Beauty standards, ageing and confidence

I’ve spent more years than I care to imagine working out how to love my reflection. It might sound strange to anyone who doesn’t identify as a woman, or wasn’t raised as female, but the constant stream of messages we receive about how our appearance is the most important thing about us takes a certain type of strength to ignore. Young boys will get congratulated on being clever, strong or talented, while girls often only get told that they’re pretty. Check out anything shared online by a woman which has received negative comments, and you can bet the vast majority of them will be about her appearance rather than her words or actions. This slow and constant drip, drip, drip means that a lot of us spent our 20s and 30s hating at least one thing about the way we looked, only to get to our 40s and look back wondering what the fuck we were worried about. Why we cared so much about something that, in the grand scheme of things, is actually so unimportant.

The older I get, the fewer fucks I give about what I ‘should’ look like. Unlike many photos of feminine faces that I see on Instagram, I have spots on my chin, visible pores on my cheeks, peach fuzz all over my face, creases round my eyes when I smile, and creases on my neck from most angles. Although I do wear make up (to hide some things about my face and to emphasise others) and choose flattering lighting and angles for my selfies, I don’t use filters as I think that the result just doesn’t look like me. I’m also trying to share more of the ‘everyday’ selfies, like I would send to my friends, rather than just the ‘perfect’ ones but it’s challenging when the vast majority of images of beauty that we see every day tell us one thing; that flawless youthful skin is the only thing that’s desirable. They tell us that creases should be eradicated, the way our faces slowly start to droop once we hit 40 is something to be corrected, and skin that isn’t an even colour all over is, well… that’s what make up is for, right? Getting older is inevitable but whatever you do, for fuck’s sake don’t show it.

I’ve read lots of things recently that have been written by women in their early 20s about their appearance and am astonished that they’re already thinking in ways that it has taken me 30 years to get to. They’re turning away from unrealistic beauty ideals and are embracing their faces and bodies just how they are. Loving themselves with saggy boobs, scars, fat, hyperpigmentation, body hair… so many things that used to be seen as flaws that needed fixing, but that these women are saying are a valid and beautiful part of who they are. I look at them and wish that it hadn’t taken me three decades to gain the confidence that many of them have achieved in one. Is this because I’m slow, because the world has changed so much since I was a teenager, or perhaps because young people need/are expected to grow up so much quicker these days? Whatever the reason, I thought I’d better embrace my status as a 40+ blogger and add to the discussion with some of the information I have gleaned over the years that they might not yet be aware of.

Ageing doesn’t just happen in the ways that the beauty industry and the media tell you about. It’s not just grey hairs and wrinkles. You’ll slowly start to notice that your skin is losing a freshness and a glow that you probably didn’t realise you had. In your 30s, you might go from only needing under eye concealer in order to disguise a particularly nasty hangover to relying on the stuff to avoid friends and colleagues asking if you’re OK. As a teenager I thought I’d not have spots in my 40s… how wrong I was! I spent years fighting them by buying specialist products and changing my skincare routine, but if age teaches you anything its that women over 40 tend to be somewhat invisible so chances are that no one but you has even noticed that handful of rather small blemishes. If you’ve got a flat belly in your 20s but hate doing exercise, be prepared to say goodbye to it in your 30s (I guess I really should have worked out that would happen!). In your 40s your jawline might change, but hopefully by then you’ll be holding your head higher due to increased confidence so it might not be that obvious; you will however definitely notice that the smooth neck and décolletage you took for granted is starting to look a bit, well, crepey.

However, at the end of all this pondering, and the daily assessment of my own face and body that applying make up and getting dressed has provided, I realised that I’ve always loved my reflection. I just needed to listen to myself far more often than I listened to those other voices.

Self portrait image of Lori in 2005 (left) and 2019 (right).

6 thoughts on “Beauty standards, ageing and confidence

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  1. Just over a year away from 50, I can completely relate to this. I was not a pretty kid, and pretty much avoided looking in the mirror for a very long time, in order not to confirm what I knew everyone else was thinking. That’s been a hard habit to break. The way I view my body now, post-baby, after two half marathons, and a deep immersion in feminism couldn’t be more different. Like you, there are things I disguise, and I think of it as conditioned thinking that I hate it when anyone comments on my rosacea; and I still flatly disbelieve compliments on my appearance.

    1. Yeah, these are the hardest habits to break. It’s weird when you catch yourself thinking something that you don’t really believe, and you know full well where it’s come from, but it’s just there in your head and it won’t leave. Will our generation ever get rid of that?

  2. I’m loving this piece.
    I’d really love to hear what you think about a concept that might best be called “body neutrality”.
    So, like you, i really admire women in their twenties who are embracing all their features that don’t fit the “ideal”. But what I’d love is for women to have the same sort of relationship with their appearance that many men do – ie they don’t really worry about it.
    No need to be “body positive” or work on our confidence (which in its way is just another standard to live up to).
    But just to be… neutral.
    So yes. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. I think it’s a very interesting concept but, because “body positivity” exists to counteract all the negative messages that women are bombarded with about their bodies, you’d have to live on a remote island without any access to mainstream media to fully embrace the neutral stance that many (especially older) men have the luxury of taking about their bodies. Sadly now young men are being exposed to similar pressures, and any man who wants to dress stylishly but has a body that doesn’t fit into clothing produced by many high street brands will also be starting to feel what women have been feeling for decades. They’re still more likely to be able to adopt a neutral stance though, as there’s not quite the same amount of bullshit to studiously ignore first!

  3. Two things.

    1. I didn’t really care how I looked when I was younger, perhaps this is a male privilege of the time. Also, I was an ugly child and I’m sure I got much better. Now I am in my 40s I seem to care more about my appearance which seems odd.

    2. What camera are you using in the photo on the left? I have a Microcord TLR camera that was my fathers. It is lovely.

    1. I would say that’s a combination of being raised male (compliments would never have focused on your appearance, I imagine) and not having a visible difference (kids can be so cruel when someone looks different). We live in a society that is much more focused on looks and youth now, so perhaps that’s why you’re noticing your appearance more?

      The camera is a Lomo Lubitel 🙂

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