Who wins the wrinkle wars?

BEAUTYThe old proverb, “Beauty is as beauty does,” assumes a whole new meaning for women of a certain age. 

Apparently, weve got a lot of work to do. Pick up any womens magazine and youll notice the terms “anti-aging” and “age-defying” are used to market products to girls who’ve barely graduated from high school. In television ads, surgically altered actresses tout the wonders of lifting serums and other “miracle” creams.

We get the message: Aging is shameful and must be fought at any cost.  She who looks youngest wins.

The anti-aging movement has spawned a new crop of books addressing the “surgery vs. product” faceoff.

“Both the subliminal and obvious messages of the beauty trap are designed to make you dissatisfied with your looks — and to make you go to great lengths and expense to change them,” notes celebrity dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer in Younger: The Breakthrough Anti-Aging Method for Radiant Skin (Grand Central; $27).  “That being said, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your appearance.”

Lancer advises women to focus first on skincare and nutrition, reserving dermal fillers or cosmetic surgery as a last resort.

French mystique

Years ago, I swore Id never waste a minute worrying about under-eye bags or any other flesh that was starting to head south.  I promised to age gracefully; to make peace with the inevitable march of time and the pull of gravity.

I was kidding myself. Today, my medicine cabinet proves Ive become another foot soldier in the war on wrinkles. Armed with an arsenal of products, Im constantly battling the encroaching lines on my face.

Of course, expensive creams are easier to justify than cosmetic surgery. While fillers and facelifts have gone mainstream, theres still a feminist stigma attached to “getting work done” — especially if you end up looking like an homage to Joan Rivers.

“Cosmetic surgery all over the world is becoming almost a religion, and many people worship at the doctors office till they are stretched like a too-tight blouse and bear frozen smiles,” writes Mireille Guiliano in her new book, French Women Dont Get Facelifts (Grand Central; $25).

Guiliano reminds us that mature women are still considered sexy in France – and that cosmetic surgery isnt as popular there as it is in America. French women might “partake in a little Botox or another filler,” Giuliano reports. But for the most part, she says, they rely on good skincare and cleverly tied scarves to enhance their seasoned beauty.

A second look

Sadly, miracle creams really dont work miracles. This morning I caught a glimpse of my tired reflection in the bathroom mirror, and for a moment I considered booking my first Botox treatment. Then I felt guilty for being so hard on myself.

Yes, theres more work to be done.

For starters, we all need to stop judging the cosmetic choices of other women. At the same time, I believe each of us should choose carefully, whether we opt for a facelift or fillers, or simply settle for an attitude adjustment.  And short of moving to France, we must keep challenging our own cultures ambivalent views on aging.

As Dr. Lancer notes in Younger, “True beauty is being the best you can be in all aspects of your life.” Beauty is as beauty does.

 Original artwork by Cindy La Ferle; collage with borrowed detail from Botticelli’s Primavera.

Who’s aging gracefully?

The key to successful aging is to pay as little attention to it as possible.”  ~Judith Regan

I get annoyed when the terms “anti-aging” and “age-defying” are used to market products to women who are barely out of high school.

Whether I’m thumbing through fashion/lifestyle magazines or surfing channels on TV, I’m bombarded with images of nubile celebrities touting the wonders of wrinkle creams, facial peels, and eye serums. And I rarely see photos of mature women representing my own middle-aged face or body when I browse through mail-order catalogs targeted to my own demographic.

So, I get the message: She who looks youngest wins.

Two years ago, I tried tackling this issue in one of my weekly columns on midlife issues. As a 50-something journalist, I vowed to join the campaign for honest aging. In my column, I promised to celebrate the beauty of graying temples and applaud the infectious charm of laugh lines. I also admitted that I plan to avoid cosmetic surgery (and that I’m terrified of Botox). I know the cliche is as exhausted as I am after a day of caring for my elderly mom, but I’m seriously trying to grow old gracefully.

“Women can look older and fabulous at the same time,” I wrote in the column. And I wasn’t suggesting that middle-aged women ought to give up on their looks. I even disclosed that my own medicine cabinet is an arsenal of anti-aging weapons. (Right now, there’s a back-up tube of Retinol and an outrageously expensive eye cream that promises to perform miracles just short of raising the dead.)  But I added that we all need to be more realistic — and that we’d all be happier if we paid less attention to the beauty-and-fashion police.

Days after the column was published, I received many grateful notes and comments from women even younger than I am. But soon enough, my editor — a sharp woman in her twenties — e-mailed a disturbing note of caution.

“Were getting complaints from plastic surgeons,” the editor warned me. “With so many plastic surgeons and cosmetic salons as our advertisers, its really important that we cater to them.  So I am asking you to stop writing against face lifts and other cosmetic procedures. You can keep writing about the beauty of midlife, but be sure to say that cosmetic surgery is a good option.”

It was the first time in my 25 years as a columnist that Id been told to alter or censor my editorial opinions.  I was miffed – but not totally surprised. Though Id learned years ago in journalism school that its unethical for editors to allow advertisers to drive their editorial content, experience has taught me that many publications – especially womens magazines – are highly influenced by advertising dollars. The editor who scolded me was simply trying to keep her job.

At 56, I hope to keep working and writing as long as there are markets open to me.  Id like to use my years of experience to enhance the quality of life for other women my age. Yet I know it won’t be easy to write honestly about aging in a culture that worships at the temple of youth. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the “advice” you read in most beauty and fashion magazines is barely skin deep, if not totally inspired or supported by advertising dollars. — Cindy La Ferle

–A different version of this column originally appeared in the Oakland Press. Photos by Cindy La Ferle–