Radical Self-Empowerment: What Georgia O'Keeffe Means Today

For Georgia O'Keeffe, forty was the new sixty. She always looked older than she was, and she didn't care, or didn't care enough.
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The most radical thing about Georgia O'Keeffe were her wrinkles. In 1936, closing in on fifty, Elizabeth Arden commissioned O'Keeffe to paint a mural on the wall of her salon. The two became friends, and Arden, in an effort to show O'Keeffe how gorgeous she would be with a smidge of make-up, pressed her into submitting to a make-over. Afterwards, Georgia went straight to the nearest sink and washed it all off, claiming she just didn't feel like herself. O'Keeffe had high cheekbones, hooded blue eyes and a full, perfectly proportioned mouth. And yet she had no interest in preserving her beauty, the better to be appreciated by others. She was interested only in experience, and if it was etched on her face, so be it.

Claiming the most memorable thing about one of America's most iconic women is how she looked rather than what she accomplished is alarmingly retro. At least, I hope it's alarmingly retro. But maybe not. The only difference between now and 1957 is Brazilian bikini waxes. We live in a time in which every woman's unwritten goal, no matter her age, is to appear no older than thirty-four for as long as is humanly possible; a time when the instant a woman achieves a modicum of fame, instead of using the power that celebrity confers to rock whatever individual look she's got going on, she hires the style experts make her look "hot." (Not you, Helen Mirren.)

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, as you read this, you're thinking instead of O'Keeffe's staggering oeuvre -- during her seven decade career she created over two thousand works of art -- and those big bright flower paintings that became so popular art world mandarins had no choice but to sneer, or the fact that she was hip to the possibilities of abstraction a good thirty years before Pollock or Rothko. If so, please accept my apologies.

O'Keeffe, for the length of her long life -- she lived to be 98 -- inhabited her body with the confidence of a man. Her physical self was to be used and enjoyed. She was impervious to aging. At fifty-three O'Keeffe became a home owner for the first time, purchasing a small adobe house on seven acres of land on Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. At fifty-nine, the age at which she relocated to New Mexico for good (before that she'd been splitting her time between Ghost Ranch and New York, where her husband, anti-traveler Alfred Stieglitz lived) she created an entire new life for herself, and painted a few more masterpieces for good measure. She taught herself to cook. She bought a pair of chows. She visited Paris for the first time (at sixty-two) and then took a trip around the world. The average life span of a woman born in 1887 was fifty-two. After her expiration date, O'Keeffe still had forty-plus more years of bad assery in her.

Yet the thing about O'Keeffe that is so stubbornly mysterious -- and thus awe-inspiring -- remains her life-long disinterest in trying to look not just younger, but even, well, better. This is not to say that O'Keeffe didn't take care of herself. She was decades ahead of the curve when it came to believing in the curative powers of exercise, and thought sugar could kill you. She was vain about her beautiful, oft-photographed hands, and also her hair, which she kept long her whole life, and brushed out religiously at bedtime. Even into her old age, she was always aware of her special appeal and magnetism.

But for O'Keeffe, forty was the new sixty. She always looked older than she was, and she didn't care, or didn't care enough. I'd wager a my next tube of over-priced eye cream that no woman in recorded history has ever owned her wrinkles the way O'Keeffe owned hers. She baked in the New Mexico sun, tramped around the wilderness into her eighties, collecting those wrinkles the way she collected interesting stones, pieces of rocks and bone. It was those wrinkles -- and not any attempt to rid herself of them -- that communicated her supreme, appealing confidence.

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