ARE YOU EVER TOO OLD TO BE VAIN?

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Southampton, New York: August 2013

Illustrative photo: Southampton, New York, August 2013.

(Now that it’s time in the Northern Hemisphere to pack away the woolens that not only keep us warm in winter but also cover us up, those of us who gave away our bikinis many decades ago must once again confront the pesky question that keeps coming up every year like a perennial:  How much of ourselves should we show?

Since I considered this question last spring in this very blog and have nothing new to add, why try to re-invent the wheel? Those of you who were reading TGOB that long ago may find what follows familiar, although I’ve edited it a bit;  the original version appeared here on April 20, 2014 (minus illustrative photo) under the title “Vanity and the Older Woman.”  Anyone still young and firm of flesh can skip it without great loss.  Go out and frolic in your skimpy next-to-nothings while you can.)

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am. Which means she was about seventy-one when she called. It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed. But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked. However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind. Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery. Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.) “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed. “It’s, um, about your arms,” she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more. The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before. Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin. And the last time I had seen her softening upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world.

Wow! Didn’t think I could be so judgmental? You sure thought wrong. I make judgments all the time (including about myself). However, I mostly keep mum about them. As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill. Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh? Awnings of loose skin beginning to hang below when the arms are raised? A wrinkling surface? “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question. ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really? Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go. You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully. “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Or if it’s a sleeveless dress — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly. “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to. You can still look good. A different sort of good. And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.” But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could. I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie. Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly. My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up. Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby. But then I never did my post-partum exercises. Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes. You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out. I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness. Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young. Even Diane Keeton, who at 68 still looks great, came out with a new book last year that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.” Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments. If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen, go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons. It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.” It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much. All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his. But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead. If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

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29 thoughts on “ARE YOU EVER TOO OLD TO BE VAIN?

  1. Thank you for the photo of yourself. I enjoyed looking at you. And I remembered this post from the earlier version. I believe that when we look at someone, we usually see him or her in context. If they’re older, we expect to see the signs of aging. We might not even notice them, because they’re so natural. I notice the signs of being ‘run down’ or out of shape in anyone over forty… but even then there are good days and bad days. And of course, there are those who keep in shape whatever the age. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s any rationale for comparing ourselves to those much younger.

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    • Thank you for your first two sentences, Shimon. “Enjoyed?” Really?

      As for the rest of your comment, it comes from an older wise man. Unfortunately the world at large does not contain many like you. If you read my response to Rita Stewart (below you in the “Share Your Thoughts” section), you’ll see why I have to disagree that there’s no rationale for hoping to remain visually acceptable to persons much younger than ourselves.

      By the way, if I had uploaded a photo of an old shriveled crone, which I sometimes look like to myself unadorned in the bathroom mirror in the morning, would you have enjoyed looking at it? 🙂

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      • Thank you for your reply, Nina. I have just read your response to Rita Stewart, and found it very interesting. I realize that I live in a somewhat different world from that in which you must deal with. I certainly don’t claim that ours is better, or that my ideas and attitudes are relevant to your environment. In fact, I regret that I commented at all. For it is obvious that I have nothing to contribute to such a discussion. When I said I enjoyed seeing your photo, it was because I have grown to appreciate your writing, your intelligence, and your view of America as recorded in your blog. And looking at your image, I was better able to imagine you as a real live person. I was able to imagine I was getting to know you better. If you were a wrinkled and shriveled old woman, I imagine I would have enjoyed the picture just as much. I felt great love to men and women who might have seemed repulsive to those who did not know them well. And this was true when I was a young man as well. I have seen a bit of the world, and know that the standards of beauty vary greatly between cultures. The Chinese used to tie the feet of young girls so that they would remain small and add to their beauty when they matured. And in Africa, women enlarged their lips to unnatural proportions. Personally, I look for another kind of beauty.

