Tyranny of the Mirror: a Reflection on Aging

This photo was up on the HuffPost50 Facebook page last week (see below.) It is a picture of Dyan Cannon, the well-known actress, at age 77. Cannon looks great at this age, but she looked great at every age. Yet, there was another message here, it seems, the message that this is what 77 can look like, that if we play our cards right and spend more time and more money on our looks, we too might never look old. It is a message designed to make us feel better about aging, but I fear it achieves just the reverse.

Snow White, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, aging

In the name of making us feel good about aging, to show that time’s erosion can be fought at every turn, are we are just making ourselves feel worse about an unstoppable process? Was an earlier generation, far less desperate to cling onto any and every sign of youth, far more comfortable with what nature had to dish out?

We often lament the pressure placed on young women to focus on their looks, the pressure to appear slim, beautiful and perfect and to appear to achieved this effortlessly. We worry about the eating disorders that are created and the self images that are destroyed by this relentless pressure. And then, as grown women, we turn around and place much of the same pressure on ourselves. Shame on us, we should know better.

We are eager to stand up and condemn the pressure placed on our daughters to be and look perfect, we want to protect them from this message which we feel damages them in so many ways. And then, we place almost the same pressures upon ourselves to be forever young, to repel the forces of aging, and to glean our sense of self from our faces rather than our lives.

Trying to look perfect is impossible, a recipe for a damaged self-image and feelings of failure, but what is the emotional cost of trying to look forever young? Haven’t we set ourselves an impossible task (preserving our youth) that will inevitably lead to failure and distract us from the real goals of our lives?

In much the same way that models convey to young women that they should maintain the slender bodies of their childhood, this image of Dyan Cannon tells middle age women they can maintain the hair and face of their much younger selves. A woman who does not bow to this pressure is derided as “having let herself go” as if she were too sloppy or too lazy to to hold onto something that simply cannot be gripped.

Dyan Cannon

But who are we doing this for? Why are we working so hard to preserve the veneer of youth?

We didn’t love our mothers or grandmothers any less because they got old. And the good men who spent their lives with them cherished them unvarnished. Surely our children are not focused on our looks. We have a place in their hearts that is impervious to hair color or other artifice. Do we do this for our girlfriends? This might be getting close to the painful truth. But deep in our hearts we know any friendship worth it’s value is based on love, respect and shared experiences.

Maybe we do this for ourselves, for the face in the mirror. In midlife there are days when looking in the mirror feels like life has suddenly played a very cruel trick. The picture in our mind’s eye does not always match the image staring back at us. We may try to recapture that mental picture, but surely we know the truth about our very selves. Any adulteration we know to be just that, an intervention by hair stylists, esthetician or physician.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not standing in judgement, you need only look at the very brown roots of my hair to know that I too am fighting the fight. One glance into my medicine cabinet will tell you all you need to know about how much money I have wasted on products I hoped would hold back the sands of time. I am just asking why? Who do we do this for? And isn’t it every bit as insidious, in fact, a mere extension of the pressure we put on women all their lives to be beautiful and perfect?

Is this all our fault? No of course not. We would have to be cave dwellers to not hear the message every day that looking younger will make us better, that aging has somehow damaged us. We are told that if we look old we will be marginalized and become invisible and that our lives will not be as full or happy. The message is pervasive, accepted and insidious. The problem with the message is that it is not true.

As we grow older we are happier, richer, more confident and content. We have more time, experience and education. Yet in the face of all that is better in our lives, we chose to ignore what we know and focus on grey roots, lined skin and a few extra pounds.

Looking younger will not make us happier, more productive, more loving/ed, or accomplished. However the pursuit of this illusive youth will suck our time (think monthly maintenance) make us anxious and, as we will always fall short, give us a feeling of failure.

