On my chest I have a long, faded scar that begins at the collarbone, runs down between my breasts, and ends just under them with two round, ungracious dents where once drainage tubes were stuck while I, aged eight, underwent open heart surgery.
This scar had always given me grief. To conceal it, I used to wear clothes with high necklines until I realised I could also hide it behind chunky necklaces, finally showing off the cleavage I’d so desired to reveal to the world. But such jewellery still felt like a poor substitute for the simple elegance of bare skin. More recently, I decided to hell with the embarrassment, and stopped policing my wayward scar so strictly. Now, on hot days, I often leave the house wearing dresses and tops with plunging necklines.
Such a relaxation in my beauty regimens just as I approached the perilous decade of my forties might seem puzzling within the context of our times. After all it is well known that we live in a culture which celebrates youthful looks, particularly in women. Even the most striking Hollywood actresses, a la Michelle Pfeiffer, are relegated to matronly roles once their age starts to show. Prevailing ideals of female beauty today, as prominent cultural critics such as Susan Orbach and Susan Bardo have argued, in my view persuasively, equal an unblemished body, the kind of body that doesn’t show any wear and tear, any life experience. According to some of these thinkers, this ideal reflects our fear of death, a fear which, in secularised western society, is particularly intense. The older we look, the more we evoke death. And how ugly is that…
Showing so-called ‘premature signs of ageing’ (such as having more threads of silver in our hair than our peers do) has become an offence, the eighth deadly sin of our times – the sin of self-neglect. Bodies with ‘amendable’ problems are often held to account. Visible ageing, like excessive weight, can be interpreted as an indicator of overindulgence, laziness, poor self-control or rejection of social values, while remaining youthful for longer seems particularly doable at a time when plastic surgery and other complex, costly cosmetic procedures are becoming more and more effective, and also normative.
As sociologist of the body Chris Shilling writes, ‘the body has become a project for many modern persons …its appearance, size, shape …are potentially open to reconstruction in lines with the designs of its owner’. Yet, while our bodies appear to be more controllable than ever, improvements we make to them in turn raise the standards of how people should look. Paradoxically, the harder we work to preserve our youth, the further away it becomes.
There is another popular narrative about female appearance operating in our society, one that somewhat contradicts this idealisation of youth. This discourse postulates that ageing, with its supposedly accompanying increase in maturity, has the potential to liberate women from their appearance concerns. Within this context, my decision to stop covering my scar as I approached forty might make more sense. Most of us would know women who over the years developed more confident and relaxed attitudes towards their bodies. But should this state of affairs then translate into a sweeping generalisation about self-acceptance that comes with age? Is this really so that, as women age, we metamorphose from sirens who starve themselves to fit into skinny jeans into…What? According to the images ubiquitous in popular culture, often into paragons of social virtue who bake cakes for charity functions and march in environmental protests. Starting from my mid-thirties, as I was getting closer to that dreaded middle age, I wanted to find out what the future held for me. At that time I was also completing a PhD which explored the experiences of women with non-facial scars, Seeing this as an opportunity to also learn more about the more commonplace issues around female appearance, I surveyed literature about the relationship between women’s age and their appearance attitudes.
Analysing the existing studies made me realise that, as a whole, this body of research is inconclusive. While some studies show a decline in appearance-related anxiety amongst older women, others show that non-clinical dissatisfaction with one’s looks is common in women at any age, and that many older women try to improve their bodies – whether through exercise, dieting or surgery – just as vigorously as younger women do. So is it possible that middle-aged women can often be just as concerned with their appearance, but don’t like admitting it publicly for some reason?
