Are youthful looks still the gold standard for human beauty? Or are we at last embracing change as not only inevitable, but also interesting and attractive?
There’s some evidence the latter view is gaining ground. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, celebrities such as Dame Helen Mirren and Andie MacDowell were photographed with coiffures emphasising their natural grey. Jade Jagger, who turns 50 in three weeks, said: "If you can’t accept your changing body, you’re deluded."
But many of us grew up being told looks were everything. Couple that with the terror of death (pointless, because death, like ageing, is inevitable), and we face a potent mix that drives many desperately to try to stop time.
Traditionally, research focused on younger women’s desire to look flawless. Diane Neumark-Sztainer at the University of Minnesota asked 2,500 adolescents to rate their body satisfaction, then noted their health behaviours five years later. Those who reported high levels of body dissatisfaction were more likely to practise weight control behaviours such as binge eating, engage in substance misuse and report low mood.
More recently, researchers have turned their attention to older women. Nearly 80 per cent of 54-year-olds in Lindsay McLaren’s study at the University of Calgary reported dissatisfaction with their weight, and the majority of women in their late-50s in Danielle Gagne’s survey at the University of North Carolina said their body shape played a key role in determining how they felt about themselves. In Erin Cameron’s study at Northern Ontario, only 12 per cent of older women said they were satisfied with their body size.
Sadly, age doesn’t appear to make us kinder towards ourselves. The only difference is that younger women tend to compare themselves unfavourably with their contemporaries, whereas older women more often compare their current self with their younger one.
But change means we’re alive. It should be celebrated, not disguised. If you’re highly self-critical, what can you do to increase your self-esteem?
Avoid comparisons: Practising mindfulness will teach you to observe without needing to compare.
Change your focus: Think more about your strong points than your flaws, and spend time emphasising the former.
When you catch yourself criticising your looks, change your self-talk: We’re kinder and more realistic when judging our friends than ourselves, so try speaking to yourself as you would to a friend.
Look inward: Physical characteristics age over time, but mental qualities – generosity, kindness, empathy – improve. Focus on interpersonal skills if you want others to think well of you.
If, despite your efforts, you continue to suffer from body dissatisfaction, then CBT, or better yet, acceptance and commitment therapy, can help. Remember, you were not born with your beliefs, you learnt them – so you can unlearn them, too.
The Daily Telegraph