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The Beauty Paradox: When Feminism and Vanity Collide

When you reach 50 or 60, feminism can feel like a directive to let looks go, while caring about one's looks can feel narcissistic or anti-feminist -- a dilemma many Boomers were not prepared to face.
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In the weeks following International Women's Day, a great deal of discussion ensued about the ambivalent connection (or lack of one) that contemporary women have toward feminism. In a piece here entitled "Reclaiming Feminism," Annie Lennox wrote, "Many young women feel the label of 'feminist' is, at best, irrelevant to their lives and, at worst, a stigma to be avoided at all costs." While women of all ages support the notion of gender equality, what it means to identify with the feminist movement is much more complicated.

Surprisingly, a version of this ambivalence can be found among Baby Boomer women, many who proudly connect feminism to the accomplishments and freedoms they enjoy today. These women were the first generation to have helped engender, or at least have benefitted from, the glass ceilings broken by the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. And yet as Boomers, they are heading into the later chapters of longer lives --millions turning 65 this year -- only to find themselves fixated on a most "unfeminist" preoccupation -- their aging appearance. They wonder, "Why, after years of being focused on building careers and raising kids, are we now staring into our mirror like insecure adolescents, thinking 'uh-oh'?" These women -- brought up to care for their looks without caring too much -- now feel compelled to take sides on the issue -- to be true to feminism, or betray all that word stands for.

The impolitic truth is that a changing appearance throws even the most confident and resilient women off track. Wasn't 50 supposed to be the new 15 -- or at least the new 40? Weren't we promised opportunities for continued vitality, new beginnings and reinvention as long as we took care of "Our Bodies, Ourselves?" Why does remaining visible and vital seem attainable only if it includes a new face and a young body? The fact is, women are feeling quite conflicted about the choices that lay ahead, and in spite of all those promised midlife opportunities, our youth and beauty obsessed culture presents unexpected challenges.

Olivia Goldhill, writer for The Harvard Crimson, asks, "What Does Feminism Mean to You?" She says, "There are many reasons given for opposing feminism, the most common (and offensive) argument is that feminists are simply unattractive bra-burning zealots." Far from being focused on burning bras, Boomer women worry that no one would even notice if they wear one or not. The conflict is not about being associated with the clichéd perception of unshaven, aggressive women, but rather whether -- or how much -- to focus on the undeniable, unstoppable effects of physical maturation

"Be true to yourself and let your aging appearance take a back seat to what really matters." Isn't that what being a true feminist is about? The alternative? "Pay extra attention to your appearance as you age, maybe even take advantage of youth defying procedures, like botox or plastic surgery." Has that become the modern day mantra for women? When you reach 50 or 60, feminism can feel like a directive to let looks go, while caring about one's looks can feel narcissistic or anti-feminist -- a dilemma many Boomers were not prepared to face. I call this "The Beauty Paradox."

Message One: Your looks shouldn't matter. They are superficial. It's what is inside that counts. Stay true to your real self. Let your looks take their natural course as you age.

Message Two: Your looks should matter and they always will. Defy aging at whatever the cost, in any way you can, lest you become invisible. Oh, and be sure to make it look natural!

These contradictory messages create an internal conflict that I believe many women aren't even aware they are feeling. The first step is acknowledging the paradox exists so we can learn to navigate it and ask ourselves the tough questions: If we let our looks take their natural course, will we feel better? More loyal to our sisterhood? Beautiful on the inside? If we focus on our appearance and try to look our best as we age, have we given in? Betrayed our feminist beliefs? Lost sight of what is most important?

That this phase of life highlights our ambivalent connection to feminism needs more discussion. It's a topic Boomer women tend to avoid. (How many tell even their best friends about their botox injections? Do you know which of your peers have had breast augmentation, the most popular procedure among women today?) And yet ignoring this conflict buries complicated emotional issues, sometimes resulting in confusion and poor coping measures. One can't help wonder: Are the steep rise in plastic surgery and increases in midlife depression, alcoholism and eating disorders expressions of this internal dilemma? The Beauty Paradox needs to be brought into our awareness in order to be resolved. We all get older. Everyone's appearance changes. How we deal with that fact is a challenge that faces us all.

In the end, instead of feeling compelled to take sides, we can work toward finding a middle ground. Caring about one's appearance is far from being "anti-feminist," or narcissistic. In fact, it is a continuation of what feminism, in some ways, stands for: freedom of choice. Choosing to let our looks be one among other aspects of who we are as women is our right. The means we elect to care about ourselves, versus letting nature take its course, are personal choices. Feeling proud of who we are can include how much we have accomplished through the years, as well as how those years show on our faces. Both matter to women. And they matter especially as we age, whatever feminism means to you.

Tell me how you feel about your aging appearance? Do you relate to the Beauty Paradox?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D., and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

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