I became interested in this question and, during the years of working on my PhD,. had lengthy conversations with women all around Australia not just about their scars, but also about their appearance in the context of ageing. I found that quite a few indeed said they have stopped ‘fussing’ over such ‘superficial’ matters as appearance. Yet, soon I began recognising some recurring contradictions. Let’s take Lynne (58), a public servant, for example. When we first sat down to talk, she claimed her appearance no longer mattered to her:
It’s nice getting older in a way. I’m actually feeling it now when I’m interacting with men, my body isn’t important anymore. I don’t need to attract men anymore. It’s interesting watching men, how they interact with me and how they interact with an attractive 30-year-old woman. It’s not bad, it’s not like they interact differently on an intellectual or business level, but you can see that there is a bit more interest...
Later Lynne also spoke to me in great detail about an affair she’d had in her younger years, while travelling overseas. The excitement of her storytelling hinted at some yearning she may have felt for the times when men courted her. Eventually Lynne did express some grief about her ageing body:
When I was younger, I probably felt reasonably comfortable with my body. I didn’t have any issue being seen naked or with a swim suit. I would now, because I’m old, but I still think like I’m a 35-years-old. So it’s like ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a 35-years-old body anymore’. So I cover up.
Lynne’s manner of discussing her appearance was common among the women of her age I interviewed. It seems that sometimes when older women talk about accepting their appearance, what they are really saying is that they are coming to terms with being placed outside of the libidinous world. Many other women I spoke to similarly talked about their self-acceptance in the context of the disturbing phenomenon of feeling invisible. Sophia (53), a journalist, said:
If a young woman has a scar, it’s supposed to be an absolute tragedy and anything out of the ordinary is considered blemished and I suppose being an older woman I feel quite liberated not having to conform to all this. But you’re becoming invisible when you reach a certain age.
And do women really feel liberated from caring about their looks? Here Sophia also contradicts herself:
I’m still the same as when I was 19. I really like looking good. I go to the gym, I still want to be thinner, and I still buy clothes. I don’t think it makes any difference what age a woman is, she still wants to be feminine and to look the best she can.
While Sophia’s observation about women wanting to look good at any age repeated itself in many interviews I conducted, our cultural perceptions of older women often differ from this. There was another kind of invisibility the middle-aged women in my study often encountered: medical professionals commonly dismissed their concerns about their scars on account of their age, as if older women had no right to lay claim to beauty.
Sophia’s story is typical. She was in her late forties when her kidney had to be removed. This could have been done by keyhole surgery that wouldn’t leave a scar yet would make it harder for the surgeon to inspect the area, or it could have been done by more traditional, open surgery. During the consultation, rather than giving Sophia this choice, the surgeon said to her:
‘Of course we can do open surgery with you because you’re not a young woman. The scar will not matter.’ He meant that I shouldn’t be concerned anymore with the pleasures and vanities of the flesh. And I thought, ‘Well, mate, you really don’t get it…’
Family and friends of women I interviewed could also be dismissive of women’s scars. Again and again these women were urged by well-meaning people to just ‘get over’ their scars, and, in some cases, to stop concealing them. Such ‘encouragement’ proved not only to be unhelpful, but often also amplified women’s distress, as Michaela (43), a marketing manager whose legs were burned in a childhood accident, pointed out:
This is another thing people with scars deal with, like: ‘Get over it, you aren’t disabled. Are you just being vain?’ It’s the whole thing of being ashamed of your scars and also ashamed that you can’t be bigger than that, that you can’t let it go. So it’s a compound feeling, really stressful.
Joanne (54), a mother of two with numerous abdominal scars from medical treatments, similarly felt she wasn’t getting enough empathy from people close to her and so began therapy: ‘to talk about my scars. I wanted to see someone for a little whinge...I wanted somebody to say “you poor thing, how awful. How horrible…”’ Shirley (53), a teacher who was left with multiple scars after a motorcycle injury, went to see a psychiatrist for the same reasons:
Because society’s outlook is if you’re older then scars don’t bother you so much. The psychiatrist said to me that people consider that if you were twenty years old and you had scarring like I had you’d probably care more. But there are days when I feel sick to actually see my scars. I think they’re horrible…
The stories I gleaned are particular to women with non-facial scars, yet they also reflect a larger picture, that we live in times of an ‘appearance paradox’, when looking good is important, but admitting concern about one’s looks is considered vain. For older women this can mean that they end up being caught between contradictory expectations: to do all they can to preserve their youth, while at the same time accepting themselves as they are.
