Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, explains her strategies for hanging on to a great self-image in a youth-crazed world.
Getty Images "Do I look younger?" says the mother of my daughter's classmate. I stare at her blankly, which is probably not the reaction she was looking for. "Are you supposed to?" I reply. What I really mean is, "You're 37. You already look young because you are younga lot younger than I am!" She goes on to anxiously explain that she recently got cosmetic work done to fill in the lines between her eyebrows, and she thinks she also needs filler around her nose but that her grays (I am talking four or five here!) give her age away anyway. Really?
I wish I could say this woman was some kind of outlier, but, based on the clients I see every week, I can't. In today's youth-, skinny- and celebrity-obsessed culture, women as young as 30 are afraid of aging. They imagine themselves ravaged by weight gain, wrinkles and gray hair. By the time they hit 50 years old, they come in to see me and say, "I feel like I'm invisible."
Hey, I'm here!
Beginning as far back as puberty, most of us have experienced being noticed for our looksby men and by womenwhich, let's admit, boosts our sense of mattering. But by our 30s, that feeling starts to slip painfully away. Where do we get this idea that young equals beautiful and older equals unattractive? Check out tabloid covers featuring celebrities who have given birth and now, just a few weeks later, are in a bikini looking like they were never pregnant. Turn on the TV and the majority of shows are about young romantic fix-ups and misbehaving twentysomethings, or singing competitions featuring older teens.
Don't get me wrong. It's totally normal to be concerned about aging and your appearance. But that worry becomes unhealthy when it leads to risky behaviorlike running up debt to pay for cosmetic proceduresor to giving up on pursuing what makes you happy, whether that's a new job, a raise or a rewarding relationship.
Full disclosure: I'm lucky. I haven't fallen victim to the fear of aging (at least not so far!). This is not to say that I don't use products or exercise to look the way I like. But many of the things I want out of life are, in my mind, not dependent on appearing young (with the exception, perhaps, of the TV work I do). I value learning, working and loving friends and family. I think my life experience makes me a little better at these things. I look around and see plenty of attractive aging women, and what they have in common with me is that they seem to be happy with themselves and confident about what they have to offer. My grays remind me of what I've accrued in my life that I wouldn't trade for anything, like my children, my marriage and my job. I try to focus on the parts of myself I like the best and have a sense of humor about the parts I'm not so crazy for.
Happy is gorgeous
So if you're feeling paralyzed by age insecurity, ask yourself, Do I believe that my looks define how loved or admired I am, or do I think my abilities play a bigger role? For example, do you diet and exercise mostly to look thin and young, or to stay healthy and feel good? These are not mutually exclusive, of course. But when your main motivation is fear of aging or being replaced with a younger model, that's a problem.
If you stand tall, smile and think about what you do have instead of what you don't, your confidence will make you more attractive to people. Got great calves? Wear skirts that show them off. Have thick hair? Spend money on good cuts instead of wrinkle removers. Highlighting what you like will make you feel great about yourself and help others read you as pretty great, too. No, age can't be defied. But someone has got to take the first step toward embracing it. Why not you?