It can be hard for women to decide which camp they fall into as they get older: Embrace one's wrinkles and age naturally or do something dramatic, like cosmetic surgery, to look younger. “This is not just a skin-deep issue, this is a cultural one, a psychological one,” says Vivian Diller, author of the book Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change (Hay House, 2010), which explores this beauty paradox.
A psychologist in private practice in New York City, Diller, 59, specializes in helping dancers, models, actors and athletes who struggle as they age out of their professions. Her interest in the subject stems largely from her own journey: Prior to becoming a psychologist, she was a dancer with the Cincinnati Ballet Company and a model with the Wilhemina Agency in New York.
I spoke with Diller about how women can age gracefully and why both sexes should think twice before going under the knife.
Next Avenue: What prompted you to write Face It?
Diller: I felt women needed an intelligent, psychological guide to a challenging cultural dilemma: "How can we feel and look attractive as we age, even if the definition of beauty today is based on youth?"
When I began this book, too many women felt forced to take sides on this issue, to either do whatever they can at any cost to look younger or go au naturel and focus on this idea that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” in order to be true to themselves and their feminist beliefs. Neither seemed like a reasonable solution to me.
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How do you think women feel about aging now?
They’re much more comfortable about not letting their looks matter so much that they’ll do things they regret. We're seeing a wave of women who, instead of doing anything dramatic to anti-age their faces, seem to think twice. They look at other options: staying fit through exercise, drinking less, eating well and wearing clothes and hairstyles that bring out their best qualities rather than trying to appear younger. They’re taking care of themselves in healthier ways earlier on.
How do boomers’ view of aging differ from their parents?
Looks have always been important, that's not going to change. In the early 1900s, life expectancy was 48 years. The latest stats have women living until age 81, which means many will live until their late 80s and 90s.
It was not that long ago when people hit midlife and had only a decade or two to live. So, if you made it to age 50, the idea of sitting in a rocking chair and knitting booties for grandchildren was viewed as an accomplishment. Women of the "Greatest Generation" didn't expect to be CEOs or work in almost any capacity outside the home. Their goal was to fulfill their role as a good wife and mother, so there was little pressure to maintain their looks past midlife.
Conversely, boomer women not only assumed they would play many roles beyond being wives and mothers, they felt proud of these accomplishments. They were determined not to feel stuck ironing clothes, cooking meals, going to the hairdresser and staying home while their husbands lived full lives. They were living proof that the Women's Movement succeeded.
But this is where it gets tricky. As boomer women hit midlife, they suddenly found themselves preoccupied by the very thing they’d felt had been (and was supposed to be) irrelevant up until now: their appearance. Consequently, as their looks changed, they lost confidence in their identity as strong, powerful women. They felt vulnerable and it frightened them. Suddenly, so much about their outside mattered in a way they didn't expect.
Let's remember, too, unlike women of previous generations, many boomer women found themselves single in their 50s and 60s. With the divorce rate continuing at 50 percent and women living longer, there are millions of single midlifers out there hoping to attract a mate — sometimes for the first time, but often for the second or third.
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While we have the benefits of being able to take care of ourselves in ways previous generations didn't — knowing to stay out of the sun, eating healthier, avoiding alcohol and smoking — dating after 50 is still a scary notion for most women. Some consider plastic surgery and non-invasive procedures, hoping to look more appealing. Not only did our parents rarely consider these choices, they were only available to the rich and famous.
How has women's view of plastic surgery evolved over time?
Over the past 20 years, as cosmetic surgery became popular, too many women saw that as the only option. Those who initially had plastic surgery were driven by the desperate fear of looking old and then got caught in the spiral of physical alterations that promised youth but left them looking like someone else.
It's only within the last couple of years that we’ve begun to see a backlash to the plastic look. Now there's a whole other wave of women who are saying, "Let's embrace our age, embrace our silver hair. Let's be in shape. Let's be strong and flexible." They’re feeling vital without having to look younger.
Do you think women have a harder time accepting aging than men?
For hundreds and thousands of years, women have been hardwired to believe that our value in the world is about our ability to procreate. As a result, our sense of well-being is based in large part on our youth, femininity and vitality. Men, on the other hand, base their value largely on their virility.
What makes a person attractive, even into old age?
Attractiveness is determined by three factors: One is genetics. There's only so much you can do about thinning hair or the skin you have. Two: How you take care of yourself as your looks change. If you neglect your looks or take them for granted, eat poorly, take too many drugs, you will make the aging appearance that was genetically coded go even faster. Stress is the third factor, not only in how old you look, but how old you feel. There is quite a bit of research that suggests stress can cause biological changes in our bodies that speed the breakdown of cells, which results in aging more quickly.
What does aging gracefully look like?
The key to aging with grace and comfort is finding that internal dialogue that encourages you as you would encourage a good friend and makes you feel like attractiveness isn't about having every feature look the same as it did years ago. It's about focusing on the whole gestalt — your presentation of yourself, your smile, your engaging eyes, a strong stride. That goes along with a dialogue that says, “Life requires a constant adjusting.”
Do women's attitudes toward aging shift over time?
I think turning 40 is harder for women than it is for men and turning 50 is harder for men than it is for women. But it used to be that women in their 50s would say, “Fifty is the new 40.” But it’s not. Fifty is the new 50 — and 50 is pretty damned good.
What should everyone consider before getting plastic surgery?
Too many people seek the least expensive plastic surgery, but this is not something to scrimp on. They don't realize the serious, long-term consequences of making alterations to your face and body and how important it is to think long and hard about it. These changes are, for the most part, permanent. You also have to consider the slippery slope: Once you change one thing, you're going to feel as if you want to change other things.
A lot of these invasive procedures require upkeep every six months. You need to ask, “Who is this for?” Is it for your husband or friends? You also have to be very clear what your own expectations are. If you think some action you take surgically will help the outside match more how you feel on the inside, that's a reasonable expectation. Ask the surgeon, “Can you help me look more rested, more vital?” You want to stay away from a surgeon who wants to help you look different.
Don't let the surgeons tell you what they can do. Tell them what you expect.
What are the risks of not thinking this through?
We don't realize until we change something how attached we it we are to it. Changing your looks changes how you feel about your identity. Women have a hard time talking about this. They'll say, "I miss my face" or "I know my breasts look perky, but they don't feel like mine."
If you choose that route, you have to be very thoughtful and careful about how attached you are to your face. Putting our face in someone else's hands is very hard.
Are you personally against surgery?
I'm not against surgery. I just think that getting past feeling like it's your only solution is important. Sometimes nip and tucking your attitude is better. I have yet to meet an adult child of potential candidates for cosmetic surgery who says, "I really would like my dad to get a facelift" or "My mom would look so great with breast implants," because they love their parents for who they are.
As a former model, how did you personally come to terms with aging?
Prior to being a model, I was a professional ballet dancer. In those worlds, I was used to being scrutinized all the time. As a dancer, it's all about moving perfectly. As a model, it's all about looking great. You get a lot of attention, but it's often critical attention.
When I left both those worlds, I was pretty surprised by how little focus there was on one's looks in the psychology world. I had to relearn how to define myself and base my self-esteem on other aspects of myself.
Now I can achieve a full balance because I have a great job, fun hobbies, a wonderful family and passion for the message I go around the country talking about. But make no mistake: I don't forget that how I present myself has a lot to do with how happy I am.