The more interviews I did, the more I felt that that the optimistic discourse about self-acceptance of appearance actually has an ageist undertone to it. That its supposedly empowering message could also translate into a message that as women age they should internalise the cultural narrative which postulates that only the young are entitled to be beautiful and invested in their looks, and fade to the margins, becoming the do-gooder godmothers to the younger Cinderellas.
I think sometimes we, the laywomen, contribute our share to these discourses that de-sexualise women as they get older by becoming too eager to exchange our glass slippers for sensible shoes. From a certain age onwards some of us appear to voluntarily embark on a journey of de-sexualisation. Several of my fabulous-looking girlfriends have recently taken to the habit of talking about themselves as having a ‘middle-aged body’. And I, the lifelong coquette, am also beginning to succumb in some ways. Although I can still fit into the same miniskirts which I’ve worn since my twenties, I am gradually giving them up. For no reason other than ‘being too old’. This isn’t just the experience of my milieu. Women I interviewed often spoke in this vein, like Rosa (55), who also wouldn’t wear short skirts just because: ‘They say anyone over 40 shouldn’t be showing their knees.’
Hearteningly, several of the older women I interviewed told me about their ‘quiet rebellions’, such as in the case of Liz (58), an academic, who resumed wearing bikinis at fifty after discarding them for a while because she felt too old: ‘I thought, age – bugger this. I’ll wear what I want.’ Another ‘rebellious’ woman, a therapist I know, Elisabeth (62), always dresses meticulously, completing her outfits with flamboyant jewellery which accentuates her youthful looks. When Elisabeth heard what I was writing about, she emailed me to say: ‘There’s something about our efforts to dress well and to appear well groomed that lies at the heart of staying alive in the world.’ At that, my mother-in-law, who is my role model for lively ageing, comes to mind. With her sparkly green eyes, a shock of honey-coloured hair and boundless energy, she has always been a woman who loved looking glamorous. She doesn’t shy away from wearing pretty frocks, whether they cover her knees or not, and regularly does her nails with strawberry-red Shellac. Yet she isn’t obsessed with her appearance either. Rather, her attitude reminds me of the one the famous American columnist Amy Alkon recommends: ‘a healthy approach to beauty is neither pretending it’s unnecessary or unimportant nor making it important beyond all else …A woman needs to come up with a workable routine for maintaining her looks throughout her lifetime.’ In my view, there is much joie de vivre in living this way.
My mother-in-law never seemed to give up on her sexuality, either. After separating from her husband of forty years when she was aged seventy, rather than settling for a celibate life, as some of her divorced girlfriends did, she embarked on Internet dating. Dating is not easy at any age, but particularly not when you’re an older woman. Yet my mother-in-law persevered and nowadays, at almost 75, is living with her lovely boyfriend, who is several years younger than her. All these stories remind me that there are alternative ways of being older and female. That we can have some power over establishing our own timelines for how long we wish to occupy the terrain of attractiveness, which doesn’t have to belong exclusively to the young.
To return to my initial scar-baring which opened this essay, the reason I stopped concealing my scar has nothing to do with my age. Rather, it has everything to do with me re-assessing my attitude after meeting many women in the course of my study who wear their own scars in public. I must admit it also helps that my husband not only accepts my chest scar, but strangely finds it attractive. Or perhaps this isn’t that strange if we think how male scars can often come across as such – as signs of a life lived, of toughness and survival.
Gradually, I came to see my husband’s point of view and to think that my scar, even though it is a sign of wear-and-tear, of the no-longer-perfect body, might contain a certain beauty. This, of course, is a crooked beauty, a beauty one earns in battle, and it is this kind of beauty I’ll probably show more and more as I move towards my own middle age.