, just because she is who she is, we turn to her with delight and love.

But of course for most of us this period of automatic love and warmth is very short. We soon find that we are mostly a nuisance, and have to work for every smile of praise. But the beautiful? Go to buy a cup of coffee, walk down the street, sit on an airplane — yes you are often the object of boorish affections and resentments, but you also receive a constant hidden dividend of high esteem. That is not to say that you have it easy. I do not mean that at all. I believe everything you say about your accomplishments and I do not for an instant think that your life has been all that much easier, only that you have had this more or less constant vibe of approval, of pleasure in the way people regard you.

And then it vanishes! One day the admiring glances cease!

It may have been happening gradually, but you notice it suddenly, in the loss of a table or an overlooked invitation — We were going to invite you, of course we were, of course, how could you doubt that?

Your notice magnifies it all: Harsh disregard is everywhere now!

You would expect the sudden withdrawal of this wonderful feeling of acceptance to be painful and upsetting. And indeed it is.

So what to do? How to age gracefully? How to adjust to this new world in which your presence is either ignored or treated as a bother, in which your needs are attended to begrudgingly by unconsciously beautiful young things who do not even seem to see you really, who do not even seem to look at you, who make you feel, in a thousand little ways, that you do not belong in their world?

Argh. Well, you could just get plain nasty. You could use your money and prestige to make the lives of others a living hell. There would be some satisfaction in that, you must admit. But it would only make things worse in the long run.

No, I think really what we must do, those of us who experience this jarring shove into irrelevance, this undeserved demotion in the esteem of strangers, what we must do is content ourselves with our pleasures as we find them.

Oh, what a stupid, empty cliché that is! Jesus! Can I do no better than that?

And the truth is, no, not really. I have no solution. This is how it goes. This is youth’s revenge. It was ever thus.

What can you do? You used to breathe in high regard from the very air; it used to be what you swam in. Now it is rare, hard to find, you have to seek it out. It is all around you but you have to dig for it. It is in art and music, in the love of friends, in all the other clichés that I now find spilling out of my brain.

You have to find it in your intimates, in your family, in those who love you and will always love you, to whom you will never be anything but spectacular.

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Help! I’m getting older!

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I’m not ready for cats and pottery class, but I don’t know how to deal with the fear.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 7, 2006

Dear Cary,

I find myself pondering the notion of dating again after the demise of a long-term relationship. I’m female and in my late 30s, and I find myself increasingly self-conscious about being “an older woman” on the dating scene. While I’ve always been aware of the power of female youthfulness, the volume of that cry for the young ones seems ever-increasing, and sometimes it gets downright mean, as if women who age do so out of spite. In this big bad Northwest city, it seems cruelly competitive, and even scrolling through the letters section of Salon, I come across nasty references to women’s “expiration dates.” I can’t say I blame men for wanting to date younger women, and I’m not looking for an explanation or justification for this state of affairs. I know men face ageism in dating, too, but it’s far less common on the other side of the gender fence. The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.

I do have a few things going for me in the midst of this onslaught of matron-itis: I keep myself in great shape, I delight in all the feminine trappings — from fishnets to backrubs after a guy’s had a hard day to debating politics because it’s sexy, plus I’m blessed with excellent health. While I don’t lie about my age, I could shave off some years and successfully pass (but it’s not about that for me). While I’d like to have a serious relationship (marriage, most likely) with kids in our shared life someplace, I’m not at the mercy of my biological clock. I wouldn’t mind adoption, stepkids, foster kids, or even just being the crazy aunt ‘n’ uncle to the kids down the street. So I’m not racing against time in that regard, which relieves some pressure. Plus, I am pretty flexible about age myself. If some beguiling 58-year-old presented himself as a potential suitor and we were compatible, I wouldn’t think twice about hopping into his sidecar and blasting down the road with him.

