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Women largely equate self-worth with appearance, explaining their hypersensitivity to aging


(NaturalNews) The following is an excerpt from Denise Foley and Eileen Nechas' book, Women's Encyclopedia of Health & Emotional Healing, available for purchase here.

Some women develop a sense of their own aging and begin the transition from youth into middle age in their thirties. Some begin in their forties, some even as late as their fifties, says Mary M. Gergen, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

"My daughter is 29 and already checking the mirror for wrinkles," says Dr. Gergen. She's looking for the physical signs of aging that will tell her whether she still looks youthful or is getting old. Because, generally speaking, that's how most women judge themselves.

Most mark the end of youth and the beginning of old age by physical changes.

"Turning 40 is pivotal," says Cornell Medical Center professor Marion Hart, M.D. "Decades mark off a piece of life, and turning 40 is the decade in which you really begin to realize that half your life is over."

Fear of 40 is really fear of getting old

It's common to approach a 40th birthday with some degree of angst, says Dr. Hart, especially since society tends to make such a to-do of it.

Unfortunately, explains Dr. Gergen, the cultural imperative that how we look determines how valuable we are, to ourselves, our men, our world, is what makes women so inordinately sensitive to the physical signs of aging.

At some primitive level, women equate being beautiful with being sexually appealing, says Laura Barbanel, Ed.D., professor and head of the graduate program in school psychology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Maybe it's an extension of the old "If . . . then . . ." equation: If aging reduces our beauty, then it also reduces our sex appeal. If we have less sex appeal, then we won't attract mates. If we don't attract mates, then we won't have babies. If we have no babies, then we have no function. If we have no function, then we have no value.

Is this logic? Is the value of a woman really in her ability to reproduce?

Obviously, no. Yet that's what a fear of aging basically comes down to, says Dr. Barbanel. To a woman, as one of her colleagues puts it, aging is nothing less than "a humiliating process of sexual disqualification."

The Jane Fonda Effect

Complicating the issue is the 1990s awareness that we have the power to postpone at least the obvious signs of aging. Exercise can firm flabby thighs, tummy tucks can tighten sagging bellies, eye-lifts can eliminate bags, moisturizers can fill in the crow's-feet.

Ironically, says Dr. Gergen, our ability to look young as we approach midlife may actually perpetuate the you're-only-as-good-as-you-look myth. It's what she calls the Jane Fonda effect.

It's a theory as old as time itself and it goes something like this: Men age well; they actually become more attractive as they age. Their lines add character, their gray hair wisdom. But women, lines are wrinkles and gray is matronly. Women become less attractive as they age.

What does the modern woman think?

To find out, researcher Carol B. Giesen, Ph.D., of the Division of Human Development at St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City asked 32 women ranging in age from 28 to 63 to share their definitions of attractiveness, femininity and sexual appeal.

She found that the old double standard still exists, at least in the minds of middle-aged and older married woman. All the women agreed that men are at their most attractive and are most sexually appealing in their early forties to late fifties.

The married women, however, said they felt their peak years of attractiveness and sex appeal occurred during their early twenties to early thirties. Single and young married women, however, felt a woman's peak years to be from the early thirties to the early fifties.

Single women also tended to downplay the definition of attractiveness and preferred to think of themselves as "growing more attractive and sexually appealing over the years."

Middle-aged and older married women blamed age-related changes such as gray hair, wrinkles and weight gain as the cause of their diminished attractiveness and sexual appeal.

Single women, particularly middle-aged ones, said these things added to their attractiveness.

Interestingly, she says, both groups attributed their divergent views to the same thing, a greater acceptance of themselves.

What gives here? Perhaps, speculates Dr. Giesen, her findings "reflect qualitatively different life experiences for single and married women."

The problem, she explains, is that if Jane can look good at 44 or 54, we feel that we should, too. And pretty soon it becomes another cultural imperative. It's something society expects of us, something we expect of ourselves.

We become so obsessed with pinning things up, smoothing things out or erasing them altogether that we continue to believe a woman with lines on her face, spots on her hands or gray in her hair is losing her value, or at least a part of herself.

But, in truth, just the opposite is happening. Midlife can actually be a time of tremendous personal growth because it's the time we look in the mirror and ask: "What have I done with my life?" "What am I going to do with the rest of it?"

This is what aging is really all about.


Foley, D. and Nechas, E. (1993) Women's Encyclopedia of Health & Emotional Healing (Rodale)


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