Fashion & Beauty

That Slippery Slope

May 8, 2022

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By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.

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.

Can’t get enough Valerie Monroe? There’s more at https://valeriemonroe.substack.com.

HOW WOULD you feel if someone you hadn’t seen in a while gazed at you in genuine amazement and said, “What the hell? You look younger than the last time I saw you!” I’m guessing it wouldn’t send you crying into your beer. Me neither. I’d buy that friend a beer.

I fantasized about such an encounter this morning—and then felt a little sorry and sad to yearn for it. Here I stand, lecturing you about acceptance and encouraging you to look at your face with loving awareness while I’m secretly lying on my back in the grass, daydreaming about aging in reverse. I know that being able to experience emotional ambivalence is considered a sign of maturity. But these conflictual feelings about acceptance and denial regarding the manifestations of aging . . . they’re pretty hard to reconcile, aren’t they?

Thinking about this brought me, in a roundabout way, to how hard it can be to stop self-evaluating. For example, even when receiving a compliment (“You look younger than the last time I saw you!”), bottom-line, we’re reminded that we’re being judged. Which highlights a predicament that used to confuse me: When someone discovered I’m a grandmother and said, “But you don’t look old enough to be a grandmother!” I would feel momentarily delighted but then . . . uncomfortable.

Why? Because I’d have started down projection’s slippery slope. When will people stop saying that to me? What if the next person who finds out I’m Grammie says nothing at all? Studies, confirming my experience, show that self-objectification/evaluation often leads to appearance anxiety. What’s interesting is that both negative and positive evaluation can cause anxiety. Which is partly why when I see someone I love, I rarely begin with, “You look gorgeous” (even if she does). I’d much rather she know how happy I am to see her—at least before I start pushing her anxiety buttons.

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“Ask Val” answers your urgent questions.

Yes, you in the front row, waving the—wait, did my last remark offend you?

Q: No. But something about the way my face is aging makes me look angry all the time! Why me?

A: First, are you angry all the time? I wouldn’t blame you. I won’t waste space here listing the things that make us feel ugly, as our focus is on feeling beautiful. And I’m not saying you should avoid your anger if it motivates you to serve humankind—in fact, go for it as long as you promise yourself you’ll take action to alleviate the mood. But if you’re walking around with unacknowledged or unconscious anger, it’s going to make you look unpleasant, dammit! For starters, try reading Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly, or The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. Then, for a more Zen perspective, pick up anything by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

But maybe you’re not angry. Maybe you often say and mean with all your heart, I’m happy and grateful—and still your face says, Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Some of us develop fierce vertical lines between our eyebrows as we age (dermatologists call them “elevens”). And the corners of our mouth droop, making us look impatient or fretful when we’re not—intensifying, especially if we’re prone to it, “resting bitch face.” (A situation exacerbated by an unfortunate combination of gravity, bone loss, and reduced soft tissue volume.) Neuromodulator injections like Botox or Dysport are a fine solution, as they can freeze the muscles responsible for forehead lines and diminish the “elevens”; neuromodulators and filler can help lift the corners of your mouth, too.

You know what can also help? Being conscious of your facial expressions. You may hate it as much as I do when someone orders you to smile, so don’t. But please smile later, because studies show that smiling can create a neurological loop that actually lifts your mood. One study showed that the Duchenne smile—that’s the one that engages your eyes, not just your mouth—had the greatest effect (of all kinds of smiles) in lowering heart-rate levels after a stressful activity.

The Netflix show I’m Sorry, about an exceptionally randy mom/comedy writer, might get you into the swing of it; the writer and star, Andrea Savage, manages to include the word “vagina” multiple times in almost every episode. I think it’s purposeful: The more we hear “vagina,” the more comfortable we are saying it. Which seems to me a little something to smile about.



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