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.

Somebody to lean on

JunePrimeIt was almost midnight. My husband and I had just returned home after spending eight grueling hours in the emergency room with my elderly mother, who had fractured her back earlier that day.

Staggering like zombies into the kitchen, we were surprised to discover that our dear neighbor, Matilda, left a warm kettle of homemade minestrone on the stove — and even fed the cats in our absence. There arent enough words to express gratitude for a favor like that, so I promised to pay it forward when the next opportunity arises.  And it will, sooner than later….

To read the rest of this column in the June issue of Michigan Primeclick here, then look for me on page 6 of the Western Wayne County or Oakland County editions. 

Girl groups

There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.” – Dame Rebecca West

Nothing tops the power of a girl group. Whether youre swamped with a crisis at work, unruly kids, or too much estrogen, you can always count on the harmony of other womens voices to lift you higher.

Girl groups rock. And I dont mean the musical variety, although Im a fan of those too. But right now Im applauding the whole idea of women banding together to form their own circles and support groups. Never in the history of womankind have we been so overbooked, so stressed, and so starved for emotional connection as we are today.

Blogging is, of course, a fine way to discover new friends with common interests. But blogging can’t be compared to forging three-dimensional connections in one’s own community. Like the quilting circles of my grandmothers era, female support groups provide the personal contact that can keep a gal from unraveling at the seams.

But first, some definitions are in order. A support group should never be confused with a clique, which still has the hollow ring of adolescence. Websters New World College Dictionary defines a clique as “a small, exclusive circle of people; a snobbish or narrow coterie.” A support group, on the other hand, has a large collective heart. It is typically formed around a positive agenda – to explore complex issues like new motherhood or breast cancer, for example. Individuality is welcomed and encouraged; sage advice is exchanged to aid the group as a whole. And the conversation is always therapeutic.

Over the years Ive belonged to several womens clubs, but the “Second Sundays” circle I helped form at my church is the first to spring to mind. Though the group eventually came to its natural end and has since disbanded, I’ll never forget how that incredible family of women coached me through some difficult challenges, from major surgery to my sons graduation party. Meeting monthly for several years, we rehashed a variety of topics, including healing and forgiveness, letting go of our kids, rebuilding friendships, caring for aging parents, and caring for our stressed-out souls.

It was an uncommon grab bag of gals. Our ages ranged from 44 to 84, and we represented a wide variety of professions from social work to finance. The generational differences enriched the group. The older women offered their wisdom and experience, while the younger members helped the elders view life with fresh perspective.

If youre inspired to form your own official girl group, heres what to do.

Decide on a focus for your meetings. Keep the circle small, preferably under twelve women. If its much larger, there wont be time for everyone to get a word in edgewise. Always commit to a regular meeting time at the same location, unless you prefer to rotate your gatherings at various homes. And for everyones sanity, keep the refreshments light, as in coffee or tea and store-bought cookies.

Above all, your support group should be about nourishing friendships and feeding the soul. So, forget the gourmet brownies but be sure to bring an open heart. — Cindy La Ferle

— Part of this essay appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. The complete original version is reprinted in my book, Writing Home

Top photo: My beloved soul sisters: Debbie, Norma, and Shirley

School supplies

Midlife is a time to listen deeply to your heart, a period of transition and reappraisal.” — Carl Jung

I have a hunch that fall is arriving early. Maybe its the angle of sunlight on the last of the black-eyed Susans in my perennial garden. Or maybe it was the sound of berries and acorns crunching under my bicycle tires on the nature trails yesterday.

Whatever triggered it, I cant ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies – even though I dont have a student to buy them for.

My only child did exactly what all parents hope their kids will do. He grew up. He attended the university of his choice, then started a grown-up’s job just two months after commencement ceremonies.  His dad and I helped him pack up the car, headed with him down the expressway, and waved a tearful good-bye in front of a small flat in Chicago after we unloaded the last piece of stereo equipment.

That was two years ago. But sometimes I struggle to get my mind around the fact that Im officially an empty nester now.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood – the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch kits – I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my son started school each year.  In those days, it was a blessing to have six quiet hours a day to meet writing deadlines and run errands all by myself. At the time, the calendar on our kitchen wall was scribbled top to bottom with kid-related events and appointments – a perpetual list of band concerts, school conferences, homeroom baking marathons, and carpool schedules.  Not to mention all the medical appointments for my pending hip-replacement surgeries.

I still cant fathom how any mother finds the time to do it all — no matter how many kids she has. In any event, I’m not sure how I kept my own balance on the roller-coaster ride we call “the parenting years.”  But I did, and sometimes I really miss those years.

Retiring or redefining?

It took several months to regain equilibrium after my son first left for college in 2004.  His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping the door shut. Until then, I hadnt fully realized that the career I’d loved most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was being a mom. It caught me off-guard, like a thunderstorm on the freeway, or the tears that roll unexpectedly when you catch the lyrics of an old song on the radio while you’re driving.

So I had to figure out where to devote my enthusiasm in this uncharted phase of my midlife.

My relationship with my husband was (and always will be) at the top of my priority list. And yes, I’d have more time to devote to writing and long lunches with friends. But I also needed to explore something creative and different. Something just for myself.

The ancient ritual of buying school supplies provided my very first clue — and Im sharing it with the hope that every empty nester whos reading this will look for the bread crumbs on the path leading to her own passion.

The inner artist emerges

I was browsing at the office supply store with my son a week before he moved into his freshman dorm. While he wandered the computer aisles in search of an essential gizmo, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored pencils, and drawing pads. My inner artist, whod been hushed and banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college, pushed forward and made herself heard. At the time I wasn’t sure what she’d do with all those pens and markers, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Because that’s exactly what I needed.

A month later, I started shopping for real art supplies at the local craft store, where I also discovered several gorgeous art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. And by the end of that year, I found myself clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. My son reveled in his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame while I happily painted, cut, and pasted another path of my own.

So, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Time to get the garden ready for bed. Time to head upstairs to the art studio and see what art will teach me next.

I’ve already started making notes on projects I’d like to begin — a line of greeting cards, a mixed-media collage or two, and a deliciously creepy construction for an upcoming Halloween show. Preparing for the new season, I swept the floor of the studio last week and took stock of what I’ll need to begin again. I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

— Art studio photos by Cindy La Ferle —