The women I see who do not feel marginalized, set aside like yesterday’s newspapers, are the ones that have grabbed professional challenges in their lives. They have close, vibrant friendships and families for whom they care deeply. They have loving relationships that do not depend on an outdated picture their partner holds of their appearance, but rather a current life full of shared interests. Chasing the face and figures of our youth is not entirely harmless as it can distort our current lives by setting a goal we can never reach. There is nothing the gym or a doctor can do to return something that is truly gone forever, but it is our choice to focus what time has given us, rather than what it has taken away.

At what point in the eight plus decades that most of us will live on this earth do we get to let go of the power of the image in the mirror? How old do we have to be before we accept our looks/age and do not waste our mental energy wanting to be thinner/prettier/younger and our physical energy trying to make this possible. At what age to we arrive at self acceptance? At what point do we liberate ourselves from the self-imposed tyranny of the mirror?

Perhaps our models for aging should not be people who look 20 years younger than they are. They either have great genes or great bank accounts and neither can be readily acquired.

Our models for aging, those upon whom we bestow our respect and envy, should be those who have deep abiding friendships, close family ties and work or interests that keep them engaged and giving of themselves. This is much harder to sum up in a single photo but the truth always is.



  1. says

    I tell myself “I’m doing it for me,” but then I only do certain things right before I see a lot of other women.

    My grandmother looked pretty much the same from 40 to 80. Silver sausage curls, soft skin like crepe, beautiful smile showing both wrinkles and unwhitened teeth.

    I thought she was perfect, and so did my grandfather.

    I’m so torn. I want to “look nice” but I also don’t want to waste mental energy and money chasing an unsustainable fantasy.

  2. says

    Great post and very insightful. I have read several articles lately about women who are in their 80’s and 90’s who are still so “with it” and they do NOT look young. They look old. They look their age. But they are vibrant and not “set aside” by society because they are out there doing things and saying things and thinking things and they have opinions and knowledge and are having fun. I believe “aging” is truly more “in our heads” than anything else. Yes, I look in the mirror and I am older, but I am still “me” and I am not dead yet, so I’m not going to sit back and wait to keel over.

  3. says

    I think living where we do, in NY and LA, we are exposed to more of the forever young than most. Though I do my share of trying to stay youthful looking, I don’t aspire to look young. I just want to look the best I can at 52. There’s nothing more sad to me than a woman my age trying to look 30.

  4. says

    Oh oh oh how this hit home. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say “Mom, how did you get here?” I personally think Dyan Cannon is wearing a wig and looks like she is trying too hard. Such women appear vain and do not inspire affection…especially when they keep everybody waiting while they get ready, a process that becomes ever-longer to keep up appearances. Oh, let me be Judi Densch any day…someone with a beautiful smile and a twinkle in her eye.

  5. says

    I love this. I think there isn’t enough attention paid to the idea that there is a difference between being beautiful and being sexy. It all gets mashed together in our culture and that puts strange pressure on people of varying ages and situations, and it doesn’t need to be that way.

  6. Amy says

    I’m “only” in my 40s but have noticed it already among my girlfriends. It seems to me the ones who are “trying” hardest are the divorced moms who are still in the “dating” phase. While we women can say that we embrace all the changes that come with age, unfortunately, men don’t necessarily do the same.

  7. says

    My goal is to LIVE to 100. Will I also try to look my best at whatever age I am? Uh… actually, probably not; you should see my hair.

    I’m kinda anal about fitness and healthy eating, but that’s because of that “I wanna live to 100” thing. =)

  8. says

    There was a great book written years ago – “When Feeling Bad is Good” by Ellen McGrath. She talked about that a certain kind of depression was “normal” the further a woman got away from being young, heterosexual, a homemaker and mother, a career that was an “appropriate one” for a woman, and thin. You were doomed if you were a 62 year-old gay, Hispanic, plump plumber. Your wonderful post points out that although Ms. McGrath’s book was written in the early 90’s, we are all still struggling with messages about our aging. I know that I am trying to model for my nieces and other young women a different way of getting older. Your post is a well-written reminder of what is important to teach.

