Until I started working on a book with two psychologists, (formerly models) I assumed a) I was too smart and evolved to care about issues like this and b) aging was in the face more than the head.
These two comely doctors have convinced me I am far from alone in having more trouble digesting 'visible maturing' than I would have expected. Many of the women they see in their practices, in fact, come in for other symptoms but with some prodding, eventually focus on how they feel about the role appearance has or had in their lives. The therapists call this important step the "uh oh moment."
"This is when we become really cognizant for the first time that something fundamental about who we are as women is changing and will never be the same," explains Dr. Vivian Diller. "Watching others age seems more gradual, while our own shift can be jarring."
The "moment" can revolve around the directly physical: where did that spot on my face or hand come from? How did I inherit my other's wrinkly skin overnight? Or it can be something indirect, like when my adorable son asked, "Mommy, why do you have those stripes on your forehead?" I would have slapped the little darling but I was too busy calling the dermatologist.
These moments -- or more accurately, the reactions to them -- can be manifested in a variety of ways, none particularly fun. "You may feel vague discomfort but more likely, you experience anxiety, panic or depression," says Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick. "The aftershocks of fear, both physical and psychological, continue long after the first tremulous uh-oh moment." Both psychologists say the good news is that with recognition, we have taken the first step toward getting control of what is essentially the ultimate lack of control. "With awareness and acknowledgement of our true feelings, healthy, internal change is more likely to occur," adds Dr. Muir-Sukenick.
They tell the story of Carol, a divorced woman in her late 40s, who found herself flirting at an after work party with a young staffer. Just as the woman began thinking some chemistry was palpable, the young man mentioned a few of the cute interns he had his eye on. That moment, when fantasy was replaced by reality, hit her hard. Another talked of the first time she noticed that all the male eyes on the street bypassed her and went straight to her daughter. Maternal pride only goes so far, it seems.
It turns out that these uh oh moments can be used for the greater good. They can serve as confrontations with basic existential issues such as feelings about potential loss, and the loss of potential. And although they are set off by changes on our faces and bodies, they go much deeper. "We remind women that to a certain degree, their self image -how they see themselves and how they feel others see them- is integral to their identity and sense of worth," notes Dr. Diller. "We urge women to use the moment to accept that you, like many others, are experiencing a transition into a new phase. Just that acknowledgement can lead you to manage the transition with less fear and more confidence."
Rest assured, everyone has the uh-ohs. The seemingly non-aging newscaster Connie Chung remembers when, "I first noticed I had the Bowser look: jowels that wiggle when I shake my head." Elizabeth Edwards has spoken candidly about her husband's infidelity; yet rather than immediately blaming the cad, she took the opportunity to note how much weight she had gained and how sloppy she had gotten about the way she dressed. The pain of his betrayal caught her by less surprise than her own realization.
Elizabeth and I are part of a generation of women that needs to admit the moments have come (and gone) and then put them in perspective. "This is an important first step along the way," insists Dr. Diller," but the sting of awareness must be absorbed, understood and integrated rather than denied or dismissed. Deep reactions can stop you in your tracks and have ramifications that need to be understood to move on."
And "moving on" ...and on, we will apparently be doing. The latest statistics have women living well into our 90s. While I can't say I ever looked forward to my dotage, I did not necessarily fear it. When my erudite and lively aunt recently moved into a beautiful assisted living facility, I almost grew envious of the leisurely, but fulfilling, ambience. (I believe I even inquired whether they took Early Decision applications) I still feel I am going to make a very good "old" person, that utopian time when I can lay aside any further pretensions that my rigorous physical routine and watchful diet even matter anymore. But I have come to realize that if I don't look inside to figure out why the outside matters so much, I have nothing but uh-oh years ahead.
Michele Willens is a journalist, playwright and editor of FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change." (Hay House 2/10)