No woman should go through life without owning at least one lipstick red handbag. I bought my very first one yesterday at the age of fifty-seven. Maybe it was the nostalgia for the colorful fall that was quickly fading into the gray of winter or the grand opening of a neighborhood Urban Outfitters that reminded me of yet more clothes that wouldn't fit my pinky. But, in fact it was there (yes I went in as an anthropological exercise to see what young people wear these days) that I saw the bag calling out to me. I picked it up and slowly ran my hands on the soft, smooth leather. I brought it close to my face to enjoy the delicious aroma of good quality hide. The bag was a small clutch that holds little more than my cell phone and keys. It clearly could serve no other function than to look attractive. And it was red; very bright, attention-getting lipstick red. As I tucked in under my arm and gazed in my mirror, I thought, "Wow, here is something beautiful I can do for myself at my age that I've never done before!"
This may be no big deal to other shoppers, but it felt indulgent and luxurious to me. It's not that the bag was terribly expensive and perhaps it was just my Jewish guilt kicking in, but buying that bag confirmed for me that something whimsical and so seemingly superficial could make me feel so good. Years ago I would never have chosen the color red for any article of clothing, especially something I typically saw as a practical accessory. My handbags and shoes were almost always black, had to withstand wear and tear, go with everything, and be appropriate for home, work and for play. And handbags had to hold all the essentials to be carried from place to place; wallet, brush, date book (yes, some of us still write down our appointments) and more recently, two pairs of glasses, a supply of Advil and my trusty bottle of water. And although I've always loved the smell and feel of fine leather, I usually went for those knockoffs sold on the street that tolerated my messy pens and water leaks. A beautiful, red bag just didn't make sense ... at least until now.
When I thought more deeply (as we psychologists are prone to do) about my seemingly impetuous purchase, I realized there were other emotional issues behind the acquisition. Buying something red expressed the desire to call attention to myself. It felt sexy and sensual which at my age felt surprisingly refreshing. When I was younger, working as a Wilhelmina model, my job was all about being noticed. But it was also about competing for attention, the pressure to maintain it and the fear of losing it. Back then, dressing fashionably and appearing stylish was more complicated. Now, I realized I no longer felt compelled to follow a trend. I was free to wear what I choose or, in this case, carry what I choose. And the attention I wanted most was my own. How liberating!
This new experience of looking and feeling good for my age is relaxed, and about pleasure. I have now heard many women say in my practice and in the many interviews I held while writing my book Face It, that they feel a surprising sense of liberation as they come to terms with their aging appearance. It does not mean they have let themselves go (does anyone think that Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda has?) but rather that their appeal lies in aspects of themselves that are both internal and external.
Being beautiful at 50 or 60 has yet to be defined by our culture, so I figure we all might as well decide for ourselves what it is and what it can be. It's taken me this long to realize that clothes, accessories, color and style can be fun additions, not requirements, for my sense of well being. That lipstick red bag makes me feel attractive, sensual and, yes, liberated too. For you it might be a polka dotted silk scarf or shiny blue high-heeled shoes. Who knows, who cares!
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. Dr. Diller was a professional dancer before she became a professional model, represented by Wilhelmina, appearing in Glamour, Seventeen, national print ads, and TV commercials. After completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models, and dancers, and served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book, 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. "Today" co-host Hoda Kotb called it "a smart book for smart women."
For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.