Suzanne Braun Levine on How We See Ourselves

I really appreciated this article that appeared last week on Huff/Post50.  I think it will speak to you as it did to me:

You Are More Beautiful Than You Think

By Suzanne Braun Levine

Suzanne Braun Levine
Suzanne Braun Levine

I’m not crazy about the current Dove campaign in which a police artist draws a portrait of a forty-ish woman from her description (dour and harsh) and then draws another from the description by another woman who has spent a little time with her (warmer and more pleasant looking); the punch line is “you are more beautiful than you think.”

This is not news. We have been prettier than we thought all along. When we are not comparing ourselves unfavorably to models and movie stars – who, the fan magazines show us gleefully, don’t look at all like their glamorous selves when out doing errands – we are comparing present selves with our younger selves. It happens to all of us. You come upon an old photograph of yourself back when you were sure you were fat and unattractive and discover a pretty girl in the picture.

Will we never achieve acceptance of our real physical selves as they are in present time? This question becomes increasingly urgent as we age. Whereas when we were younger, you had to be on LSD, as one friend puts it, to notice the minuscule flaws we found so fatal, nowadays for the women I write about, the sags and wrinkles are real; hair thins, so do lips, and as fit as we are, the waist is a feature of the past. This is where my girlfriends have saved the day more than once – with laughter. In my new e-book You Gotta Have Girlfriends: A Post-fifty Posse is Good for Your Health  I share research that finds that having a “circle of trust” can be more conducive to healthy aging than quitting smoking!

There is a real irony here. The conventional wisdom is that no one could possibly aspire to be an “Older women,” yet I have not met a single woman over fifty who would actually want to go back to who she was at thirty. Back then there was too much stress. Too much self-doubt. Too much pressure to conform to expectations – the good wife, the good mother, the rising professional as well as the fit, thin, stylish young woman. We post-fifty gals are having too much fun.

The truth is that we don’t look as good as we once did. Like many other facts we have to accept about aging, this one is what it is. I find it harder and harder to look my best. Or even, under some circumstances, to look myself. Recently I was at a memorial for a former colleague. People whom I hadn’t seen for thirty years were there; I couldn’t recognize several of them. What’s worse, several didn’t recognize me!

It’s time to let go of the lifelong fantasy of a more perfect body. There’s an advantage to moving beyond that, though; the pressure is finally off. When it comes to sex, for example, women I interview for my recent book How We Love Now: Women Talk About Intimacy After 50 reported discovering that, under the cover of darkness if need be, they can explore new dimensions of their sexuality. The shift is from how we feel about how we look to how we feel — in our bodies.

From that perspective there is a lot we can do. For one thing, we can tend to our working parts by getting into (better) shape. Like many of my contemporaries, I’m a late bloomer in that department. I work with a trainer, and we laugh about the fact that I used to look firm but was nothing but mushy abs and non-existent biceps. Now, I’m proud to say, the reverse is true. Another friend, a one-time couch potato, is entering triathlons. Of course the requirements are tailored to her age group, but she is doing something she never in her wildest dreams expected to do back when her skin was taught.  It might be helpful to think about this: An athlete who has trained her whole life will lose ground as she ages, but a woman who starts building her strength at midlife will see real progress.

For me the next challenge is going grey. I hate the whole process of natural looking hair for a week, followed by the creeping skunk line in front and the growing beanie at the crown. I am inspired by the growing number of gorgeous greys I see everywhere. I wish I looked as good as they do. Wait a minute! That’s where we started.

Suzanne Braun Levine is the author of You Gotta Have Girlfriends: A Post-fifty Posse is Good for Your Health , and is our keynote speaker at Women At Woodstock West and the lead panelist on the Friends & Intimacy workshop at Women At Woodstock East this year.

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