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What if We're Not Gorgeous When We're Old?

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When did feminism stop being about smashing through the glass ceiling and start being about how smashing we look now that we are aging?

The founding feminists were more into good jobs than good genes. Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan lit a torch and led millions of women out of inequity's darkness. Along the way, that trail-blazing generation took for granted that rock and roll, yoga, hot sex and Clairol would keep them eternally young.

Suddenly, Boomer women are in their 50's and 60's. Their mirrors are offering up jowls, age spots and frown lines. It's a shock they didn't expect, and these ladies are not going gentle into that chin-wattle night.

I'd like to say I'm exempt from the fear of aging or, more to the point, from the fear of looking old. Like most other women in my age group, I long for non-droopy eyelids. I can't afford a facelift, but if I had an extra $18,000, I'd be jumping on that plane to Costa Rica -- or not. Maybe I'd put the money in my grandson's college fund and stay with the fun-filled fantasy of a 10-years-younger self.

Many midlife women have this fantasy. They are the women who emerge from a hot shower, wipe steam from the mirror, place their fingers lightly on their cheekbones and exert a gentle upward pull. They are not all signing up for surgery, but they're not anti-surgery bloggers, either, though the world is not lacking for those. There is a run on blogs condemning facial surgery for creating a look variously described as phony, fake, artificial, frozen, desperate, distorted, fright-faced, synthetic and plain ugly.

A surgical attempt to fool Mother Nature is not an admission of character weakness. It is merely a choice, and according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more and more people are making that choice. The Society reports that 13.8 million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2011. The figure is expected to rise year by year as the nearly 79 million Baby Boomers move inexorably into their 60's and 70's.

Boomers are the most resourceful and inventive generation in history. Aging is one wall we can't climb over. We accept it intellectually but resist it emotionally. The impulse to create a new way of being 50, or 60, or 70 includes wanting to retain something we all prize -- physical attractiveness. This midlife dilemma, says Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, is one in which "a whole dimension of life suddenly slides away, and you realize that what, in fact, you've been using to get attention, or command attention, has been what you look like."

Now that their physical attractiveness is in jeopardy, Boomers are doing what they've done historically, which is making a new game plan to fit any new situation. In this case, what has come about is a certain defensiveness about beauty and aging. Blog posts claim that Hillary Clinton looks "wonderful" when in fact she is overtired, overweight and now in fragile health after years of arduous shuttle diplomacy. Demi Moore looks "fabulous," though her expression retains grief and embarrassment. Goldie Hawn, caught off guard in a now-viral photo with mottled skin and sagging cheeks is "the new face of aging beauty." Diane Keaton is "stunning" -- and she actually is, at least in her relentlessly Photoshopped L'Oreal photos.

Celebrities are pursued for such statements as, "I'm way hotter now than I was at 40." A more palatable spin on aging in the public eye comes from Michelle Pfeiffer. "Everyone knows you're 50, so you don't have to worry about not trying to look 50," she says. I admire Michelle for adding, "There's a mourning that takes place. I mourn the young girl."

No one can be blamed for wanting to feel better about getting older, but why the protests that older women are just coming into their own, that wisdom is the new sexy, that the new knockout look is wrinkles au natural? We've come to this: claiming that the ravages of time impart a new gorgeousness. This campaign is OK with me, because I stand to benefit on the day that old is deemed beautiful, but it sometimes seems like preemptive attack brought on by the fear that we'll age badly and our peers will not.

Should we redefine beauty? Should we even try? Many 60-year-old women are beautiful, and many -- like many 30-year-olds -- are not beautiful at all. Maybe we should leave midlife and senior women alone and let them make their own road to beauty if they want to and however they want to.

In a 2001 survey by AARP, 86% of women said they would never have cosmetic surgery. The study showed that a significant number of Americans think those who fight time with surgery are rich, vain or desperately dissatisfied. These numbers may have changed in the last decade, given the influence of a youth-obsessed media on public attitudes, though the idea persists that only the vain and the miserable undergo these procedures.

Certainly, there are unhappy people who go under the knife because they think it will help them acquire friends, lovers, social acceptance, a job or a tranquil state of mind. But plastic surgery is increasingly the realm of the well-adjusted who already have those things. For some people, facial surgery is no more audacious, frivolous or desperate than putting blonde streaks in their hair. The smart ones choose outcomes that are subtle and the lucky ones choose doctors who have both skill and empathy.

Aging has got to be OK; we have no choice. We hope for the day when women and men are not devalued for not being young, when they don't feel impelled to "fix" their faces as a hedge against invisibility. The real task is learning to acknowledge how difficult it is to make the transition from who you look like in your mind's eye (a perky young professional?) to whom you have actually begun to look like (your mom?).

It's temporary, this dread of aging. When Boomers finally make peace with our Shar Pei faces, we'll be ready for that fear that puts all other fears to flight -- fear of mortality. That's next up. In a few years, wrinkles will seem like nothing.