There are people who look great for their age -- George Clooney, Annette Bening and Betty White are a couple of celebs that come to mind. Then there are others who look to me to be strangely "altered" -- think Mickey Rourke, Priscilla Presley and Heidi Montag.
For all of us, there's a line -- not always so fine -- between caring about how we look and caring too much. When it comes to getting older, the proper balance between trying to look our best and falling victim to the anti-aging craze is what I call the "beauty tipping point."
As we hit our 40s, 50s and beyond, most of us know it takes extra effort to maintain a healthy appearance -- our bodies just are not as naturally resilient as they once were. We have to stretch and strengthen to stay strong. We need to moisturize and massage to stay soft. Some of us add new grooming routines to our lives -- e.g. facials, hair coloring, teeth whitening -- and view them not just as indulgences, but necessary habits for healthy aging. It's when these regimens become an obsession that keep us from other important things we value -- like our relationships, careers, hobbies and fun -- that we need to step back and ask ourselves, "have we lost the proper balance?"
How do we know when our tipping point hits that slipping point? Are there ways catch ourselves before starting down the 'anti-aging' slippery slope? Here are five things to look out for:
1) Diet and Exercise
You might notice that your clothes feel tight. Your eating habits may not have changed, but your metabolism has. Your weight is distributing differently -- a little more around the waist, thighs and buttocks? You feel aches and stiffness where you never felt them before. Gravity is pulling at your skin -- on your face, under your chin and arms. Some sags appear, no matter how athletic you have been or in shape you are now.
In Balance: You are determined to find a way to counteract these natural tendencies. While you may have had parents and grandparents (or even some peers) who gave up on their aging bodies, you are determined to forge a healthier path! You go on a new diet, increase or start exercising and begin vitamin regimes. All good.
Slipping: When diet and exercise become all consuming, take note. You may be hitting the slipping point if you find yourself increasingly exhausted, yet you keep pushing yourself harder and feel as though you can't stop. If your focus is the number on your scale or you are visiting physical therapists more often than your grandchildren, you know you've tipped the balance.
2) Reinvent your Look
You realize you need to make some changes to your "look" -- your wardrobe, hair and makeup -- to adjust to your changing body and face. You may take more time when you get dressed than in the past, when getting to work or attending to kids were your first priority. Finding comfortable, but fashionable clothes and a stylish haircut may matter now. You may find your former makeup favorites don't work for you anymore. You want to bring attention to your best qualities, not cover up and hide. But all this takes some thought and time.
In Balance: Rather than giving up in despair -- the "I don't have anything to wear" syndrome, or "I'll find something, anything, from the back of my closet" -- you may decide to shop for new outfits, accessories and makeup that are more suitable for your age. You may decide to try a fresh hairstyle, add some color, highlights or wear gray more fashionably. You're optimistic about this "reinvention" idea.
Slipping: When you find yourself obsessed with shopping, or buying unnecessary items that you either don't like or don't wear, you are hitting the point of "returns." You know you have tipped the balance if you have dozens of new outfits, take hours to choose one before heading out the door and still don't like how anything looks. If you don't want to leave the house at all, you have become a victim of the anti-aging craze. Step back. Take a long look at your 'look. 50 is not the new 15, no matter what you hear on those TV ads. Looking your best at 50, 60 and beyond is what healthy aging is really about.
3) Compliments and Criticism
When our bodies are changing in ways that feel out of our control, many of us ask for others' opinions to help figure it all out. You may seek advice from family and friends -- much like you did as an adolescent. "Do I look okay in this outfit?" "Should I try my hair shorter, longer, color it or not?" "I don't feel that old, do I look it?" is a common refrain, whether we say it out loud or not.
In Balance: Assuming you trust the people who are close to you to be kind and honest, asking for reassurance isn't all bad. It helps to hear from our loved ones that they admire us for who we are. Sometimes family, friends and even websites have good suggestions about fashion and style. Hey, we all need a little help from our friends during times of change. The truth is, most people close to us prefer that we don't radically alter the faces they have come to love.
Slipping: At this age, you need to rely more on your own internal mirror than on the view others have of you. Otherwise, you may begin to feel like the insecure adolescent you once were. If you distrust the compliments you get, or go into a tailspin at the slightest criticism, you have tipped the balance -- caring too much about your appearance at a time when your looks are naturally changing. There is no way to turn back the years, so enjoy the compliments and learn to deal with the changes that come with age.
4) Social Anxiety
As we get older, we may not only become insecure about how we look, but about how we feel in social situations. For those who relied on their physical appearance for self-confidence or to attract attention from others -- well, it just doesn't work that way anymore. For those who never felt particularly focused on their looks, aging can sometimes level the playing field. Most of us didn't expect to be single at midlife, nor faced with meeting new mates. But many of us are. And, to some degree, as we reach our 50s and beyond, all of us experience some concern about feeling invisible to others.
In Balance: Many of us are unwilling to just disappear. We realize we may have to rely on more than our physical features to feel confident and good about ourselves -- more on who we are as individuals, rather than how we look. We are in balance if we view interactions as opportunities to engage with others -- rather than compete -- with them.
Slipping: If you find you are comparing yourself to others -- or worse, to those airbrushed magazine images -- you are placing unrealistic pressure on yourself. If you need a drink before heading out the door, find it hard to look people in the eye, or rush to the bathroom to check on your appearance every 15 minutes, you have hit the slipping point. To regain your balance, remind yourself that your appearance is only one aspect of the complicated person you have become. Others will see you as more than skin deep, especially if you do.
5) Cosmetic Procedures
Your fine lines are turning to wrinkles. The wrinkles threaten to become wide roads and rivers. While sunscreens keep rising numerically, the road map on your face has its own sense of direction. You know that you have hit an "uh-oh" moment, when no matter how you look at it, something fundamental about who you are, is changing.
In Balance: You realize you have turned a corner in this aging process and it's important to be proactive about it. You visit your doctors more regularly; internists, ophthalmologists, gynecologists and urologists. You include yearly checkups with a dermatologist for full body exams and learn how to prolong the vitality of your skin. You try a variety creams and treatments suitable for your aging body and face.
Slipping: You find you are visiting too many doctors too often, hoping one will offer some miracle anti-aging cure. Or you avoid doctors altogether, hiding your body from them and yourself for fear of what you will see. In the privacy of your bathroom, you start pulling back your skin, wondering, "what if I did this or that?" You first consider one of the non-invasive cosmetic procedures you saw advertised on your friend's face -- botox, fillers and lasers. You're told they are simple and quick, even if expensive and requiring upkeep. You have one procedure, like how it looks and think more might be better. You decide it's time for radical measures, so you get a consult for plastic surgery. You end up doing your eyes, neck and liposuction. As soon as you have recovered, you begin thinking about "what's next?" When the results continue down that slope, you know you are well past the slipping point.
The Bottom Line
Caring for how you look -- especially as you age -- isn't the same as turning back the clock or magically appearing like a younger version of yourself. There are too many other things that require energy as we get older. If you see yourself slipping, find your balance and move forward, looking your best for the rest of your life.
What advice would you give to someone who has slipped past the "beauty tipping point?"
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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