Face It: Is 50 The New 15?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Michele Willens Journalist, theatre critic RobinHoodRadio, and editor, 'Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change'

Okay, maybe the pimples have been replaced by the sunspots, and the awakening hormones by the sleeping libido, but there are numerous similarities between the age of adolescence and the age of what many of us consider obsolescence.

As a Boomer-aged woman, for whom "beauty" was never at the top of the list of assets or priorities, I have been as surprised as millions of my contemporaries by my discomfort about visibly aging. (And thus becoming invisible). I don't recall looking in the mirror with this much trepidation since, well, since I was a budding teenager. It wasn't until I agreed to edit a book with a pair of models-turned-psychologists that I began to see this as a matter of the mind as much as the body, and to make sense of why so many symptoms women are experiencing may be traced not so much to our amazing juggling acts, as to our changing appearance.

Yes, we all know about our youth obsessed culture, so why should aging's unpleasantness be a surprise? Yes, we applaud Diane Keaton the courage of her crows feet, (though doesn't even she look a bit too airbrushed in those new ads?) and yes, women of all ages have never looked better. But we are also in for record breaking long lives--some of my best friends are doting grandmoms-- and can we do that with faces that scream "been there, done that?" Which brings me back to the future.

When I wincingly reflect on my young school years, I think of a nice looking but insecure girl who one month tried to look like Sandra Dee, the next Hayley Mills, the next Natalie Wood. My parents had good values and how I looked really did not come up as much as how I scored or how I played. But once outside the home, the mixed messages came though. "Young girls are encouraged to study hard and go out for sports, but don't forget the hair and makeup," explains Dr. Vivian Diller, one of the authors of FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As their Looks Change. "By contrast--but not so much-- midlifers are allegedly admired for their wisdom but simultaneously told to not look their age." Dr. Diller says both ends of the spectrum are dealing with loss. "In adolescence, we are letting go of our youth and fearful of growing up. At midlife, we are letting go of the last vestiges of youth and fearful of growing old."

We thought breaking out was hard to do? Who amongst us wouldn't trade a few wrinkles for a mild case of acne?

What is key, says Dr. Diller and co-author Dr. Jill Sukenick, is to look at the physical parallels between adolescence and midlife. They form a ping pong game of sorts: onset of menses, coming of menopause; hair growth, hair grays and thins; skin breakouts, skin sagging; growing bones, brittle bones. The next step is to consider how you dealt with the former and whether you are repeating that behavior this time around. Did you fight and defy then with rebellious and aggressive behavior and does that sound familiar now? Was promiscuity a factor then...and now? Was there impulsive behavior then leading to addictions and food issues? And now?

There are many women like Linda, a patient of Dr. Diller's, who went for treatment convinced her husband was being unfaithful. "In time, I figured out that she had tried to get attention as an adolescent and now was repeating a similar need for acknowledgment," the therapist says. "She was attaching old emotions to a new situation which is very common."

What is most similar between adolescence and middle age is the preoccupation with physical self image: somewhat dispiriting for those of us who thought we were too smart and evolved for all this. Feminism, meet narcissism."Aspects of identity and self image become cohesive during adolescence," says Dr. Sukenick. "In midlife, this cohesion undergoes an upheaval, having to unravel in order to be recreated." There is a whole lot of unraveling going on.

Then there is the biggest difference between these bookends. As young ones, we have all those years ahead to make strides...and mistakes. The future for midlife women holds out decreasing choices. Empty Next anyone? As young girls we looked forward to lives of independence and figuring out the role "beauty" would play in them. At this age, we are more likely caring for our own parents as well as the children, while physical attributes are clearly exiting the equation. Give me the old math!

One piece of good news is that we are all--prom queen to geek girl--in this together. No one is exempt. Before you hate them because they look naturally handsome at 56, Drs. Diller and Sukenick claim what they experienced as young models was simply an exaggerated version of what the rest of us mortals experience eventually. "Who knows what it feels like to be Michelle Pfeiffer at 15 or 50?" asks Dr. Diller, who specializes in working with women in the artistic fields Both therapists treat women (like Linda) who come in with symptoms and issues and who are taken aback when the subject of their 'changing looks" comes up. First, they feel defensive but are ultimately relieved to be able to treat what might seem a superficial issue as something of substance.

"For all women, we emphasize the importance of understanding adolescence as a tool towards resolving our complex feelings," Dr. Sukenick explains "Rather than deny or dread this new period of change--so similar to the one we went through all those years ago--we encourage recognition of the commonalities. It is critical in moving forward."

Personally, I would hate to be 15 again and changing idols by the month, worrying if I was cool or pretty enough. So I guess the good news is I can honestly say I am more comfortable now in my own skin. I just wish it were a hell of a lot tighter.

Michele Willens is a journalist and playwright and the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change (Hay House 2/10). She is the author of Dear Maudie: A Play in Correspondence About Pimples, Parents, Peer Pressure ... and Friendship, which was published by Playscripts, Inc. More on the book at