Please Photograph Me From Above

Yesterday I went through the day in a really bad mood for a really dumb reason: some terribly unflattering photos of me were posted on Facebook.

My husband snapped the photos out of love yesterday morning, capturing a tender moment between me and our dogs. But it was a humid morning, I had not slept well and my hair and face were not ready for prime time. Worse still, he shot from below where I was sitting, aiming the camera up into my face, chin and collapsed body frame. The result was a stark reminder that I am losing the battle with Father Time. After I got over the shock, I just sulked.

In the era of global terrorism, opioid crises, health care reform and income inequality, this is a really vain and stupid thing to get upset about. But coming on the heels of hearing that I have osteoporosis and on weeks of soggy weather that have been terrible for my hair, the photos were a shock. So let me relieve the mystery, put vanity aside, summon all the courage I have and share one of them:

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And here’s another one from a few months ago, which is how I prefer to view myself:

18199166_10209075302255799_7697485659817589556_nWhich one is the real me? It’s probably both of them, depending on how good I feel, how much care I’ve put into my face and hair that day, whether I consulted my color wheel and how rested or stressed I am. But as we age the costs of slacking off get higher, and nothing is more unforgiving than a camera and the wrong lighting. Goldie Hawn, who always looks fantastic in photos but famously caught flack for this un-retouched photo of her going to the gym, most likely understands this.

And so do most women middle-aged and older. My friends and I have shared some lighthearted moments about what control freaks we can be as soon as a camera points our way.  One friend likes to joke that she tells her kids not to pull the plug until she wastes away a few dress sizes.

A few weeks ago at our son’s graduation party a male friend wanted to take a group photo of ladies, all of us over 40. We all demanded that he shoot us from above to minimize any sagging, and he obliged – squeezing out a few shots before his face turned mischievous and he dropped to his knees, capturing one more photo from that terribly unflattering angle. The shocked and protesting looks on our faces in that photo – which I’d never share here without my friends’ permission — were priceless.

As I close in on my 63rd year, I’ve squirmed in that uncomfortable spot between vanity and self-acceptance. Somewhere is a happy medium between looking unattractively vain (like you’ve obviously “had work done”) and pulling the ripcord and letting it all go. I haven’t found it yet. I’ve dieted and not dieted, abstained and overindulged in wine, walked daily and spent too much time in a chair, swum laps for exercise and avoided the water because of what it will do to my skin and hair, penciled and not penciled the eyebrows I over-plucked in my 20s. Jobs, family obligations, unread newspapers and unfolded clothes all get me off track from the increasingly Herculean effort needed to look youthful.

So what’s the remedy for those of us who haven’t aged as well as Audrey Hepburn? Is it an attitude adjustment or more time at the gym and the makeup mirror?

Maybe an easy fix is just avoiding cameras altogether, or insisting that we have veto power over photos that don’t paint us in our best light. Even Marilyn Monroe insisted on viewing contact sheets of her before any photos were printed, and would draw a big “X” on the photos she didn’t like. At the very least we can bully the photographer into standing on a ladder for any photos.

Or maybe the answer is just lightening up and realizing that attractive days and non-attractive days are just part of the aging experience, and that inner beauty is what matters, as hackneyed as it sounds. Maybe we should all be less critical of ourselves – I’ve found that turning a photo of yourself upside down helps you view yourself with the same dispassion as others.

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Maybe we should just focus on what we’ve accomplished over the years instead of the muscle tone, dewiness and skin elasticity we’ve lost.

That makes so much sense, but why is it so hard?

What do you think?

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I’m Not 60…I’m ‘Sexagenarian.’

On September 20 I passed a milestone that everybody said would be very difficult: I turned 60. It seems like just yesterday that I turned 50 and friends were warning, “Fifty is nothing…but you’ll really feel it when you are sixty.” A few years ago a formerly heavy colleague, newly slim, confessed that “I had to get my diet and exercise in order, because I didn’t want to turn sixty and realize my body has totally fallen apart.” And it’s become popular for women’s magazines to have features called, “Sexy at Any Age,” with photos of gorgeous celebrities grouped by their decade. For some reason it stops at 59, unless they are talking about men.

So post-birthday, I’ve spent the past week waiting to feel the axe of old age upon my head, and guess what? Nothing has happened. My hair is no grayer and my body is no more stooped or saggy than it was last week. This new decade is not as scary as it seemed when I was 10 years away from it.

