One day, my mom changed. When I left for school in the morning, she was styling her shoulder-length dark brown hair in our downstairs bathroom with a curling iron. When I came home, she had an amber bob. It was only when white wisps appeared at my temples that it all made sense: Ah, she’d probably started to go gray. That haircut was when she crossed over, into middle age.
As a kid, it seemed like an instant transformation. As an adult, I imagine my mother went through what my midlife peers and I grapple with now: a reckoning with self-image and a changing appearance.
The self-improvement market has thrived at least since legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown urged women to ensnare men by wearing false eyelashes in 1962′s “Sex and the Single Girl.” But beauty routines, until recently, were also framed as an act of sorcery and deception; rituals carried out in private, with an end goal in mind.
Now, Martha Stewart is breaking the Internet with a plumped-lips nightgown selfie, declaring “I don’t want to look my age at all”; meanwhile, Pamela Anderson is making headlines (shocked! congratulatory!) for appearing in public without makeup.
The fact that this is newsworthy tells you everything you need to know about the stagnant state of American beauty ideals, but also about the ambivalence around aging that paralyzes many modern women: Am I caving if I dye my hair? (Personally, I’d look like a skunk if I didn’t.) Or am I actually the ultimate feminist if I proudly spend my money on Botox? What if I don’t?
“Now, it’s more culturally acceptable that part of self-care is looking and feeling good. That’s makeup and skincare, and if you’re going to push the limits, that’s Botox and fillers,” says Dr. Joanna Ng-Glazier, a plastic surgeon at Concord’s Emerson Health Plastic Surgery.
That’s the new wrinkle: access to more products, opinions, and technology, which lets us see ourselves all the time — on FaceTime, on Zoom, in selfies.
For women in their thirties and forties, “It’s about missing what we used to look like five years ago, because I think all we do is look at social media, our own pictures on cameras. We’re so hyper-focused on looking at ourselves, and I think that’s probably the bane of our existence — on a Zoom call, on FaceTime, on a video chat,” says Dr. Rosy Sandhu, director of Boston-based Neem Medical Spa. “We’re competing with our younger self, more than anything else.”
And for our generation, it’s easier than ever to freeze time (literally): Botox, fillers, micro-needling, dermaplaning, skin resurfacing, peeling. And, as my colleague Beth Teitell pointed out last week, it starts young, with kids spending hundreds at Sephora. At least today’s middle-aged women grew up in the cosmetologically limited 1980s and ‘90s, when the worst vice was Sun-In from Osco Drug and media consisted of Seventeen magazine.
The tools are newer, but the darker motivations for self-care — whatever form it takes — are age-old. In addition to people whose desire to look fresher really is just skin-deep, Ng-Glazier also cares for successful, professional women who were leveled by those pandemic-era Zooms, where every supposed flaw was on display.
“They say, ‘I just don’t like the way I look compared to my peers,’” she says.
These providers aren’t just smoothing fine lines; sometimes, they’re providing a bigger service: filling gaps in the psyche, cracks in the armor.
“The majority of the women in their 40s are not coming in to treat a line, a wrinkle, a blemish, anything like that. They’re coming for something deeper. We try to uncover that emotion a little bit: What are we really trying to achieve?” Sandhu says.
“I’m sure I speak for a lot of women that, when we get to this stage in life, a lot of changes are happening in our personal and professional lives. We start reevaluating our spouse, career, or hobby choices. Am I on the right track? Do I need to prevent bad things? People are feeling insecure in their personal relationships, in their professional relationships. Women are worried about going to the next level because they feel invisible in the workforce. Opportunities are passing by. I feel my job is really to give them that confidence and security back,” Sandhu says.
At first, our conversation made me wonder: Hasn’t anything changed? But when I talked to women about this topic, online and on the sidelines at futsal and among my friends, the responses felt cathartic, almost like a blood-letting. People shared their elaborate beauty rituals, from soaking cuticles in vitamin oil every night to lash tints and brow lifts; others were open and adamant about aging naturally.
But what truly struck me was the detail of each response and the transparency, almost like a birth story, regardless of standpoint or motivation. Some women were angry; some were proud. Some posted photos; others texted me beauty diaries. Another person sent me a widely circulated sound bite and photo of Julia Roberts without makeup, eviscerating a commenter for making fun of her wrinkles.
Now, people want to share, from Martha and Julia on down. Midlife has always been a renegotiation with the self, a reorganization of priorities and a redefining of terms. It used to be done in private, at 3 a.m. in internal monologues or maybe with a therapist or a best friend. But now, the more we normalize the many ways we greet that change — if we can be open and unapologetic about it, whatever we choose — the better.
As one woman said: “My plan is simple: Every time I think I should start getting Botox, I will transfer $400 into a high-yield savings account. In 20 years, I will retire on my new yacht — with plenty of sunblock.”