Every single one of us is aging by the day, and we all know what it’s like to see the visible changes in our looks as the years pass.
While some of us can embrace the aging process as it relates to our looks, others are fighting this through expensive plastic surgery or other methods that claim to restore aesthetic youthfulness.
This article takes a look at accepting the aging process as it relates to our looks. We’ve gathered input from a Ph.D. licensed psychologist, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist and a university psychology lecturer, who offer their advice on ways to embrace our physical appearance as we age.
We’ll begin by discussing some of the reasons why people have trouble coming to terms with losing their looks, which our experts say is largely societal and perpetuated by the media. Then, we will provide five concrete ways to accept our looks as we age.
How the Media Shapes Our View of Appearance
Many are aware of the role of media shaping the conversation about appearance, according to Dr. Lori Chortkoff Hops, a Ph.D. licensed psychologist with a focus on the mind, body and spirit and energy psychology practices.
We see images day and night in ads, photos, online and print media, film and television, and even in grocery store carts that remind us of what we value in our society: youth, physical beauty, strength, and glamour, she said.
“These messages are not passively delivered, but are consciously created and often paired with marketing strategies to encourage sales and a consumer consciousness,” Dr. Hops explained. “They would not be effective if they did not reflect our beliefs about what we value. Beauty on the surface is a large part of this messaging.”
Contrary messages about beauty coming from within are not often voiced or seen.
If this message is delivered at all, Hops noted it is most likely from philosophical, poetic, familial or spiritual sources, which are less frequently expressed on a daily basis.
“It is more difficult to convey inner beauty in a marketing ad, or in a sound bite,” Dr. Hops said.
Additionally, the visual realm conveys a more compelling message than what is heard or spoken.
“We live in a highly visual culture, and the images we are exposed to affect how we view ourselves and our world,” Dr. Hops said. “Beauty coming from within implies qualities of character, values, and interactions with others and the world.”
This is an abstract concept, one that requires reflection, contemplation, and observation, which take time to process.
“Our fast-paced, here and now culture does not favor such approaches,” said Dr. Hops. “Beauty from within becomes lost in the din of daily life.”
Why People Have Difficulty Accepting Aging Looks
Aging is looked upon with avoidance by many and disgust by some, according to Dr. Hops, who noted that growing older is seen as a problem to be fixed with mental and physical means, as our culture searches for the fountain of youth in bottles, exercise regimes, and diets.
It is not the case in all cultures, Dr. Hops noted, but in the United States, the tendency is to celebrate youth and fear old age.
“Youth is seen as strong, and aging is seen as weak,” Dr. Hops said. “Couple this with the fixation on appearance, and it is no wonder that looking older is seen as a problem to be solved, avoided, or denied.”
Once the body begins to express signs of aging, many are not pleased, and self-esteem may suffer, Dr. Hops noted. As a result, we might look in part to others to interpret our reality. When we see our own body’s aging appearance, it is linked to the beliefs of others, and we internalize these messages: old, used, lacking in vibrancy, dried up, past your prime.
“On a deeper level, the signs of aging remind us that we are closer to being at the end of our lives than at the beginning,” Dr. Hops said.
Grey or white hair and wrinkles, for instance, are not celebrated in mainstream culture as signs of wisdom and respect by others.
“There is a belief that only in youth are prizes to be found; that as we age, the best years are behind us,” Dr. Hops said. “We speak of being over the hill, or getting along in years, rather than ripening with age; being elderly or old, rather than being an elder, which instead conveys a sign of respect and leadership.”
Some also associate aging with illness or social isolation, so getting older is seen as a sign of defeat and one to be avoided.
“Although these beliefs are being challenged as overall health is improving, with longer life spans than those of past generations, there is still a tendency to see aging as a stage of life to delay as long as possible, and accept with bitterness,” Dr. Hops said.
One way to accept the fact that our looks will change with age is by shifting our perspective, which we cover next.
Accept Aging Looks by Changing Perspective
Aging is a matter of perspective, Dr. Hops said, and we focus on aging when we compare what is now to what was then, or what will be later.
To this, we add judgments and beliefs about better and worse, good and bad.
“If when we see our aging face and body, we focus only on what we have lost, and what will not come back, and we think of worse rather than better, we are only seeing part of the picture,” Dr. Hops said.
There is still much to appreciate, learn from and cherish that will come in the future, she noted.
“Instead of bemoaning the past, you can take a perspective from the far future, looking back at the now, and see what you have, what you still can do, and what is of value,” Dr. Hops advised.
For instance, how does your face look from the perspective of 30 to 40 years in the future? What about your eyesight, sense of hearing, taste, and smell? Would you be grateful for your basic abilities to live, love and interact with the world?
From the point of view of the now, what can you share with your younger self, the wisdom you have gained and what you wished you would have known then? Are there unexplored avenues of your life right now that bring you joy and relief and expansion?
It is not our faces that need to change, Dr. Hops further emphasized.
“In order to change our relationship with aging, it’s our beliefs that need to change,” she said. “Even physical modifications like surgery do not last forever; after age-defying interventions, there are always telltale signs of aging, such as changes in a person’s voice, their beliefs about the world, and their wisdom that belie the surgeon’s knife.”
Five Tips to Help You Accept Aging Looks
Dr. Hops provided the following 5 tips to consider in order “to build a new view” of the aging face.
1. Tell New Stories
Find new cultural role models to emulate.
Open your mind to a variety of opinions, experiences, and worldviews: watch different shows, read different stories from various cultures and time periods, talk with those older than you and see how they are reacting to the aging process. People tend to take as fact what is in front of them. If you open yourself to new stories and ways of looking at the world, your view of yourself is bound to grow and change.
