There is a cacophony of voices telling us about appearance – how we should look or, what the way we look indicates about us or, stating we should not even care about our appearance. The voices come from a multitude of places – the media, advertising, friends, family, social scientists, feminists of all stripes, evolutionary biologists, our own internal voice when we gaze in the mirror, and more. Words and phrases like beauty is only skin deep, everyone is beautiful, natural, mutton dressed as lamb, not letting yourself go, sexy or slutty(?), ageing skin concerns(?) are examples of cultural ideas about our facial appearance that come at us on a continual basis. These messages are conflicting and confusing and many of them are, also, age related. Embedded in those ideas is the question of beauty – who is and what is beauty? Is beauty or, even caring about appearance only for the young or can old people be beautiful? If so, what might that mean for women? For men? Taking those questions forward, the research I conducted over a two-year span, indicated that older people did perceive physical facial beauty in those everyday ageing people around them. They were definite in their perceptions of age and appearance which included ideas that related to beauty.
Interviews were conducted with thirty-four people from the first wave of the postwar generation – baby boomers who were born between 1945 – 1955. The diverse group of women and men interviewees were from a range of class backgrounds, different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. It is a small study but one of the first of its kind to investigate older people and appearance, in everyday life. The research offers a starting point, a provocation to imagine ageing and appearance in new ways. There were telling gender differences in some areas but there is little disagreement about age and beauty. Significantly, every interviewee did give thought to their own appearance and turned their attention to the appearance of others. That said, a majority of men and a few women stated they did not gaze at themselves in the mirror, though their answers clearly belied their protestations. Older people care about how they present themselves when they are out and about in the world – their appearance is inextricably interwoven with their identity; their sense of themselves.
Appearance and beauty are not trivial concerns. As we move through the trajectory of our lifespan, from babyhood to old age, that embodied reflection of who we are and how we appear to ourselves and others is part of the rich story of our species. There is evidence from prehistory that we painted ourselves for our gods and others. Highly polished metal reflecting devices were all the rage in ancient Egypt and were used in antiquity throughout the Mediterranean civilizations. Had Narcissus lived he might have been an old man staring at his own reflection in the pool. Self-presentation looms large in our human history and beautification of the self is an important and abiding aspect of that.
For most of us, there is no age limit to the desire to be seen by others and the decisions we make in front of the mirror – a glance or a studied moment – convey to the world, this is me, grey-haired or dyed, a spot of lipstick or not, a comb-over or a shaved head – all choices that convey our sense of self, preparing us for frontstage . Frontstage encompasses the act of being seen, being acknowledged in our humanity. Our embodied appearance is not gendered; it is human though perspectives may differ. Our sense of visibility contributes to a sense of self. In a curious and surprising twist, most women told me they noticed other older women. Older women saw each other through a full spectrum of emotional engagement. They acknowledged each other, admired each other, and, sometimes rendered comparisons, taking a more competitive stance. On the other hand, it was the men who, expressed a sadness when they stated they felt invisible. Curiously, male participants in the study had much to say about other ageing men and, most it, from a competitive perspective. This came through most strongly as the men discussed hair loss and weight gain. Male interviewees denied looking, gazing at other older men yet, the competitive talk was a feature in many of the interviews.
Among the research participants, gendered perspectives loomed large. Examples of this ran the gamut from women who stated they felt more confident and comfortable in their skin to gender differences in attitudes towards self-care. These differences were not so marked in the male interviewees of colour. Some men did discuss, to a certain degree paying more attention to self-care and grooming. Across all races and ethnicities, men did discuss their noticing and, in many cases admiring older women older women’s appearance. On the other hand, women did not notice men unless they were well-groomed. Women from this first wave of the baby boomers were unwilling to go along with conventional wisdom and comply with the rules of age appropriate appearance.
For the most part, interviewees saw beauty in the older people around them – their peers but, also, people who were a generation above them. Pleasing features were part of their definition of beauty but not all of it. As one participant stated, “…. not model beauty, I’m talking about something else, another kind of beauty.” That something else was a vitality, a passion for life, a luster; those were some of the words that interviewees used as they spoke about the beauty they saw in older people. Participants discussed strangers that drew their gaze; older people who they named as beautiful because of a kind of radiance about them. Many interviews, both men and women, stated that their perception of beauty had changed with the coming of age. There was also talk about the beauty that develops through long-term shared memories of relationships. It is how our perception of attractiveness shifts with connection.
In a society where ageism is rife but a healthy and active ageing popular has increasing visibility in public life, whether it be on the school run, in the shops, or just out on the street, this is a time to, as a society, rethink our ideas of ageing. Ageing is universal, but, it is also specific to generation and the times. The first wave of the baby boomers is not ensconced in the bosom of their families, cossetted from the everyday world. Instead, most older people are engaged with the world – volunteering, working, supporting their grandchildren and more. People from the postwar generation are engaged in activism, committed to making change in the ‘last phase’ of their lives (2014, Woodspring). When it comes to issues of appearance, they are shifting antiquated ideas of what old looks like.
As I spoke with people about age and beauty, they told me stories of their grandmothers’ careful preparation for church or family gatherings, the arrival of Vogue magazines in the bush to be poured over by three generations of women, or an encounter with a beautiful older stranger whose memory stayed with them. My own grandfather was quite the dandy and would not have dreamed of going out to face the world without ensuring he was well put together. Through the interviews, as people described beautiful older faces to me, their eyes lit up with enthusiasm and pleasure. Age, appearance, and beauty are essential aspects of our human inheritance.
Goffman, E. (1969). The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin Press.
Woodspring, N. (2014). Baby boomers, time and ageing bodies. Bristol: Policy/Bristol University Press
 Goffman explored our public selves – how we negotiate our world when we are out and about as ‘front stage’ and defined our private moments – when no one else is present – as ‘backstage.’
Dr Naomi Woodspring is a visiting fellow at University of the West of England. Prior to returning to university as a late life learner, she had her own consulting firm working with non-profit agencies and for-profit businesses seeking sustainable solutions to organisational and community challenges. She has also worked as a psychotherapist in a wide variety of settings from a managing a community prison project to Native American communities. Her book, Baby Boomers, Age and Beauty (Emerald Press) was released 1 October. It is aimed at a general readership. Dr Woodspring’s earlier publication, Baby Boomers, Time and Ageing Bodies (Policy Press) was recently reissued in paperback.
Image credit: Sukey Parnell Johnson