I had an epiphany the other day — and given I study body image and run a non-profit promoting positive body image, I'm embarrassed it took me so long to have it. I gave a half-hearted glance over at the magazine covers at the till while paying for some goods, and noticed Taraji P. Henson confidently gracing the cover of InStyle. The caption read: "All I can be is me, baby."
My first thought, "solid message," was cut short by the involuntarily double-take I did because the image of Henson was glowing and practically flawless. "All I can be is me" has merit but the edited image paired with the slogan is problematic because Henson is a flawless version of herself on the cover.
Allow me to elaborate. After a quick review of other popular recent women's magazines such as Michelle Obama, age 54, on the cover of Good Housekeeping; Jennifer Lopez, 49, on the cover of People; Nicole Kidman, 51, on the cover of Women and Home (South Africa) or People; and Penelope Cruz, 44, on the cover of Marie Claire, I started to notice a trend.
The women on these covers don't look their age. Whether that is due to cosmetic surgery, airbrushing, or a combination of both, we won't ever know.
But to be sure, an image that removes skin pores, evens out skin tone, minimizes wrinkles and smile lines, and without age-spots, scars, or blemishes is simply not the reality of what it means to be an aging woman (or human).
Watch: The benefits of a positive attitude toward aging. Blog continues below.
We are social beings who look to other people's lives and stories to reveal a possible way of being.
In doing so, we imagine hypothetical future iterations of ourselves. We are able to provide ourselves with answers to questions like, "What will it be like when I'm ______ ?" "Will people find me desirable when I _____?" "What opportunities will I have when _______?"
For women who insert "older" into such questions, the answers aren't encouraging. The global anti-aging market is worth over 42 billion USD and is projected to reach over 55 billion USD by 2023. In 2017, women between the ages of 40 to 54 had the largest number of cosmetic surgeries, at 7.7 million procedures. The next highest age category being 55 and over, at 4.1 million cosmetic surgery procedures.
But these magazines' representation and description of their cover women are actually indicative of a larger cultural problem: we are obsessed with staying young and managing our appearance to stay young.
Later, as I was nursing my son and chatting with my 62-year-old mom about the magazine covers, I noticed my postpartum stretched out skin and fat squished on my stomach where my son was laying.
My 30-year-old body has changed because it has housed two babies for over 80 weeks (combined). My breasts aren't as perky, but they have provided over 3000 (and still counting) meals to my babies. My body is changing and that is good. I should celebrate what my body has been able to do and not be filled with anxiety or dread that I'm not bouncing back postpartum, I don't have a six-pack, and I'm getting visibly older.
I value the wisdom that older women have acquired through their life experiences.
I used to make occasional comments to my mom that she looked young for her age; her skin didn't have a lot of wrinkles, she had few age spots, and her hair was mostly its natural colour. But I realized with fresh eyes the other day that I had been inadvertently reinforcing a youthful value system on my mom. So, I apologized.
I want my mom to grow old and feel the freedom to age. It is a privilege to grow older. However, we lose sight of this when we are bombarded with practically flawless images of aging women who reveal their "tricks to staying young" or "forever youthful."
A normal aging body has become the aberration, and the perfected, sculpted and forever youthful appearance has become the norm — or at least the sought after norm.
I value the wisdom that older women have acquired through their life experiences. I believe we need to celebrate them, in their entirety, for what they have weathered in life. I want to see older women, free to show up as themselves with wrinkles, fat or not, graying hair, and everything else that comes.
Wanting to be desirable to others is not a bad want, but our culture's obsession with investing in and maintaining a youthful appearance has symbolically annihilated an entire demographic of women. To paraphrase InStyle's caption, let's actually let women be free to be themselves.
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So I'm going to start noticing when I feel the need to manage my appearance and reflect if there is an industry capitalizing on my "not good enough" feelings.
I want change, and it must start with me taking responsibility for what I say and do, in how I show up and talk about my changing body.
I'll put my money where my mouth is and aim to purchase products that support my values.
I'm going to be more mindful of how I speak to and value the aging women around me.
Just as my mom is revealing a positive story for me, I hope my kids can glean the same story from my life.
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