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 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. The context of our times and her membership in the postwar generation, the cultural narrative of the ‘natural,’ and her middle-class, white sensibility, as well as, the preferences or prejudices of some second wave feminists are encapsulated in her statement. From this mélange, my dinner companion has chosen an identity – the appearance she presents to the world. Yet, despite her protestations of a lack of caring about appearance, she maintains a particular ‘look.’ 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 of ordinary older people was trivial.
My dinner companion is not alone in her presumption. There is a dearth of research that explores ageing appearance and the possibility that ordinary older people could be beautiful. There are exceptions, for example Krekula (2016), Clarke and Korotchenko (2008, 2012) and Furman (1997) write about older women and appearance yet, gauging the centrality of appearance to our sense of self, there is a strange absence of scholarship. 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. It is what Goffman (1969) delineates as backstage in preparation for front stage. As older interviewees discussed the intimate details of those moments in the mirror, I heard descriptions from women and men of self-care. Age, of course, brought new issues of self-care into sharp focus, for example, in the form of women’s unwanted facial hair or, for many men changing their ‘look’ to cope with hair loss. These were not trivial concerns but dug deep into their sense of self-signaling their position in their life trajectory.
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, preparing us for front stage. Front stage encompasses the act of being seen, being acknowledged in our humanity. Our embodied appearance is not gendered; it is human though perspectives may differ. Our sense of visibility contributes to a sense of self. In a curious and surprising twist, most women told me they noticed other older women. Older women saw each other through a full spectrum of emotional engagement. They acknowledged each other, admired each other, and, sometimes rendered comparisons, taking a more competitive stance. On the other hand, it was the men who, expressed a sadness when they stated they felt invisible. Curiously, male participants in the study had much to say about other ageing men and, most it, from a competitive perspective. This came through most strongly as the men discussed hair loss and weight gain. Male interviewees denied looking, gazing at other older men yet, the competitive talk was a feature in many of the interviews.
And, then, there is the physicality of beautiful – the visual experience of beauty, the sight of beauty is pleasurable. At the heart of the research, was the question, ‘can old people be beautiful?’ For the most part, 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 sheen of celebrity, media images often associated with age but beauty in everyday faces. Ageing can and does change perspectives.
Many aspects of the coming of age are universal, yet, culture, historical context, and generation invite nuance into our understanding of age, embodiment and appearance. Changing notions of appearance reflect the cultural constitution of ageing at any given time. Imagining or, even defining notions of age and beauty says as much about this moment in history and how we as a culture/society view ageing as the many other indicators which include representations in the media, in policy documents, and in research findings from the many perspectives of gerontology. Yes, of course, consumer or, what I prefer to call, corporate culture is a factor in current concerns and notions of ageing appearance but, in the main, interest, concern or focus on appearance, grooming, and beautification has been abiding throughout human history.
To explore appearance, beauty, and age is to delve into an investigation of a core aspect of senescence. In essential ways this exploration holds key understandings of current ageing identities. 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 in evidence in ancient Egypt and were used in antiquity throughout Mediterranean, South American and Mexican civilizations.
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.
Clarke, L. H., & Griffin, M. (2008). Visible and invisible ageing: Beauty work as a response to ageism. Ageing and Society, 28(5), 653–674.
Clarke, L. H., & Korotchenko, A. (Eds.). (2012). Doing beauty: Women, ageing and identity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Furman, K. F. (1997). Facing the mirror: Older women and beauty shop culture. London: Routledge.
Goffman, E. (1969). The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin Press.
Krekula, C. (2016). Contextualizing older women’s body images: Time dimensions, multiple reference groups, and age coding of appearance. Journal of Women and Aging, 28(1), 58–67.