Beauty, Self-Esteem and Aging

UnknownWhat’s the power of beauty? What does it do to your ego? What happens when it fades?

That’s what filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders wanted to explore in his HBO documentary, “About Face: Supermodels, Then and Now.”

Sheila Nevins, the film’s producer sees the models as, “their own instruments. What do you do when you’re a Stradivarius and you’re losing your strings?”

And what can ordinary women learn from aging models whose worth seems so dependent on their beauty?

For models, the trouble starts sooner than expected.

Beverly Johnson began modeling when a career lasted only three or four years.

It was frightening. I’m supposedly living this glamorous life, but living in fear and wondering where I will go next. The whole age thing. In this industry it’s everything.

China Machado remembers girls who were “twenty-five years old and worried about their looks because there was a 15-year-old right next to them.”

Over the hill at 25.

Years later, with lines and sagging, the models feel the effects of age in a way that’s more familiar to all women in the second half of life.

about-face-01-1024Some were not pleased when they saw early images from the documentary. Beverly Johnson related,

I was like, “You’re going to retouch this photograph, aren’t you? We’re supermodels. You’ve got to retouch. We were all calling each other on the phone, asking: “Can you believe this guy? Who does he think he is?” But after awhile, we all felt kind of comfortable in it.

Still, as China Machado saw it, age, itself, isn’t the problem. The problem is perception:

It isn’t that women want to stay young, it’s that the whole society makes us want us to stay young. It has nothing to do with us. You keep thinking you’re going to be judged.

Jerry Hall doesn’t plan on plastic surgery, which she thinks looks weird. “Getting old and sick and dying is no fun,” she says, “but people are living longer and healthier now… and still having sex. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to age? And why shouldn’t we be respected for it? When I reached 50 I felt a sense of achievement. I think that’s something to be celebrated. And when you age you can be a little more eccentric.”

about_face_hbo_supermodels_460Isabella Rossellini has given the matter some thought, and she’s worth quoting at length:

Some days I wake up and I think there’s this new technology, why not use it? But more often I wake up thinking “Is this the new foot binding? Is this the new misogyny? Is this the new way of telling women that they are ugly?” And we set down a lot of standards that are impossible to be reached.  

My social status has diminished because I’m not invited to the A parties anymore. What’s missing is the wisdom of the old people. When you get old you don’t count anymore. I think that is the greatest fear of growing old. It used to be that as you aged your social status grew. You gained wisdom and you survived through crises. My mother didn’t seem to be that bothered by old age and that might be why I’m not so affected by aging.

531507_503867552985732_827289743_nAnd Carmen Dell’Orefice knows that love trumps beauty:

I guess I began to feel I was okay when someone I really loved kissed me. It’s not so much what I’m seeing in the mirror but what I’m feeling in a connection with someone I want to feel close to. I don’t give love through a camera, to give it personally.

Marisa Berenson says that when you get older you must build something else in your core that goes beyond the physical, because you have to.

Maybe these women have. In their pictures I see strength and character, and even defiance in the stances, expressions and lines that mark their faces.

Maybe moving away from façade and into something more substantial is a gift of aging.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Beauty and Self-Esteem
Surviving Beauty and its Privileges
Beauty Tricks to Remove Your Power

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on August 28, 2013, in body image, feminism, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I am still a young adult just turned 19 but I have always been chunky and it has always been a major struggle that I deal with I don’t have self esteem as my thin friends do and it has has been hard for me and right now I am working my hardest to get fit because I have a boyfriend now and if I don’t have self esteem for myself I will always be insecure and have trust issues with anyone I date . Image in society and in todays world is a big thing I feel that if your not thin or pretty you don’t get recognized my mama has always been told she’s beautiful and now that she’s 40 I ask her mom are you afraid to get old ? She responded to me I enjoyed my youth and my life I don’t worry about my future which from her was very inspiring and true if we wouldn’t be so stuck on beauty and image and if we could just realized how bless we are with what we got then we could truly be happy . What my point is that there is discrimination in looks , race ,image ,sex etc. society advertises it and its all around us. It just depends on how we take it we should know what we are worth and not let others opinions hurt us which is what everyone does to each other now a days with out even knowing it .

  2. I’m still trying to cope with getting older. Beauty was something I was “good at,” and that gave me a sense of safety and value. Aging is not something I’m doing gracefully. But…I’m trying.

  3. I have been wondering for a while about kate upton and other women that are the fad at the moment. Wondering about how they will feel when they are no longer in the spotlight or worse; given attention for how they used to be beautiful, but not anymore. Part of me wants them to feel terrible, for playing along with being just a body for men, but part of me hopes that they can find a real reason to be happy. This post made me feel both sad and happy, because some women will become older and wiser and happier, but some won’t. Some, our society won’t let go; like a kid torturing a bug, and there is one bug in particular that he loves to come back to. It’s scary, and depressing.

  4. Love the Isabella Rossellini quotation. Rohan also said it. We are losing out on the wisdom of the elderly.

  5. These women have strength and character, not because of their age, but because they fought their way to the top of a ruthless, materialist and elitist profession. Each has used her looks as a meal ticket, and the reason we know any of their names at all is not because they made any great contribution to the human race, but because someone realised they look good and you can sell that.

    I can understand that for a supermodel to go a bit wrinkly is painful, but I don’t shed too many tears. Something similar happens to professional soccer players. The good ones have about 10 years of professional playing life. The smart ones put as much in the bank as they can in this time. The very smart ones become team managers or otherwise get into the higher echelons of the game, where the big money can still be made. Some models can achieve a similar transition.

    One of my professors when I was a student was an extremely beautiful woman of about 60. She still had the figure, the grace, the cheekbones. At the time I knew her, she would not have looked out of place in your group photo above. Yet she chose a career in science, where she did what she believed in, yet achieved less than 1% of the money and adulation of these supermodels. It would be interesting to ask women like her how they feel about ageing.


    • Sure, your science teacher was much more well-rounded. But that’s kind of the point. It’s a lot more interesting to look at women who have been totally valued by their looks and who have built their lives around their looks and then see what happens when looks fade. I also see them as a metaphor for the superficial culture that we all live in. And for what can be learned within that situation.

  6. Agreed, age is definitely not the problem! People of all sexes and orientations have been finding older people attractive since forever. Mature men and women can be incredibly attractive, not only physically but because of what age represents; maturity, experience, wisdom – which are all attractive traits.

    Great post again Georgia 🙂


  7. Great post. I’ll be 30 next year, but still get mistaken for a 20 year old. Just last month, I got carded after ordering a glass of wine at a restaurant. People always say to “be thankful” that I look younger than average, but I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’m missing out on being considered mature…While representing the company I work for at conventions, I often get a smile and a hug for a greeting, rather than the firm, professional handshake that all men and older women get. I wish I looked older so that I could get the respect that comes with age. In business, you can be in a profession for a decade…but if you look like you’re only old enough to have been in it for a year or two, it’s horrible.

    Another thing I’d like to point out: ” when you get older you must build something else in your core that goes beyond the physical, because you have to.” This doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that you can skate by on your looks (aka not needing to build up a nice, pleasant personality) when you are young and only have to do so once your looks fade “because you have to”. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but this statement seems incredibly shallow.

    Though if this is how some women think about their interactions with others, it *would* explain a lot of what I’ve observed thusfar…

  1. Pingback: Waiting to “Hit the Wall” | Tarnished Sophia

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