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Forever Young

Risks, Rewards and the Real Costs of Looking Young when Not-So-Young Anymore


Women will openly confess to the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when the first grey hair or wrinkle shows up in the mirror. For some, it may happen around the age of thirty. Most get more lead-in time than that. Then the battle is on from that first gasp, forever afterwards consuming a disproportionate amount of money, time, effort and energy to the relentless task of trying to turn back the clock, or at least hold still the outward signs of aging possibly until the day you die. And even then, the morticians do their thing using every chemical and trick in the book to make a ninety-year-old appear to be forty, unless of course you ‘die young and make a pretty corpse.' Apparently, it is thought that no one wants to view wrinkles on an older woman’s face, alive or dead. On the other hand, we have been conditioned to think of men’s faces as more distinguished the older they get. Biology is brutal.


All Societies have Written and Unwritten Laws about Female Standards of Beauty


Many people ascribe our fixation with looking young to the Hollywood and movie star culture where youthful beauty is the currency of the day, particularly for women. Lead actresses complain that they begin to lose their star power when they cross thirty. Women the world over are able to identify with this sentiment only because all societies have written and unwritten laws about not only women’s roles in society, but on the standards of female beauty that are prized. Hair must be a woman’s crowning glory, framing a flawless face. Such criteria are easily met by nubile young women. Yet all other women are measured against that backdrop of youth when it comes down to our looks.


But the pressure on women to stay young-looking did not begin in Hollywood. There are the standard bearers of female beauty from ancient civilizations whose images are preserved and who have made the cut onto the printed page of our current era when we began counting time from the year 1 AD. Think of the influence of Cleopatra who died since 69 BCE, or Queen Nefertiti who died around 1300 BCE, both women from the African continent. Of course, we have no idea how they would have chosen to deal with grey hair and wrinkles because they both died before they were forty. European and British queens were studied for their power and intrigue more than their beauty until the world became fascinated with the modern era Princess Diana from the house of Windsor and Wales. She too died, in 1997, before she was forty. Her youthful image is what is stamped for eternity.


You don't have to look like a Grandmother


Sometime during the year when I turned sixty-five, I received an unexpected gift in the mail from my adult daughter, my only child, who had gotten married the previous year. It was a book entitled “Funny you don’t look like a grandmother” (by Lois Wyse). It was my daughter’s clever and tongue-in-cheek way of letting me know she was expecting a baby and that I was about to become a grandmother. It was also a reprisal of a discussion she had been having with me during her single-lady days about the fact that my own mother, a full-time home-maker, was available to help me with child-care when I needed it, but as my daughter, she would not have that kind of back-up parenting because I was a full-time career woman, living an active lifestyle and not fitting the image of what a grandmother should look like. It is noteworthy that my mother was fifty years old when my daughter was born, compared to my sixty-six when my own granddaughter came into the world.


There are two streams of consciousness about how older women should look and Behave


We are deep into the 21st century AD and there are still two streams of consciousness about how older women should look and behave. In all cultures, we have examples of many women who move forward into their older years and accept, non-grudgingly, the traditional image and role of grandmothers, or spinster aunts – in their selection of clothing style, demeanor, behavior and choice of daily activities. In a few cultures, women still don’t even have a say in those decisions. They simply fulfil the given role. On the flip side are western and western-influenced eastern cultures across the world where women as they age, remain out and about in the public sphere in the workplace, with jobs and active careers, leadership positions, shopping, traveling, working out in the gym, balancing work and family or alone with self-care, way into their 7th and 8th decade of life. How we deal with the grey hair and wrinkles then becomes a matter of battling with our version of self-image against society’s expectations of how we should look while we move about the world.