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  2. Rita Stewart

    Re: ARMS–If this makes you feel any better, my daughter is visiting me for the weekend, and her new concern is her ARMS, which she feels are getting flabby, and has decided to not to expose them…this appears to be a female issue, yes??? The woman trainers at the gym I go to, and who are in their 40’s or early 50’s also “complain” about their “wings”, and they are very physically fit! So, dear Nina, you are in good company…P.S. If there are any men with “wings”, please send in your comments!

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    • It’s not that I feel “bad.” (What is, is.) The issue is how to present oneself to the world once physical decline becomes visible. If you could just slop around the house all day every day and never go out or answer the doorbell, none of this would matter. But my life isn’t like that, and I hope it never becomes so limited.

      Unfortunately wings (and flab) are a fact of later life, at least for the female of our species — if she isn’t so emaciated you can see all her veins and sinews. (That, however, is rare, except in the extremely anorexic and the mortally ill.) Many of the women I know in their seventies or older who are not urban sophisticates not only wear short sleeved tee-shirts or (sometimes) sleeveless tops displaying both wings and flab; they also let their hair go grey or white. Some also get terrible, frizzy little permanents. Many have also stopped fighting the rolls of fat around their middles which show under clingy knit shirts and dresses, especially when they sit down.

      More? Without an adroit application of cosmetics and moisturizer, the completely bare older face may radiate inner beauty but also displays dry crepey skin, spare eyelashes and brows, ever-deepening wrinkles and creases in unbecoming places — all of which tip off the unfeeling world that the person to whom the face belongs is “too old” to be seen, to count, to weigh in on matters of interest to others, to be listened to.

      To be perceived in that way — to be accidentally walked into on the street because you’ve become invisible to others; to be patronized (or else ignored) by waiters and waitresses, guides in museums, other guests at parties and gatherings; to put your hand up to ask a question after a lecture and not be called on — means your world has shrunk to your children, grandchildren and very nearest and dearest. While I will love my children and grandchildren till I die (and beyond, if that were possible), I would prefer that my world on this side of the hereafter encompass more than their love and acceptance, and I assume others of my generation would too.

      That’s what I hoped this post was about.

      As for aging men, “wings” are perhaps less a visual problem than an overhanging belly and white, skinny shriveled shanks that show all too clearly in between the bottom of their bermuda shorts and their short white socks worn with clunky white “sneakers” or — worse — brown laced shoes.

      I have a cruel eye, Rita!

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  3. The picture of an everlasting youthful Dorian Grey is best adhered to when I am fully dressed. However, stepping out of the shower, a furtive look into the steamed up mirror. Oh, the horror, the horror!

    You are a good looker Nina. What’s more as I walk away from my computer, your penetrating eyes follow me, always a welcome sign at my age. Even if from a picture.

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    • The real Dorian Grey’s corruption oozed from his portrait. I’m sure you were never corrupt, Gerard. And if you welcome the feeling that my picture is looking at you as you walk away from your computer, be my guest. That had not been my intent in uploading it, but once content leaves the hands of its creator it’s on its own. Also, thank you for the fine compliment. At my age, I welcome them all.

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  4. Wow, Nina, you surely make 80 look good ! For me, it is all about grace, style and dignity. If that’s vain…so be it. You will never be invisible if you can achieve those qualities, at any age.

    I’m with you on the “less is more”skin exposure. I have what I like to call aristocratic skin….a bit pale with a tendency to freckle and burn…so I have always covered up. Fabrics that breathe and partial sleeves work well.

    As for your picture, you are a vision of beauty and poise. You give us young’uns of 60 so much hope !! ☺

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    • “Grace, style and dignity” are beautiful words, Van, to describe what the older woman should aim for. I couldn’t have said it better. About the picture, though, I have lots of others that are far from visions of beauty and poise, so perhaps you should take what you see online with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, thank you so much for the lovely things you say about it.

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  5. Isabelle

    Hmmm. I remember that conversation well. This aging process takes adjustment time. I’ve figured that much out in the past year. But I am still vain enough to try to lose a couple of pounds – without huge success and to keep working on those upper arms. And yes, I agree sleeves are a good idea, even in summer. In short I am still vain , envy anyone with a little more height and a better metabolism. And gradually I am accepting these outer changes – but not with much grace. “Fight fight until the dying of the light “. But at the same time “seize the day”. We are still on the right side of the grass.