I’m not the type to adopt a fire-sale mentality when it comes to dating — hardly desperate, hardly dependent upon a man to define my value. But I still find myself psyched out by the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that that may count against me in more cases than not. I don’t need to hear that I should date in massive volume to better my odds or that my own self-worth is more important than the worth anyone else might ascribe to me. I simply would like you to tell me, friend, how exactly to run between the raindrops of this age thing? I’m not quite ready for cats and pottery class.

Scared of Math in Seattle

Dear Scared of Math,

There are people who can give you advice on dating and so forth, but I don’t think I’m that person and I don’t think that’s what you’re asking for. You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to hear certain predictable pieces of advice or platitudes. Plus you’ve written to me, as opposed to maybe some other person who might be able to offer more in the area of practical advice. That in itself says something.

So after reading your letter, which was very enjoyable — I like the way you have thought this through, and I like the way you express yourself, especially when you note that some people seem to think women age purely out of spite (that was good!) — I went over it again looking for actual questions or problems that I could address. And I found this: “The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.”

Now that I can relate to. The prospect of aging scares you and you don’t know how to deal with the fear. That’s a very honest statement. I think it’s a great place to start. It’s a great place to stop, too, if you get what I mean. It’s not really about age, it’s about fear.

You’re dealing with aging very well already. You’re taking care of yourself. You’re thinking through the options it presents and what it requires of you and so forth. But you didn’t say you don’t know how to deal with aging. You said you don’t know how to deal with the fear.

The fear, the fear, the fear. How does one deal with fear? How I deal with fear is mainly I try to identify and make concrete what it is I’m actually afraid of.

Have you ever noticed that a person who is not afraid to state the facts as they are can seem fearless? A person who is not afraid to say I am a socialist or I am a Republican or I am 65 years old and who dares you to do something about it — that that person can seem fearless? What is it about saying the obvious? Well, it makes the obvious obviously less important.

Watch me: My name is Cary Tennis and I am a 52-year-old recovered alcoholic.That’s the truth. You want a piece of me? I had a friend who was a writer who lied about his age in order to seem more interesting. We’re not really friends anymore. I wonder why. I am attracted to people who can tell the truth. It’s a good quality in writing as well — the ability to tell the truth. So I suggest you tell people exactly how old you are and let them deal with it. I mean, do you really want to have a serious relationship with a man who can’t handle the truth?

Another thing I suggest you do about your fear is to make a list of the things that you actually do fear that are related to aging. Make them concrete. Say them out loud: What if a man should reject you when you tell him your age? What would happen then? Would you have to go to the hospital? Would you be unable to speak for a month?

Let me play too: I fear being thought of as an old person. That is too vague. We want to zoom in even closer. And let’s make it you instead of me. I’m not playing anymore. So who exactly would think of you as an old person and how would that affect you? Well, say a man you like were to think of you as too old to date. Say he were to lie to you and tell you he didn’t want to go out with you because he was too raw from a recent breakup, and then you find out later that was a lie and really it was because you were too old for him. What would be the consequences of that? Would that make you lose your job or walk with a limp? Or say that you have a relationship and then the man decides you are too old and breaks up with you and tells you that’s why he’s breaking up with you. What would the consequences of that be? You would probably be angry and upset; you might be more upset than you expected to be. The real fear there, it seems to me, is the fear of emotional pain. It’s normal to fear emotional pain — to fear pain of all kinds. Would it be worse emotional pain if he broke up with you because you were older? How? Because age is something you cannot control?

Possibly.

You are a smart person. You can see where this is going.
What happens when we examine our fears in detail is a couple of things. Either they seem to melt away as trivial, or they lead to more existential things that genuinely do frighten us but which are big universal conditions that we share with all people. It is understandable to fear things we cannot control. That is the human condition.

I could do this all night. The issue is fear.

It also may be helpful to know that you do not have to get rid of your fear. It is OK to feel fear and continue to do what you are doing. There is a book out called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I haven’t read it … but it’s a great title, don’t you think? It’s almost all you need to know right there.

