Age, Appearance, and Beauty – The Face in the Mirror

My latest book, Baby Boomers, Age and Beauty begins with this anecdote:

My dinner companion looked up from her plate and questioned why I was researching and writing a book on ageing and beauty. “I’m just ageing. I don’t think much about it,” she said in a challenging tone. She went on to declare that she never thought about her appearance and rarely looked in the mirror….she preferred to be look and age ‘naturally.’

I suspect that my dinner companion was unaware of the richness of her declaration and the number of choices, preferences, and judgements embedded in making her claim. In brief, she has chosen a particular identity to present to the world – the ‘natural look’ with a preference for grey, well-cut and styled hair, obviously cared-for-skin, and fashionable glasses. Her judgement extended to the assumption that researching appearance, age, and beauty was trivial……so, why study beauty?

My dinner companion is not alone in her presumption. There is little research that explores ageing appearance and the possibility that ordinary older people could be beautiful. Yet self-presentation is an essential aspect of our identity. The choices we make as we get ourselves ready to go out into the world to be seen and see others is no small matter – it is the stuff of us. For most of us, there is no age limit to the desire to be seen by others and the decisions we make in front of the mirror – a glance or a studied moment – convey to the world, this is me, grey-haired or dyed, a spot of lipstick or not, a comb-over or a shaved head – all choices that convey our sense of self.

Our embodied appearance is not gendered; it is human though perspectives may differ. During the course of my research, the experience of being seen/visible was important to both women and men. In a curious and surprising twist, most women told me they noticed other older women and, not necessarily from a competitive perspective. Older women saw each other, acknowledged each other, admired each other. On the other hand, it was the men who expressed a sadness when they stated they felt invisible.

And, then, there is the physicality of beautiful – the visual experience of beauty, the sight of beauty is pleasurable. At the heart of my research, was the question, ‘can old people be beautiful?’ For the most part, the vast majority of both women and men agreed they saw beauty in some ageing faces. Not the beauty of the exotic other staring off into the middle distance or the polished gleam of celebrity but, beauty in the faces of some ordinary older people.

So, I return to the question – why research appearance, beauty, and age? It is an essential aspect of our humanity. As we move through the trajectory of our lifespan, from babyhood to old, that embodied reflection of who we are and how we appear to ourselves and others is part of the rich story of our species. There is evidence from prehistory that we painted ourselves for our gods and others. Highly polished metal reflecting devices were all the rage in ancient Egypt and were used in antiquity throughout the Mediterranean civilizations. Had Narcissus lived he might have been an old man staring at his own reflection in the pool. Self-presentation looms large in our human history and beautification of the self is an important and abiding aspect of that.

As I spoke with people about age and beauty, they told me stories of their grandmothers’ careful preparation for church or family gatherings, the arrival of Vogue magazines in the bush to be poured over by three generations of women, or an encounter with a beautiful older stranger whose memory stayed with them. My own grandfather was quite the dandy and would not have dreamed of going out to face the world without ensuring he was well put together. Through the interviews, as people described beautiful older faces to me, their eyes lit up with enthusiasm and pleasure. Age, appearance, and beauty are essential aspects of our human inheritance. Why would we not want to know about age, appearance, and beauty?

First published: Emerald Press website, June 22, 2018