  9. LL says

    Aging naturally (and gracefully), living an enriching and fulfilling life vs. being beholden to the colorist/dermatologist/pharmacy – The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. I agree with Sharon’s goal of just looking our best.
    I once asked a very wise person, “At what age do I throw in the towel and stop coloring my hair”? Her response, “dead”.
    And while we always have a place in our children’s hearts, my children in particular question why their dad’s hair used to be dark black, and now it’s light black. Funny how mom’s hair hasn’t changed!!!

  10. says

    Admittedly I look in the mirror and try to reconcile the signs of aging with the internal image I have of myself…but I am unwilling to go the artificial route just to satisfy some contrived notion about aging. I hope that by rolling gracefully into 60, coming this year, that I can help support the notion that age is not to be feared, nor does it diminish our beauty as individuals.

    I don’t think Dyan Cannon looks great for her age. She looks like a woman who’s had plastic surgery and spent tons of money denying who she is. She looks like a woman with a good makeup regime and an expensive stylist.

    I do think this youthful trend is gaining momentum with the growing demographics of 50+ women and men. And, yet none of that artificial youth can give us the things you mention–the true measures of a life well lived.

  11. says

    I constantly wrestle with both sides of the coin on this issue. I am all for looking as young as I can–that desire has been ingrained into me since I was young by my mom. If it means having “work” done, so be it. I do not judge, and I hope people will not judge me. We all do what we can with what we have. Those who can afford to spend hundreds, thousands on treatments and procedures, and can go to the best practitioners who offer these services will do so. Others who cannot, won’t. And again, others who do not want to won’t as well. This is nothing new–women (and men) have been vain as long as time. Everyone acts as though primping and preening is a new phenomenon–it is not. The difference between now and then is that now there is much more available to primp and preen with. I agree, to hold up someone like Dyan Cannon, someone who has obviously had much done to transform her looks, as a representative of what the average person looks like at 79, sans procedures, et. al, is deceitful. She IS what a beautiful young woman can look like when she’s 79 if she spends lots of dough on her looks. Nothing wrong with that, but to say otherwise is false.

  12. Carpool Goddess says

    Dyan Cannon was always such a beautiful woman and would probably look beautiful with half the amount of work she’s had done. The one procedure that I think makes many women look freakish is the lip plumping. Dyan had a gorgeous smile before, she didn’t need any enhancement. I agree with Sharon’s comment of wanting to “look youthful but not young.” After seeing the silver fox Diane Keaton, on the Golden Globes, I wondered when I would finally embrace my gray. I’m not there yet. (If ever!)

  13. says

    Thanks for a great article! I also loved reading all of the comments. It’s funny but I remember people saying the same thing about Jane Fonda when she was in her 40’s. People seemed to make such a fuss when women managed to look good at 40 then 50 and 60. Now we are amazed when people look “good” past 70.

    I agree with the comments that point out that looking good and healthy and keeping current with appropriate trends is a bit different than fighting aging by using plastic surgery. Not that I’m judging that decision, I’m not. But at 48 I would like to think that I allow my beauty to deepen beyond what the mirror says. Of course, I say this with my anti-aging make up and my next appointment to get my roots done in my date book. Thanks for some great food for thought. (That still has no calories, right? lol!)

  14. says

    You tackled quite a complicated topic. Since so many people get cosmetic surgery and other age-erasers, it’s so hard to tell how old anyone is anymore. Our entire vision of age continues to be skewed. What does a 77-year-old woman really look like? There are so many variations. One part of me things that if it makes you feel better, just do it; yet another part of me thinks that the chase never ends.

  15. Barbara says

    Lisa, this is a beautiful, well written piece, so rich in truth and reminders of all that life has given us rather than focusing on what it has taken away. Physical beauty? Can there not be an appreciation of age in our physical form? I mean the aches and the slowing down are one aspect that isn’t appreciated but must be dealt with, but the surface stuff; the wrinkles, the sagging here and there, the grey hair….how much time we waste of our precious lives obsessing over, as you so well pointed out, a process (aging) we cannot control.