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Retiring Athletes and Aging Beauty Queens: Shared Destinies?

John Sterling got it partially right, that women mourn their youthful looks as they age much the way a retiring athlete mourns the loss of his sport.
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Is there any connection between a retiring baseball player and an aging beauty queen? Ask legendary Yankee broadcaster, John Sterling and you might learn there is. As an avid Yankee fan and a psychologist who most often writes about women's issues, I was at first taken aback and then intrigued when I heard Sterling's thoughts on the subject. On a recent pre-game show, Sterling and Suzyn Waldman were talking about the moving celebration that was taking place at Fenway Park honoring Mike Lowell's retirement from baseball. I could hear Boston fans going from cheers to tears -- as Red Sox fans are known to do -- while the announcers reminisced about Lowell's long and highly regarded career. I was only half-listening, but my ears perked up when Sterling offered an explanation for Lowell's display of emotions. He was saying something like, "you know, it's really hard when an athlete retires... it's like how a woman feels when her looks go... it's hard because it's all they know." Waldman, quiet for a long awkward moment, as if wondering whether to react to Sterling's politically incorrect analogy, tried to steer him back to the topic of baseball. But Sterling continued espousing about the parallels between baseball and beauty, putting his foot further and further into his mouth.

I usually laugh when Sterling's exuberance gets the better of him. I love "Sterlingisms," as some people call them; when he creates nicknames like "Swishilicious" and "Grandyman," or when he excitedly shouts, "don't you know, Cano," or "it's an A-bomb for A-rod." I don't even mind his unorthodox efforts to mesh baseball with philosophy, psychology and literature while calling games. During this particular broadcast, I tried to find humor in Sterling's cavalier attempt to bring women's issues into the mix. But the sexist implication of his comment gnawed at me. I thought, "shame on you," for talking to Waldman and other female fans as if the end of a professional baseball career is similar to a woman reaching midlife or beyond. Could he really think that women should hang up their heels -- like ballplayers do their cleats -- just because their bodies change? And does he really believe that looks are all women care about?

By the time that game got to the seventh inning stretch and the heat of Sterling's inflammatory words receded, I began to think more clearly about what he had actually said. I realized that in a certain way he had made a perceptive, if provocative, point and that the problem wasn't in the comparison, but in the omission of a key word. Had he compared baseball retirement with how some women feel when their "youthful" looks go, he would have been absolutely right on. And had he said his remark less off offhandedly, perhaps women -and even some men - might have recognized the message behind the metaphor. It is an issue I talk about in my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change." Yes, when women face the loss of their youthful appearance, many face the kind of complicated emotions that retiring athletes do when they too wonder what comes next.

But Sterling made another mistake. He implied that all women feel loss when their "looks go, because it is all they know." Surely, when we are talking about women who model, dance or act, their physical appearance has played a major role in their lives and issues of beauty take on a disproportionate meaning. I know a little about that myself, having been a professional dancer and model. Like athletes, women in those professions are often singularly focused on developing their unique skills from an early age, and as they reach their late 20's and early 30s their value is thrown into question. We will soon see that story told in Natalie Portman's new film, Black Swan, about a ballet dancer and the younger diva waiting in the wings. I call this experience the "uh-oh" moment, a feeling athletes know well, whether male or female. They are aware it is coming, but when it does, it's unsettling and overwhelming. It hits at their core, as they recognize that life will never be the same and say goodbye to an asset that once served as a major source of self-esteem and

So, John Sterling got it partially right, that women mourn their youthful looks as they age much the way a retiring athlete mourns the loss of his sport. Nature forces us all to let go and move on. And few of us escape the strong feelings that come with the process. Yes, men can probably best relate to how women feel if they think about how they feel as they lose strength and athletic prowess as they age. But let us remember that just like a man's self worth isn't completely tied to his physical abilities or power, a woman's self worth isn't tied to one aspect alone. And let's remember too, that even if aging is not a walk in the park for anyone, saying goodbye to our younger selves does not mean throwing in the towel. If Mike Lowell, or for that matter, Jeter, Mo, Posada or any of my Yankee heroes, feel less valued and vital when they put down their gloves, it's heartening to know they will experience emotions that many women feel every day in a youth obsessed society.

Hopefully there will be many more games that Sterling calls that end with "Ballgame over. Yankees win. Theeeeee Yankees Win!" And as players retire year after year, perhaps it is the aging, but smart, successful and multi-faceted women who will relate best of all. Game may be over, but life is not.