At a certain age not everything - or is it a certain attitude?
At a certain age not everything—or is it a certain attitude?
BY SARA DAVIDSON
Most of the year I’m fashion deprived. I live in Boulder, Colorado, where the uniform for women, no matter how old or young, is black workout pants, a fleece shirt and hiking shoes. So when I flew to New York recently I was dazzled: Most thrilling, there was a New Look, or at least it was new to me. I stared at a long row of mannequins wearing jeggings—leggings made of denim or other stretchy material that fit so tightly they looked sprayed on. Over the leggings the mannequins had long tops and sweaters or mini dresses.
This happens to be one of my Best Looks—I’m tall with long legs but haven’t worn a skirt since I hit 40.
So I tried on every brand in the store and discovered another miracle: there was a rheostat on the light in the fitting room. Hallelujah! I didn’t have to stand under bright lamps that showcase every line and imperfection. I could dial the light down to a flattering glow. I bought two pairs of leggings and three long tops and wore a new outfit to dinner that night.
I could barely contain my excitement at my clothes, but Jane, one of my dearest friends, gave me a cool look. “I make it a policy,” she said, “not to wear any clothes that my 19-year-old daughter wears.”
I felt abashed, and defensive. Were the jeggings not ageappropriate? Did they make me look like I was trying too hard to stay young and failing to age gracefully? I no longer felt like eating, but ten minutes later, we were joined by Beth, another friend who’s our age, and she too was wearing newly purchased jeggings. We slapped hands. High five! “I feel great in them,” she said. Isn’t that what counts?”
So here’s the dilemma. My body, in my 60s, doesn’t look as it did in my 20s or even my 40s. If I color my hair and wear jeggings and have my eyelids done, am I cheating? Trying to deny what’s happening? Or is it natural, even admirable, to want to look as attractive as you can for as long as you can?
I don’t want to be like Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, who was pushing 80 when she posed in a miniskirt and black fishnet stockings for Newsweek. I like her attitude, though. “I’m 78,” she wrote, “and I had sex last night.”
We’ve all seen that going to extremes to look young and trendy can appear ridiculous. Like men who have an ear pierced in their 50s or middle-aged women who wear a belly ring like their teenage daughters. At the other extreme are people who go defiantly gray, give up “trying” to stay fit and let the whole edifice collapse. Where is the middle ground?
I kept asking this question while doing research for my book, Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of our Lives? I interviewed entertainment stars, supermodels and ordinary women about how they’ve dealt with changes in their bodies over time. I looked up Carly Simon, whom I’d known when we were starting out in our 20s, before she became Carly Simon. I’d heard that she’d recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy and chemotherapy just as she and her husband were splitting, her children were heading off on their own and her career was in the cellar. To heal herself, she gave up her apartment in Manhattan and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts where she’d built a summer home for her family.
She was alone there in winter, when the island is gray and nearly deserted, but that was fine with Carly. She cleared out her daughter’s old bedroom and made it into a music studio, installing electronic equipment and learning to do the engineering herself. She stayed up late experimenting with vocals and piano tracks. “I was doing what I’d done 30 years before—making music to please myself,” she said. “That was the only star I could follow.”
She also wanted to learn “how to walk down the ladder gracefully.” She still has a lovely, slender body, sensuous lips and a dramatic presence, but it irritates her when people say, “You look so young!” She would rather they say, “You’re beautiful at your age.”
I asked her if she’s known anyone who’s walked down the ladder gracefully. “No,” she said. “I know plenty of people who’ve huffed and puffed down the ladder, who’ve clawed and tried to cut off the feet of the people going up.” But she said she’d like to saunter down with pride, taking pleasure in music, laughter, the ability to help others and the company of wonderful friends.
Carly said it was her mother, Andrea Simon, who taught her not to be afraid of age. Andrea was a tiny woman who owned the carriage and voice of a grande dame. “My mom would hold out her arthritic hand and say, `Isn’t this beautiful?’ There was beauty in a withered hand, just as there was in a weathered tree branch. She was so joyous and enthusiastic in the way she greeted age—that was a gift she gave me.”
I’ve never had such an example of joyful aging, but the image of Carly walking down a grand staircase with elegance and verve—that was glorious. But how would you do that? How do you learn to accept, appreciate, and finally, love your changing body? How can you stop feeling worried or guilty that your clothes and behavior may not be… appropriate?
Clarity arrived when I spoke with Thomas Moore, the former monk and psychotherapist who wrote, Care of the Soul. Moore, in his late 60s now, lives in rural New Hampshire where, he says, “we have barns and old farm equipment out in the fields. As the barns begin to lean and the machinery rusts, suddenly the artists come out and paint them. I think that’s true of people as well.”
But then Moore surprised me. He said he supports people’s efforts to look as youthful and beautiful as they can. “I think it’s wonderful to be concerned when you’re older with the Venusian thing—with the body and your own beauty. I’m very much in favor of anything you can do to keep your youthful spirit.”
What about older women who wear tight leggings, like their daughters might? I asked.
Moore smiled. If you can get away with it, great. It’s the attitude that matters. If you’re doing it because you’re afraid of getting older, that might not work. If you’re doing it to celebrate beauty and a youthful heart, I think that’s wonderful.”
Moore said it’s possible to do two things at once: “Age with grace—say, `Okay, I’m going to be older and enjoy it,’ —and at the same time say, `I don’t want to lose touch with my youth.’ Our childhood is always with us, our adolescence is always with us. Youth is always inside us, no matter how old our bodies are.”
In the days following our talk, I came to understand what balance might look like. You can focus on developing the inner qualities that make people compelling and appealing as they age: humor, curiosity, enthusiasm and zest. And you can take care of the outer package, in the same way you would refurbish a historical building so it doesn’t look run down and dilapidated. So it looks its best and its character will shine through.
You can appreciate how strong your legs are, how they’ve carried you through so much, so far, and wear leggings to cover the unsightly parts. You can even have the veins surgically closed or lasered, which I’m contemplating, or make peace with them and let it all be.
You can learn to see an arthritic hand as beautiful, as Andrea Simon did. Or put the focus on other aspects of your body and your presence. Accentuate the positive. No rules or “policies” need apply. You can do whatever you damn please, with the right attitude. Enjoy!
—Sara Davidson is the author of Loose Change and Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of our Lives? For a free Leap! Workbook, visit saradavidson.com
CELEBRATING AGELESS BEAUTY
When portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders looked around the roomful of ‘70s and ‘80s supermodels at a party, he didn’t scrutinize their fading looks as other guests did. Instead he saw a different kind of beauty earned through age, resulting in his exhibit exploring these glamorous subjects at New York’s Steven Kasher Gallery.
“It’s amazing that these women are in their 50’s and even 60’s, and they’re still being judged by their looks!” says the father of two daughters who blames insecure, overbearing parents, the media, and advancements in plastic surgery and airbrushing for our youthobsessed society gone haywire. “I try to teach my girls to be confident in their abilities and develop a personality to fall back on because everyone loses his looks eventually.” — RK