They don't do it -- because they've had enough. Some women in midlife are not coloring their hair, dieting religiously, and struggling to achieve unrealistic standards of physical beauty. While the statistics continue to startle us -- $8.2 billion worth of beauty products sold in 2006, a $55.4 billion annual weight loss industry, and 2.7 million women aged 51-64 who underwent cosmetic surgery in 2005 -- there appears to be a subset within this demographic that is letting go of measuring self-worth based on appearances.
Could it be that there's a backlash against all the nipping, tucking and Photoshopping to create impossible beauty ideals?
Some research says yes. Marika Tiggemann, at Finders University in Adelaide, Australia, began with a reasonable premise that goes like this: Since women, as they age, fall farther from the fashion model ideal -- tall, size-zero thinness, and young -- older women would likely hate their bodies more than younger ones, who at least have youth in their repertoire. Surprisingly in a survey of 322 women, aged 20 to 84, Tiggemann found that women's body dissatisfaction did not increase as they aged.
"Everyone says, 'I'd rather be thinner' or 'I'd like to have a body that looks like this,'" Tiggemann says, in a personal interview. "But it matters less to a woman when she gets older."
In other words, the average middle-aged woman has grown smarter. As she grays, wrinkles, and thickens, she increasingly dreads the changes to her hair, skin, and shape. But she is no longer willing to endanger her health or simply go to all the expense and trouble to try to meet contemporary culture's idealization of women. Some women are letting go.
Makers of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty have tapped this vein. Their latest campaign, "Onslaught," is all the rage. In it, a fresh-faced adolescent is depicted on the brink of life. Next follows a barrage of destructive beauty ads, videos, even the acts of bulimia nervosa. And the message, "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."
Another data point: actor-cum-photographer Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, has come out with a provocative photography exhibit entitled, the Full Body Project. It depicts women from the "Fat Bottom Revue," a burlesque presentation meant to promote "fat liberation." The women are indeed full-bodied, some would say obese and, therefore, repulsive. Nimoy sees the women differently.
"The cruelest part ... is that these women are being told, 'You don't look right,'" Nimoy says in a recent New York Times article.
And the beauty industry has hooked a number of these women in to buying clothing and accessories that slim, beauty aids, plastic surgery, diet pills and programs, therapy and the basic premise that you can look like a fashion model. And you should.
But there is a brave cadre that wants a different message. Perhaps it is one about a life-well-lived. If you are spending a great proportion of your waking hours obsessing about food and flab, you are taking away from quality time. At midlife, we wake up to the reality that we have fewer birthdays ahead than behind. And time becomes more precious than any diet or exercise goal achieved.
Yes, exercise and healthy dieting can prolong life. And true, it feels marvelous to take off a few pounds after indulging in a glut of holiday feasting. But if body-sculpting endeavors diminish mental and physical health, are they worth it? The Dove women in their underwear say no.