You may question your assumptions, beliefs, and conclusions. Seeing older adults who embrace their aging faces, with wrinkles, grey hair, and folds of skin can show you how vitality and love come from the eyes, the heart and the way one sees the world. It is possible that you begin to notice the lines on a face as a history of the story of a person, one that is unique and cherished while filled with love and sorrow.
2. Time Travel
Focus on what you like about your face that does not change.
What do you admire about the faces of others your age, or older? What did you not like about your younger face that no longer bothers you? When you see your current face in the context of a span of time, it gives you a perspective to understand yourself. You focus less on details and more on how life brought you to where you are.
3. Face Yourself
Explore how your beliefs and thoughts affect how you see your face.
Look in the mirror and see who you are reminded of, and what they tell you about yourself. Is it a reflection of an aging parent or relative? What do you recall about them and their effect on you when they looked like you do now? If you are not familiar with your biological family, what do you think about those not related, but who look like you?
It can be comforting and stress reducing to see you are part of a larger system, not isolated from others and your lineage. This can help you take your place in the family tree, connecting you to your elders and to the next generations. Others have walked this path before you, and the next generation will as well. Even if you do not want to connect to your family or you cannot, it is still helpful to see how you fit into the family of humanity.
4. Change Your Mind
Discover what your face tells you about your beliefs.
When you look at your face in the mirror or in photos, what do you believe is true? Question your beliefs to see if they are really true, where those beliefs came from and if you want to keep or change them. You can seek the help of a trusted friend or confidante.
Try self-help approaches such as books, media or websites devoted to acceptance of the aging process. You can consult with a counselor or therapist if the aging process is interfering with daily living or keeping you from your dreams.
By examining your beliefs, you make an automatic process into a deliberate one. Instead of accepting the ideas from the past without question, you can take charge of your own reality and craft one that best suits your needs, desires, and dreams.
5. Make Peace With Yourself
How often do you touch your face and why?
Instead of washing, or applying cream or trying to improve how you look, why not explore your face as an act of loving kindness?
If you feel comfortable, take a few minutes when you are alone. You could be in the shower or tub, waking or falling asleep, or have some time to spare in the midst of a busy day.
Take a few deep breaths, and relax. Have your eyes opened or closed, and gently touch your face in a gentle, loving way, like you are getting to know your face for the first time.
Think of how a parent touches the face of a beloved newborn baby. Notice the texture, temperature, and shape of your face. What is it that feels familiar; what feels new? See what is pleasing and what is displeasing. With each awareness, take a breath and let it go.
There is no need to judge or have an opinion. Just notice what you notice. When you are done, thank your face for being your bridge to the world, for being your means of expressing emotion and thoughts to others, and for taking in the outside world so you can have a rich and meaningful life.
Now that we’ve covered Dr. Hops’ 5 tips “to build a new view” of the aging face, the next section briefly discusses a new movement regarding the terms “pro-aging” and “anti-aging.”
Pro-Aging Versus Anti-Aging
Wendy Walsh, a psychology lecturer at California State University Channel Islands, said that a recent announcement was made about the term “anti-aging.”
“We’re only using pro-aging in a positive way which is different from anti-aging,” Walsh said.
Walsh noted that she is not totally against plastic surgery, “but what I like is the trend to do less and nothing big and invasive,” she said. “If the purpose is to do something small, like Botox, so you can look as good as you feel, that makes sense to me. But plastic surgery as a way to try to look younger or feel better doesn’t make sense. Then you might get addicted.”
More and more in our culture, she said that people are being seduced by the same spell that youth is all that matters.
“But I’m a big believer that wisdom is what matters,” Walsh said. “And all I’m trying to do is keep my brain young, so that means I’m obsessed with exercise and nutrition, and all that I need for brain health.”
In other ways that people can accept their aging looks, Walsh recommends engaging in activities “that really push our brain to grow,” such as learning a foreign language, learning how to play chess, reading novels, or any activity where you are required to focus.
“This is where the focus should be on pro-aging – not on pulling back the skin,” she said.
“Focus on whoever dies with the most grandchildren wins,” Walsh added. “Focus on relationships and social support. Men, in particular, suffer from more depression as they get older because they get isolated. The challenge for them is to maintain social connections as they age. That will make them a helluva lot happier than going under the knife to get their chin pulled up.”
Accepting Aging Looks: The Bottom Line
Dr. Wendy Basil, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist in private practice in Southern California, believes that feeling old is a choice.
“I would call that aging gratefully instead of aging gracefully,” she said.
Dr. Basil noted a recent article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal about the term “anti-aging” not being politically correct, and that Allure Magazine just banned the phrase.
“It’s a good focus because anti-aging is kind of a fruitless effort anyway,” she said. “We have such a focus on beauty and youth rather than health and vitality.”
In her bathroom, Dr. Basil hung a placard that says: “A smile is the prettiest thing you can wear.”
“I would prefer to look at my own flaws in a positive light,” she said. “I have laugh lines. Nobody wants frown lines. But what’s wrong with smile lines?”
The psychological route would be to reframe the situation to view your face as having character, she said, and to realize “it’s a fruitless thing to turn back the clock. That’s why we have such odd plastic surgery faces, like Joan Rivers, who is smoother and tighter than anyone in their 30s.”
Dr. Basil advises starting off with the premise: what’s wrong with aging?
“It’s not a disease, it’s a process, it’s something everybody goes through,” she said. “You would look good if you’re happy with the person you’ve become. People reflect their happiness on the outside – your glow comes from the inside.”