The affirmation that “70 is the new 40”’ has its costs for women who not only want to be free to be as active as they wish at seventy, but who also want to stay young-looking while doing so. It’s highly likely, however, that a young-looking face and a head of hair without a smattering of grey is costing you some money. The global hair care market was USD86 billion in 2021, estimated to reach USD113 billion in 2022. Hair salons make 50% of that amount and the rest is calculated from the sales of at-home products. The purchase of cosmetics added up to USD511 billion (FortuneBusinessInsight.com; Statista.com). How much of that share is yours, depends on your personal evaluation of what you think you need and what you actually spend on your hair and face.


Lotions, Potions and Magical Treatments have Existed since Ancient Times


It's nothing new that women are concerned about their looks. Lotions, potions and magical treatments existed in the times of Cleopatra and Nefertiti, and probably before then from the first occasion when women stared at their reflections in a pool of water, a polished stone, or a shiny piece of silver or brass. They gradually realized that they no longer looked like their younger self or the luscious young princess or the new wife their husband desired. The mirror as we know it today was invented in Germany in 1835 and brought our faces up close into sharp relief for us to see every crease and crevice. Of course, as a result, the markets continue to explode with products to urge us to fight against the ravages of time.


The desire to stay young-looking is both self-driven, and also a response to societal pressures. There is always an ad for a magical face cream, lotion, serum, treatment or surgical procedure targeted at us older women, to minimize or erase wrinkles. You may swear by the products you use, or suspect that you’re wasting your time and money, but it’s easy to fall for the next best thing that promises us forever beauty. Money doesn't always help either. Women who can afford surgical procedures do not always come away with a prettier face.


Hair Dye contains more than 5,000 Chemicals, most Uncontrolled


Costs are not only financial when it comes to hair. Health repercussions are serious. Hair Dye contains more than 5,000 chemicals, and the list includes known carcinogens (National Institute of Environmental Sciences; Cleveland Clinic.org). Only a paltry few of those chemicals are controlled substances. But despite the possible risk of the link with breast cancer, women continue to dye their hair regularly to stay ahead of the grey. Some men are following suit influenced by vanity. Research reports indicate that the darker the color of the hair dye, the higher the risk; and that permanent or semi-permanent colors are more carcinogenic than those that wash out with your next shampoo. This doesn’t mean that if you color your hair that you’re certain to get breast cancer. Nevertheless, various other risks can combine and result in a cancer trigger, particularly if the disease runs in your family.


Racial difference is a sensitive topic, but it arises on this issue because research shows that women of black ethnicities seem to get breast cancer and more fatal cancers 50% more frequently than other groups when linked to hair dyes. This may also be connected to the use of darker hair dyes combined with the carcinogens in chemical hair straighteners. Beyond the physical health hazards, there is also emotional fall-out to the constant self-evaluation about your looks. Haggling with yourself in front the mirror is a daily dose of distress which drains your energy and eventually your state of mind and wellbeing, all of which is counter-productive to looking and feeling young.


Looking young when you are not so young is all about Attitude


There is a current old-new or new-old movement through which older women in the public arena are asserting the right to wear their hair in its natural state. For black women this may suggest the push-back to be free to wear natural kinky or curly hair, afros, locks and non-straightened braids. Apart from that natural right, what this crusade is really advocating for all stylish older women of all races and ethnicities, is the self-determination not to have to cover up and hide their grey hair. As has become the modern way, society took note when the headwinds started blowing in from a growing number of celebrities walking the film-world red carpets in recent times sporting variations of grey, or salt-and-pepper hair.


Regardless of this other type of pressure, the choice remains a personal one, whether or not you embrace your grey hair and your wrinkles. True, you earned it all by virtue of being on this earth for many years longer than Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Diana. Enhancing yourself through clothing, hairstyles and make-up is a privilege of autonomy and the benefit of living in a part of the world where you hope no movement will have to arise requiring a fight to keep the privilege. Meanwhile, its important to be your own advocate for healthy choices. Youthful energy comes from inside. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise, insufficient sleep, anxiety and stress-overload can all show up on your face. It’s especially useful to remember that looking young when you are not-so-young is also about Attitude. Smile broadly, strut the walk, and Rock the grey hair.

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