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    • I wondered if you would remember it. I don’t think we can indefinitely fight the changes brought by age with any hope of winning, but we can — to a certain extent — disguise or conceal them. Seizing the day is another issue, and one I have advocated in this blog since day one. Isn’t that what “Why Blog About Getting Old?” was all about?

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  6. I love your photo ❤ It would be sooo cool if I could take photos of you (recently upgraded to a new camera!). That must sound very strange to the other folks who are reading this 😉

    Yes, I remember this post from last year. There is a big movement in Tokyo among 'older' woman who refuse to succumb to 'old lady' stereotypes and dress so fashionably and smart. They pride themselves in keeping fit and looking beautiful. I'd feel like Raggedy Ann standing next to them 😀

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    • You must realize, Takami, that if you could somehow transport yourself through cyberspace from Tokyo to Princeton with your new camera to take pictures of me, I would have to retain comprehensive veto power over the results. And no one has a more critical eye about how I look than me! (Except possibly my mother if she were still alive, which must be where I got it from.) Bill took this one, together with about eleven others which bit the dust as soon as I saw them! But you’re very sweet to want to try. And I’m sure you don’t look at all like Raggedy Ann, no matter who you stand next to.

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      • 😀 😀
        I can imagine you have very high standards! ❤ If I may say so, I think I share similar qualities. I am my own worst critic, especially concerning my appearance. I also got it from my mother, but as I child, I hated feeling 'not good enough' for her… 😦 I guess many daughters go through this rite of passage…

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  7. Great photo and you do take good care of yourself. I do too. When I was young I always told my mother she was vain. She colored her hair (when most didn’t) and use “potions” on her face (with her budget it was Pond’s cold cream and Noxzema). Now that I’m her age, I do the same but with more pricey stuff. I must have inherited her vain gene but I want people to take me seriously and actually see me. I feel better about myself when I feel I look good. Like you I am particular about my clothing. If something isn’t attractive, I donate it even if I haven’t worn it much. I also like my things tailored. No floppy pant legs here. I think yoga pants are the best! I found some that aren’t too tight and are very flattering. I am sure my mother is smiling at me wishing she had some of the options (like yoga pants) that I do. BTW I stopped wearing bathing suits in my late 40s. I find that jean shorts and the right top will work in the ocean for the very short time I go in (which is ankle deep). I’ll have to check my wings.

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    • My mother was vain, too. She colored her hair until she was about my age now, and was a careful, classic dresser who always wore makeup when she went out. Instead of Ponds, though, she put her trust in Jacqueline Cochran’s Flowing Velvet, but she had an employee discount from her years at Robinsons (in L.A.), which reduced the price significantly. And yes, yoga pants are indeed wonderful! With the right shoes and tops you can wear them just about everywhere. But if you have to check your wings, Kate, you probably don’t have them yet, or you’d have noticed. Good for you!

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  8. I found this very interesting. There is such validity to your experience. If a smart, attractive, accomplished, upper middle class(?) woman like you must still work for credibility and basic respect, what are the chances for the average aged lady? I imagine most of us age much the way we lived all along. I touched on some of these issues of aging in my blog (and its comments) today, Your thoughts would be welcome. https://writerinsoul.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/short-thought-121-anti-aging/comment-page-1/#comment-2924

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    • I read your piece, Colette, and agree that an ad featuring 35-year-old Katie Holmes endorsing an “anti-aging” cream is ridiculous. I also agree with the comment on your post by Kate Crimmins that there’s no reason to be concerned about the appearance of age (if you’re going to be concerned) until your sixties. I would further add there’s no cream in the world that’s “anti-aging.” The signs of age will come eventually, cream or no cream.