The real problem is the fear … itself. Oh, boy, I’m not going to have to quote FDR, am I? Actually, it’s sort of bracing to listen to that famous speech. Maybe before you go out on your next date, just listen to that old guy FDR hammering out his lines. It’s actually, as I said, rather bracing.

The beauty economy

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Cary’s classic column from

I was a nerdy frog who became a princess. Now I see the power, but also the price, of being beautiful


Dear Cary,

I have a problem that I can’t talk to many people about, because it’s about one of the most sensitive areas of life: looks. I am writing to you because you see the deep issues behind things that seem shallow, and that’s exactly what I am looking for perspective on. My “problem” is that with a lot of hard work and insanely careful attention to my diet and appearance, I can look conventionally “hot”: tall, blond, bombshell-hot with an hourglass figure. I’m 26 and just working my first real job out of graduate school in a lucrative and arcane field. And I am rather miserable right now.

I’m going to talk about my body, and I hope this does not come across as shallow. I think about my appearance a lot, but I didn’t like to when I was younger … because I used to be unattractive. I never did my hair or makeup, I dressed in dowdy clothing, and I was 20 pounds overweight — not enough to make me clinically obese but definitely enough to edge me out of the “hot” category. I had truly terrible teeth that braces could not much improve. And I had a very large, crooked nose that was due half to genetics and half to a car accident when I was 16. Three years ago I decided to fix it, and I got a beautiful and subtle nose job. And then I pulled out most of my teeth and got tooth implants (medically recommended for jaw problems, though not strictly necessary), straightened my hair, and became a gym maniac to lose the extra weight. I got help dressing more sexily and gained some much-needed confidence.

At first I enjoyed the new attention from men that I suddenly got. At 23 I was getting flirted with by strangers for the first time, getting asked out on dates, and generally getting access to a realm of existence I thought was closed to me forever. And then (no surprise), I regained the weight because of work stress and feeling like I couldn’t mentally deal with the tedium of counting calories. And lo and behold, the quality and quantity of men hitting on me nose-dived. I felt so depressed and worthless, even though I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things. My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.

I’m on a diet right now, successfully losing that weight, and I’m pissed. I am so pissed that I want to scream at men both when they pay attention to me and when they ignore me! In a way, it felt terrible to get all that positive attention when before I was ignored or taunted for my appearance. I was tortured during my school years, bullied and mocked for my looks every day. Everyone is so shallow … and now I beat myself up for being just as shallow as most people. I feel like I can never go out in public without having to think about my appearance, and maybe this is par for the course for women in this society, but I never got used to it at a young age. I used to dress badly because I had such low self-esteem that I thought no one would look at me anyway.

I have nerdily calculated the amount of time I need to spend counting calories (buying healthy food, cooking it, weighing and measuring and recording it and preparing it ahead of time), going to the gym, and doing hair and makeup every day to look my best, i.e., like someone who gets sexual attention from strangers: three hours a day. Sometimes four. Isn’t that ridiculous? I feel like I’m wasting my life doing these things, yet the payoff is addictive: compliments, numbers, dates (without needing to do online dating, just getting approached in real life).

Most people who are unattractive learn to adapt and deal with life that way, and so do most attractive people. I have had the experience of moving dramatically from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I think I’m still reeling from the transformation. Those makeover shows on TV never show this part. I know I will never get more plastic surgery, and that the things I fixed are considered conservative and reasonable in this society. Yet I feel very ambivalent about it all.

Sadly I don’t think I have body dysmorphia or OCD, because the majority of my female friends and acquaintances seem to devote this amount of head space and effort to their appearance. I don’t know how to reconcile myself to my body, my place in society, my gender, and just let go and connect with people lovingly. I used to deny that looks had a lot of importance, but now I know I was in denial because the truth was too painful. Now that I’m much more attractive I can afford to realize how blatantly pretty people are rewarded and how ugly people are punished in this society. It’s horribly unfair, and I feel guilty and disgusted — but not enough to refrain from wearing a low-cut top and flirting to get a discount on something, which never ever happened to me before my surgery.

