Out of the Box: Women, Beauty and Aging

I’ve worked hard for these wrinkles,” an older friend of mine smiled recently over salmon quesadillas. I was explaining to her why I was here, thousands of miles from home in San Francisco, doing an art project on women, beauty and aging. This project was a strange mutt of art and sociology. I interviewed women 60 and older, recording their views on beauty in their 20s, now and how things changed over the years.

During the interviews, I took photos of their faces from which I later created oil paintings on disposable surfaces. In the final shows, I strung the painted boxes with clothespins on clotheslines. Colorful printed texts from every interview hung on the walls. I also asked each woman to lend me something that represented beauty to her. I received dresses and old photos, knitted scarves, paintings, poetry and a purply pink woven hat. One of my interviewees – a former Chicago actress – performed a 10 minute debut selection of her new play on Colette. There were flowers, wine and chocolate frosted cupcakes, donated in honor of a friend’s 85-year-old mother. A talented musician friend played her hang, a kind of drum from Switzerland.

I know “the look” of what sells in contemporary consumer culture: the young, long-legged beauty. The last 100 years have seen the birth and exorbitant growth spurt of the modern advertising industry. Almost every woman alive today in Western culture has been surrounded to some degree by advertising and subsequently, beauty images. I wondered on a deeper level how this has shaped us…how women of different generations are affected similarly or quite differently.

When I started the project, my sister asked me if older women might be hesitant to talk about “their changing image.” I didn’t find this at all. What I found were many new friends with stories and quite varied ideas on beauty and life. One 89-year-old told me that “An older woman needs to dress up because she no longer has the beauty of youth.” Everyday she arrives to her volunteer work at the Senior Center wearing lipstick, earrings and a tailored skirt. Another new friend of 83 bragged proudly of having boyfriends since she was 12 years old (as well as surviving 3 husbands).

I interviewed women who painted, taught dance and drove convertibles to the beach. Some women feared aging only because it meant losing mobility or being pigeon-holed as an “old” woman who “painted kittens on black velvet.” Women worked hard with different combinations of diet, exercise or  make-up to carry themselves well and maintain good health. They spoke proudly of where they were now: perhaps of wrinkles, yes, but also of developing passions and inner life, of swimming, traveling and having an “agreeable outlook on life.”

I spent hours listening to stories, sharing banana bread for breakfast, looking at old pictures, learning to drink cognac, and smelling Winnie’s favorite gardenia perfume bought on her last trip to Hawaii. If anything, this project made me inspired to grow older well. I found no black-and-white answers on the secrets of “beauty and aging”. I found instead new friends who shared all kinds of rich beauty with me.

Julia Rice

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