“Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good,” wrote Shakespeare, “A shining gloss that fadeth suddenly.” And this sudden fading can be difficult to bear. Indeed, in some cases it can wreck self-esteem and even trigger depression. A “shining gloss” it may be, but it is a shining gloss people hate to lose.
A Moment of Revelation
Most people over 40 have had one of those moments when they suddenly realize that their looks have gone. For some, the realization comes slowly, for others, their self-image is transformed in an instant. For example, they may be fighting their way through the crowds to the office when they glimpse their reflection in a shop window and gasp. Or maybe they come home from a party, drunk and dishevelled, go to the bathroom, switch on the light above the mirror, and stare in disbelief. After all that time and effort, they think, a few drinks and an exhausting cab journey reduces me to this.
Then of course there are those dreadful encounters with the opposite sex. Even people well into a happy marriage still like to flirt. But a day will come when you realize this is not only inappropriate, it is making the person you are flirting with uncomfortable. Instead of cool and sexy, you suddenly realize that the young waiter or shop assistant just finds you creepy! People whose long-term relationship breaks down may also realize that they no longer have the looks, especially when they start dating again.
Obviously, the impact of losing your looks depends on how attractive you were in the first place, how much your physical appearance meant to you, whether or not you are single, and so on. First, there is the loss of confidence and self-esteem. Some people will literally refuse to go to parties or even to socialize, and many become depressed. Indeed, a film like Sunset Boulevard is probably closer to reality than many like to admit. There may also be a sense of having been cheated. The psychotherapist Anthony Clare once remarked that extreme good looks do not increase someone’s chances of happiness. On the contrary, he argued that it is best to be average looking. Very good looking people often feel that they have hit the jackpot. From an early age, friends and family assure them that they are “so lucky” to look the way they do. If that is true, they think, then surely I can expect a beautiful partner and perfect family. When that does not materialize, or when the beautiful partner turns out to be unbearable, they feel cheated.
Losing your looks can also be a reminder of mortality and the passing of time. It is astonishing how long some people will cling on to their youth, convincing themselves they are still young well into their 30s and even 40s. But grey hairs and wrinkles do not lie. And even those who can accept no longer being attractive often find this reminder of passing time a painful one.
Beauty Comes From Within
Being told that “it’s personality that counts” or that “beauty comes from within” when you have just discovered a bald patch, or been laughed at by someone you asked on a date, can be irritating. And yet, clichés though they may be, there is a great deal of truth to them. Physical attractiveness does not begin and end with physical appearance. Most people have met someone stunning only to find their appearance change as their nasty, vulgar, arrogant personality shines through. And the reverse is true. Someone kind and sweet, or dignified and brave, can seem a great deal more attractive than they really are. Obviously, this shouldn’t be exaggerated, but attractiveness does depend on a mixture of physical appearance, attitude, confidence and personality.
Remember, attractiveness and appearance are not the same thing. Just because your hair is thinning and turning grey, or wrinkles are beginning to appear around your eyes, that does not mean you are no longer attractive. Yes, your appearance has changed, and maybe for the worse, but your attractiveness may have increased. Confidence is incredibly attractive, as is eloquence, knowledge, and experience. All of these tend to improve with age. The young often lack depth and spend a great deal of time posing and showing off, which isn’t always attractive. The young also tend to be unsure, to not yet know who they are, and to be uncomfortable in their own skin. As you age, you care less what others think about you. Again, this can be enormously attractive.
Not everyone values beauty in the same way. Indeed, in some traditions physical beauty is considered a burden. Certain Catholic nuns, for example, shave their heads and wear the least attractive clothing they can find. They have dedicated themselves to their faith instead. Even followers of Eastern mystical traditions will sometimes take a hostile view of physical beauty, regarding it as a distraction from the one thing worth pursuing – enlightenment. And such a view can even be found among secular Western writers. The British novelist Aldous Huxley, for example, once wrote a novel in which the central character, a handsome young intellectual, tires of easy sexual conquests and instead retreats to a shepherd’s hut in the Italian mountains to pursue a life of meditation and prayer.
Unfortunately, attractive people invest a great deal in their appearance. And this isn’t always their fault. Having been told they are beautiful or stunning all their lives, they often come to believe that their popularity, even their value as a human being, depends entirely on preserving that beauty. As it fades, they can feel their sense of self fading along with it. “If I am no longer beautiful,” they reason, “then I’m nothing!” The key is to realize that there is more to you than your physical appearance. Other things can make you feel good about yourself: creativity, skill, education, knowledge, children etc. People do not love a pretty face alone. Certainly appearance plays its part, but lovers fall in love with the whole of you, with what you essentially are, not just with a pretty face.
To a large extent, you decide how to see yourself. Indeed, you have far more say in the matter than most people realize. As someone once said, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. And no one can make you feel unattractive without your consent either (indeed, feeling attractive is, in itself, attractive!). You need to update your self-image. And this is a crucial point. Self-image isn’t static. It isn’t fixed. It changes over time. You cannot stop the ageing process (at least not yet, though science is making big strides in this area), but you can change your inner experience of self.
The important thing is that you take back control over how you see yourself. Do not allow others to decide this for you. And do not allow it to be determined by chronological age. In general, therapists and self-help writers underestimate the terrible psychological impact those dreaded numbers can have. And this is in part because people are conditioned to adopt a fake smile and fake laugh on their 40th or 50th birthday (or whatever it may be). In reality, a single birthday can radically change how people perceive themselves. An incredibly beautiful woman may feel confident and sexy at 39, but ugly and old at 40. And this isn’t helped by living in a youth-obsessed culture (or rather, in a culture in which advertising and entertainment target the young).
For those who remain unconvinced (and unconsoled) by such advice, a brief tour of the future may provide some comfort. It is often said that whereas the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. Professor Michael Bess, for example, a specialist in the history of science, believes we are about to enter the “age of bioenhancement.” Others hope this century will usher in a “transhumanist” age in which, as the word implies, we transcend our biological limitations. And these technologies will also enable people to hold onto, improve, or even restore their physical appearance.
For example, in his book Future Files: The Next 50 Years, Richard Watson predicts that cosmetic surgery will grow so sophisticated and so effective that “women with facial lines will be highly desirable” because they will be so rare, “as people become more perfect through surgery and gene modification.” In 25 Things You Need to Know About the Future, Chris Barnatt is even more explicit, writing of “specialist bioprinters,” which “may enable in situ removal and replacement of the human face. People could obtain a 3D scan of what they want to look like and have it applied as the ultimate form of makeup…some people may have their face scanned at 20 and reapplied every ten years to achieve perpetual youth.” Even more astonishing, he predicts that “celebrities could sell scans of their faces over the internet”!
For now, fading looks just have to be faced and accepted. If nothing else, you can at least console yourself with the thought that everyone has to endure this. It is a universal human experience, like grief, illness, and heartbreak. Above all, remember that you are not your looks.
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