Are these stupid ego boosts worth spending four hours of my life per day doing things I don’t want to do? In truth I’m nerdy and introverted and prefer to read rather than go to the gym. But I want a boyfriend and that won’t happen if I stay home and never make an effort with my appearance — can you see the crazy thought cycle here? Worst of all is that now I judge men for having a gut or having bad teeth, and I am more attracted to conventionally good-looking guys, who before would never look twice at me. I feel like your readers are going to kill me for saying these things, but I feel like everyone thinks these things and doesn’t say them.

Part of me wants to fast forward to when I’m old and ugly and happy with life and not thinking about this. There’s a lot more to me, but this is the stuff I never say to anyone so here it is, in all its hideous narcissism. Do you have any beautiful thoughts for me?

Sincerely,

Unhappy Swan

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Dear Unhappy Swan,

You have done nothing wrong.

All you have done is take society’s commandments at face value. It is the height of hypocrisy for anyone in the modern West to pretend that female beauty is not a currency spent like money on the streets, in the banks and in the gambling halls.

What foul, disordered, body-hating culture would on the one hand set such a high price on beauty and on the other hand punish a woman for making herself beautiful?

All you have done is observe the truth and respond rationally.

“I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things,” you say. “My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.”

Of course your emotions won’t listen to your good sense. Why should they? Your good sense derives from the moralistic fiction that underlies our astounding hypocrisy about beauty and sex. Forget these abstract values you mention. Who are these people who seem to think that your efforts to make yourself beautiful and thus raise your value in our culture demean you? Who would not want the rewards of beauty? I see no reason to denigrate the work you have done to make yourself beautiful.

I don’t think this is narcissism. The sensible love of one’s own beauty is not a disorder.

What is ugly is our own hypocrisy.

You’ve had a peek into the privileged world of beauty and it’s been unsettling. Your consciousness has been raised. Naturally, the raising of consciousness brings discomfort. So let’s take it a step further.

If you like to nerdily calculate things, I suggest you calculate not only the cost of your beauty in time but the value of your beauty in dollars.

For you have glimpsed the operations of a system we might call the economy of beauty. Goods and services are exchanged, rewards given and withheld, hierarchies established, challenged, reordered and again established. Countries and companies are run, families are made, jobs are given, wealth and property change hands on the basis of this intoxicating thing of beauty.

But rather than operating openly in a regulated market, this economy operates right in front of us, but we pretend it does not exist. In the modeling world, the beauty economy operates aboveground. But in much of the rest of society, is it like the drug economy. It operates soundlessly in the night; transactions are whispered and preparations are made in secret. Yours is the black-market beauty economy.

It’s like everybody is pretending not to smoke pot.

But back to the nitty-gritty monetary value of your hard-earned beauty. What are you worth by the hour? That might sound like a question one would ask a prostitute, and the idea isn’t far off. But what I mean is, What is your time worth as a trained, educated professional person?

How much of that value is due to your beauty? Do you suppose that a contemptibly ugly person with your same skills would occupy your job? Of course not. The only question is, what percentage did your beauty contribute to your employment. That’s not to denigrate your talents, but to simply make an observation. You have seen how things work from both sides. You know this to be true. You’re doing the only rational thing: You’re responding to the market.

The contradictions you experience are not internal; they aren’t due to some moral flaw within you. They are material. They are external to you. They arise naturally out of how we actually live and feel.

Female beauty is not shallow. But it can be short-lived. So my only advice is to revel in this fragile and miraculous thing because it fades so quickly. Catch it while it’s fresh. Take advantage of it now. Enjoy it. Use its power.

After all, you’ve worked very hard for it.

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