By Valerie Monroe
If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at valeriemonroe.substack.com.
DEAR READERS, you always surprise me.
Just when I think you’re most interested in finding the best eye cream (you don’t need one; use your moisturizer), you let me know you’re at least as interested, if not more so, in higher-level discourse around the subject of beauty.
I don’t know how many of you are practicing mirror meditation, but you responded to that post—rather than others about, say, collagen—in great numbers. What I think you’re telling me is that though we may have lots of uncomfortable feelings about our appearance as we age, we’re far from resigned to just accept those feelings—and to accept the limiting and fallacious notions about how we’re supposed to look (or want to look). On the whole, I think we’re educating ourselves (and consequently others) about how to see one another as we grow past our Darwinian sell-by date.
In her terrifically enlightening book, Survival of the Prettiest, psychologist Nancy Etcoff writes, “We want to see youthful beauty and we want to see it ornamented and adorned to the hilt! But we can also educate our eyes to see beauty in forms that do not automatically push the ancient gene-replicator buttons. Probably the most radical thing a fashion designer could do today would be to rethink who should be modeling their clothes.” Survival of the Prettiest was originally published more than 20 years ago—and our culture’s feminine beauty ideals have progressed only enough to rarely include older women.
A few months ago a friend sent me a newspaper story about a young woman the paper called “brave” for letting her gray hair grow in at an early age; she’s in her late 20s or early 30s. First, “brave” implies she’s allowing herself to be included in a group with an inherent bias against them, so, okay . . . Second, the woman’s photo reveals she’d never be mistaken for someone older than 30: Her youthful face is unlined, and she possesses all the features of the western cultural beauty ideal—large eyes, small nose and chin, round cheeks, etc. You might as well fashion a gray wig on a 3-year-old.
To all you readers who’ve let your hair go gray or silver during the pandemic for whatever reason, you’ve helped push the dial a tad forward on expanding the limits of what we consider attractive. I offer you my personal thanks! Um . . . while I continue to have my own hair dyed with balayage every four months or so. (I’m not sure I’d still be dyeing if I had to use a single process monthly. My gifted colorist is Marie Leppard at the Julien Farel Restore Salon.) BTW, if you have decided to go gray, you can still zhuzh it up with a few highlights. Low commitment, high reward. Just saying.
Back to educating our eyes. I wrote this for O, The Oprah Magazine around the time I discovered that comparing is the death of happiness.
I grew up with a Barbie doll. Not a toy—a mother. She was a model, raven-haired, green-eyed, statuesque, with unrealistically perfect proportions, but there they were. Like the doll, my mother had an extensive wardrobe; Mom’s even included a couple of mother-daughter outfits. Were they fetching? I don’t remember. I do remember gazing at the two of us dressed alike: one, a full-blown goddess, larger-than-life, a voluptuous Renoir; the other, a skinny, freckle-faced tadpole, an anonymous, unfinished pencil sketch. It was in the shifting of that gaze—Mom, me, me, Mom—that my comparing mind was born.
As far as my appearance was concerned, I was undefined except in relation to another woman. Whereas my mother was full and round and complete, I was thin, angular, inchoate. My mother’s hair was wavy and thick, always perfectly coiffed. Mine was straight and fine, my bangs always uneven. Clothes clung languidly to my mother’s curves like an exhausted lover. My clothes, like worn-out Colorforms, refused to stick to me; elastic waistbands were sewn into my skirts to keep them from falling down.
Though today I’m no Renoir, neither do I have trouble keeping my skirts up: It’s a 51-year-old body I live in. I’ve finally matured. But my comparing mind has not. It’s stubbornly stuck at 6, and if I were to follow its voice, I would feel once again like a tadpole among women. Though I’m full-grown, I almost always come up short in my comparing mind. So when it clamors to be heard, I listen as I would to a recalcitrant child, and then quiet it.
Here’s what I mean: As I’m walking down a crowded city street, a gorgeous young creature in her 30s, sleek and glossy as a black cat, crosses my path. “Bad luck for you!” cries my comparing mind. “You’ll never look like that again! You’re old and invisible!” The woman and I are stopped at a curb. Her beauty imbues her with a mild haughtiness. In a regal kind of way, she turns her head in my direction. I catch her eye.
“You,” I say, “are simply magnificent.”
The haughtiness vanishes instantly. She’s a bit taken aback, momentarily scrutinizes me for motive, sees none apparent, and then smiles her wide (magnificent) smile. “Why, thank you,” she says.
“It’s my pleasure to tell you,” I say, and it is. Because I not only remember how happy I have felt as the recipient of an authentic compliment, but now I have enjoyed the additional gratification of being able to give one. Though my comparing mind wants to nullify my power and kick me off the playing field because I can no longer compete, the power I have today is irrevocable. After years of passively accepting a definition of beauty other than my own, of striving to be a noticeable object, I’ve now assumed an active role, too: Appreciator of All Things Beautiful.
There are several things that recommend the role of appreciator. It’s easy to be very busy—at least as busy as one can be striving to be among the appreciated. I’ve discovered what the smartest men have always known: that women can be lovely in many ways—as many ways, it seems, as there are women. It’s easy to be very happy, noticing things to admire rather than looking only for ways to be admired. You know that feeling you get when you see a lush summer garden, abundantly green and fragrant and riotous with blossoms? Does it bother you that you’re not as beautiful as it is? No, of course not; it’s a garden. Its beauty has nothing to do with you, takes nothing away from yours. In fact, standing in the middle of a flourishing garden, filling your eyes with the deep and impossibly delicate colors, inhaling the odors, sweet and complex, you might feel more beautiful, more precious yourself, marveling at your own ability to perceive it all. That’s the way I feel about those women I used to think of as competitors: Their beauty is one more avenue for a rich enjoyment of the world.
But maybe most important as an appreciator, I’m setting my own standards. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? No, I won’t. I won’t compare you—or myself—to anything, not the weather, not our mothers, not that gorgeous creature crossing our paths. Because a thing of beauty needs no comparison, only an eye to behold it.
And now for something completely different: An “Ask Val” public service announcement.
Yes, you, the lovely silver-haired lady moaning and writhing in the back row with a tube of numbing cream and a heartful of regret?
Q: What is this horrible, painful, burning rash covering the left side of my abdomen and my back? It feels like a full-body migraine! Help!
A: Sadly, I know very well what that horrible, painful, burning rash is. It’s shingles, my friend. I hope you saw a doctor as soon as you discovered the rash; they can prescribe the antiviral Valtrex—one gram three times a day for seven days—which should help reduce symptoms and severity. It’s clear you’re sorry you never took the Shingrix vaccine, which would’ve reduced your chances of developing shingles by up to 90%. You can still take the vaccine once you’ve recovered.
If you’re over 50 and haven’t had the vaccine yet, a chastened “Ask Val” advises you get it immediately. She wishes she’d been that smart.