Winning at the Beauty Game
"you must unlearn what you have learned"
A while ago I was on a panel with a couple of other beauty editors, presenting to a room of 30-40-year-old "influencers." We were there to share wisdom about what we knew from our many years in the magazine business. I spoke about being at least 15 years older than the other beauty editors and how that shaped my thinking; and about the intensifying pressures regarding women’s appearance created by social media to look youthful and sexy and flawless. Most important, I took the opportunity to introduce my platform: That it's crucial to learn to love your face no matter how you choose to accept or confront the aging process, because you'll never be really happy with how you look unless you can actually see yourself uninhibited by objectification.
As I spoke, the silence in the room became almost a presence, while the women absorbed the message. When I finished talking, there was a kind of stunned moment before an explosion of applause. One woman, crying, asked to share her story. She had just had a bad experience with a facial filler that wound her up in the hospital. "I can't believe how much pressure I've been feeling about having to look perfect," she said. "I really needed to hear that it's ok to stop, that there's another way."
There is another way. A much better way. I aim for us to discover it together.
Who am I to tell you how you can feel beautiful as you age? For one thing, I’m 73 (wtf!) and struggling with that issue myself. The struggle is real—and I’m determined to find a way to resolve it. As you probably already know, it’s complicated.
For another (maybe more salient) thing, I was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine for nearly 16 years. While I generated and produced the magazine’s beauty editorial, many thousands of women shared with me their most intimate thoughts about how they look. I was honored to be their confidante (maybe I was yours) and I learned a lot from them (maybe you). They/you taught me our culture affects almost all of us in ways we’re not always conscious of and that the effect is mostly not positive. That what we do in the name of beauty often feels like a punishment. So I became passionate about trying to help women understand how to deal with those damaging influences and how, even while confronting them, to feel encouraged.
During my tenure at the magazine I also interviewed hundreds of experts: dermatologists, plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, celebrity makeup artists and hair stylists. If anyone knows how to conjure up physical beauty, they do—and they generously shared what they know with me.
One thing, as Oprah says, I know for sure: In spite of the enormous array of anti-aging products, procedures, and nutritionals flooding the market, there are truthfully only a few things you can do that will help you feel beautiful as you age. Go elsewhere if you’re looking for a magic cream or pill. Keep reading if your heart’s aligned, as mine is, with author Ursula Le Guin: Beauty always has rules, she wrote. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves.
The beauty game Le Guin refers to has one most important goal: to make us feel unhappy or at least unsettled about how we look. To make us feel—no matter how young or attractive we are (by anyone’s standards)—that we could and should do better. That’s often how Big Beauty works, profiting from our dissatisfaction and our yearning. The game guilts and frightens us into playing. That sucks, doesn’t it?
And if you happen to be a woman of a certain age, you’ve probably noticed that in ways subtle and overt, people perceived to be older in our culture, especially female people, are often shamed—just for still being around. For wanting to participate. For trying to stay in shape. For wanting to be relevant. For not looking fuckable.
A few years ago former Playboy Playmate Dani Mathers was sentenced to community service (in lieu of jail time) for posting on her Snapchat a photo she took in her gym of a naked 70-year-old woman. Her caption: If I can’t unsee this, neither can you. On the page where I read the story (and saw the post) there was another photo of Mathers snuggling up to an ancient, bathrobe-clad Hugh Heffner. Irony not lost.
Many women, like Mathers, have internalized the ambient shame all around us. Which is unfortunate, as it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with those who need to shame us.
I’m going to be talking mostly about faces here. I want to help shift your perspective so that the face you see in the mirror, especially if it’s an aging one, is a face you love. If you can get there, you’re more likely to be happier with whatever you choose to do with it. Studies confirm this.
As for me, I’m no treatment virgin. I have neurotoxin (Botox or Dysport) injections in my forehead two or three times a year; I have tried filler (in my upper lip for perioral rhytids, those fine lines that make it look like your mouth has shrunk, and in my chin); I’ve had my face lasered to reduce redness and even out skin tone; I’ve tried facial acupuncture; and I submitted to what is referred to as the “vampire facial,” which involved having my face punctured with tiny needles, zapped with an ultrasound device, and smeared liberally with my own platelet-rich blood plasma as a last, sticky step. (You can read some of my beauty adventures at valeriemonroe.com) Though I wouldn’t say never to cosmetic surgery, I do say not now.
I’m not your “old broad” cheerleader. There are other blogs for that. I’m here to walk (and sometimes wade) with you through our ongoing metamorphosis. I’m afraid we might expect it—like another notorious metamorphosis—to be an unglorious transformation. But you know what? I think we might be surprised.
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send me your beauty-related questions. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.