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Our Own Worst Critics? Or Not

Craving a community of acceptance for mid-life women.

Several of my friends confessed their personal struggles with their aging appearance in response to my first post for this blog. The comments gave me a sense that this is something many of us are thinking about. While some friends and readers wrote of their resolve not to let worries about looking older rule their lives (one wrote, in effect, “I am hoping for neat and clean at this point in life!”), others shared their distress about aspects of their no-longer-young bodies and faces. Seems many of us look in the mirror and see only the creases around our eyes and mouths or the extra inches around our waists.

What we value in ourselves, and what others valued when we were growing up, can make a difference in how much our aging appearance bothers us. Were women and girls in your house given respect for their character and their accomplishments, or were they judged primarily on their looks?

While we may be our own worst critics, there is a lot out there in the media to suggest that mid-life women’s aging appearance may be problematic.

Exhibit A, from The Huffington Post and many other sources: A former New York Times editor, author Ed Klein, was interviewed on Fox News about Secretary of State and former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton about whether Mrs. Clinton might run for president again in 2016. Mr. Klein said, “She’s not looking good. She’s looking overweight and she’s looking very tired,” and, “If she runs, she’ll be 69.” Here is a woman who has served our nation in several capacities, representing the U.S. overseas in difficult times. Did the comments focus on her politics or her job performance? No, they were personal, focusing on her appearance and her age. Would those comments have been made about a man of the same age and weight? I doubt it.

Exhibit B: In current popular entertainment, the movie Snow White and the Huntsman is taking a frightening approach to the familiar fairy tale. Most of us remember that the industrious, innocent, and pretty Snow White from the old Disney film befriended cute dwarves and forest animals and was pursued by an evil, vain queen who tricked her into eating a poisonous apple. Fortunately, of course, a handsome prince rescued Snow White in the end and the queen had to accept that she was not as beautiful as Snow White.

In the new version, actress Charlize Theron plays the queen with icy beauty and cruelty. Her issue with the fair Snow White (Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame) and other lovely maidens in her realm is not just their beauty (“Who’s the fairest of them all?”), but their youthful beauty. The movie’s trailer shows how the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman saps the life energy out of young women, making their skin shrivel and their hair gray, eventually killing them, in order to magically keep her own youth and good looks.

Whew! What are we to make of this? Why does this extreme story resonate at all in our culture? The fairy tale is old, but unfortunately it has a fresh relevance to contemporary women’s dread of becoming old and the exaggerated value placed on female youth and beauty.

The consensus in reader comments to my earlier post was that we crave a community of acceptance for who we are and how we look—we want to strive for both self-acceptance and society’s acceptance! Maybe, for many of us, mid-life and beyond is a time for letting go of unrealistic fears and expectations about our appearance. It’s OK and only human to be a little bit exasperated with our wrinkles and a little bit envious of the Snow Whites around us. But for goodness sakes, let’s not allow ourselves, or the Ed Kleins of the world, to tell us that looking older or getting older is not OK.

More from Kathryn Betts Adams Ph.D., M.S.W.
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