      However my post is about something different. The young women your Katie Holmes ad is pitched to are afraid of aging because our Western world is uncomfortable with visible signs of real old age and therefore benches old people and ignores them to the extent they can. (By contrast, Chinese culture venerates the old and their life experience.) I am therefore saying in my piece that an aging woman in the West can choose to let herself be benched and ignored or do the best she can to make other people comfortable with seeing her as a credible, thinking human being. As for my “smarts” and “accomplishments,” they don’t show unless I staple myself to my resume or CV. It’s the “attractiveness” which will keep the welcome mat out for me, and the same is true of the “average” aging lady. It’s too bad that that’s the way it is. But that’s the way it is. You can fight it. Or play the game. And the truth is, I am enough a product of my culture to like myself better when I look as good as I can.

      (I will also copy this reply into the comment section on your own post, so that your readers and followers may see it too.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Nina. I think our two posts dovetailed on different aspects of the same issue. You couldn’t frighten younger women about the prospect of aging unless they suspected the threats had legitimacy (i.e., in regard to how they will be perceived and treated). Your post supports that too; who wants to be ignored, shoved into on the sidewalk, and otherwise marginalized? Where things fall apart is the suggestion by the media that youthful women (like Katie Holmes) would be wise to start obsessing (and spending) over this early. And if aging women weren’t so disdained in our culture, mature women like you maybe would not have to feel they must go to a lot of trouble to be treated equally. And for it’s worth, I would guess the way you speak, carry yourself, and engage with people would reveal at least hints that you are smart, attractive, and accomplished. Thanks for weighing in.

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      • Ah, Colette, having invited me to comment, you don’t get rid of me so easily. 🙂 Two more points with respect to your reply to my comment: (1) The Oil of Olay ad featuring Katie Holmes isn’t suggesting youthful women use the product to prevent an awful fate many decades hence. The ad is about loss of sexual attractiveness. By their mid and late thirties, many women are beginning to be aware they are sexually competing with the younger and fresher. (2) As for the mature women who are like me, we don’t “go to a lot of trouble” for the specific purpose of being treated equally; by now (after many years of living) it’s become instinctive to put our best foot forward whenever we step out the door because we’ve learned that life is more fun and interesting (which you can interpret any way you want) when we look good. Okay, I’m done now and will shut up and go away.

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  9. What a fine, good looking woman you are Nina, one wouldn’t guess your age! Very good advice too. Even though I’m 69, I no longer wear sleeveless garments, and agree with your advice, though I don’t dye my hair. I’m happy to be older, and don’t mind being white haired even though it makes me look older. Living in the country perhaps allows me to do this.

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    • Thanks so much for the very kind words, Barbara. As for white hair, it can be stunning with a youthful face beneath it, as yours seems to be. Unfortunately, I would be a dowdy salt and brownish pepper if I abandoned Aziz, my genius hairdresser. Although yes, I think you’re right that country living is perhaps a kinder environment in which to grow old.

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  10. Love the photo – you look smashing. Over the years I made a subtle shift from trying to show off my better features to trying to feature better looking clothes. I think I tread a third, more DIY, way to the ones you write about. I buy my clothes from what we call charity shops in the UK and alter them to fit me precisely/more flatteringly. This means a whole new wardrobe for about £20 any time I feel like it, with recycling and a contribution to charity thrown in. I’m lucky that I have always had a slight figure and prefer to be fully clothed, so the exposed flesh problem doesn’t really arise.

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    • I fear your comment got by me when posted, Hilary. Please excuse. And thank you so much for the nice words about the photo. You too look lovely in your avatar photo, although I can’t see the clothes. But it does sound as though you are far handier than I am. I can barely turn up a hem (badly), and certainly couldn’t alter a thing! When I was young, I did used to shop in a great second-hand shop on Madison Avenue where wealthy women brought their barely worn high fashions. Here in Princeton, my life is different and so are the second-hand shops. You are also to be envied for your “slight” figure;” that always helps with looking good. I’ve always had to struggle to reach “un-heavy.” Well, age is kind in one respect; no one expects you to look skinny anymore, so “un-heavy” is also considered looking good!

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