It could be because we have many friends now who are post-60 and say it’s a blast if you have the right attitude. Several friends at my 60th birthday party last week were living proof: they looked fit and gorgeous; passionate about their grandchildren, work, interests and travel; and as carefree as eight-year-olds. Not a bad place to be.

Here’s one thought: maybe the key for surviving the 60s is to think and act like you did in “the 60s.” I have to admit right here that I sat on the sidelines during the free love decade (and am happily married and have no plans to start such debauchery now.) But my mind was more open and I felt the possibilities were endless. So why not make a mind-blowing change in the concept of what it means to be 60-plus? Let’s start by declaring that we’re not in our 60s…we’re “sexagenarian.”

Doesn’t that sound better?

Ten years as a sexagenarian sounds pretty exciting. I’m now in the company of people like Helen Mirren, who, someone once declared, “put the sex back in sexagenarian.” Being a sexagenarian sounds as racy as being a dancer in “Hair,” something I wasn’t allowed to see in the 60s. It sounds as daring as wearing a Catholic school uniform with fishnet stockings (which I kinda did, in 1968.) Yet because of the “gen” syllable, it also sounds vaguely healthy, like oxygen or a yoga retreat. I like it…I’ll take it!

So I now have a whole ten years in this fun new decade before I have to redefine my age all over again. It’s probably not too early to start thinking about how to spin the 70s, which are already looking challenging. Somehow “septuagenarian” doesn’t have the same ring. If you read or watched “Game of Thrones” you know that a “septa” is a humorless female religion teacher. It also sounds too much like “septic.” Maybe we can think of something different.

And don’t even get me started on octogenarians.

A Near “Miss” in Washington, DC

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Come to the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC, where flattery will get you everywhere.

How many midlife women remember the first time they crossed the bridge from “miss” to “ma’am”?  Was it at age 35, 40, later?

I was around 40, in a supermarket in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, pushing a cart when it happened.  Can’t remember what I was looking for, but an earnest young guy in a green apron saw my perplexed look and asked, “Can I help you find something…ma’am?

I froze. What had I done differently?  Had I forgotten the sheer pink lipstick? Was my last haircut too short?  Did I dress too much like Margaret Thatcher that day?  Was I frowning too much? All I knew was that despite workouts, lots of salad and a trunkful of Clinique, as of that day I could no longer pass as a younger woman…someone had outed me as a “ma’am.”

From that time on I noticed every time that somebody called me ma’am until I stopped counting. The ma’aming intensified when my daughter Rachel went to school in Virginia, where properly-brought-up southern youths call every married woman “ma’am.” As I grew into my middle-aged life I grew into my ma’am-dom, accommodating it gradually like a pair of jeans with lycra.

So imagine my delight last week, 17 years later, when a courtly young waiter in a white apron gave me my youth back.  We were visiting Washington, DC for some sightseeing and museum-browsing over the July 4 weekend, and found a welcome respite from DC’s relentless heat wave at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a restaurant a block from the White House.  The air conditioning, the antique paneling, the bar filled with character and characters, and the superb crab cakes brought us there for two visits.

After we sat down for our second visit, we chatted with our waiter, who looked about 27 and strongly resembled our California nephews.  We talked about those nephews, about DC and the record-breaking heat, the politicians and staffers who frequented the Pub, and the day’s specials.  When he took my order, he smiled at me and dropped the bomb:

“And what will the young lady have?”

After making sure that there were no toddler girls nearby, I looked into his eyes for a glitter of mockery but saw none…just good old-fashioned southern courtesy and warmth.  And even though I knew I really couldn’t pass any more for a much younger woman, I felt for one brief moment like I had my miss back, thanks to someone young enough to be my son.  I felt really happy and ordered that second glass of wine.

The extra wine kicked in as we stood up to leave after paying our bill, just in time to see our debonair waiter turn his attention to a nearby table, where a couple that appeared to be in their late 70s was ready to order.  He smiled warmly at the wrinkled, age-spotted woman at the table and asked, without a trace of mockery,  “And what will the young lady have?”

I Feel Bad About My Hair

Nora Ephron, the wonderful writer, humorist and director, died two days ago and I will miss her.  She was a role model not only for writers but for all women struggling to come to terms with their imperfect appearance in an appearance-obsessed world.  She wrote valiantly about her small breasts, her drooping neckline and failing memory as she grew older, the Herculean maintenance that she needed to stay youthful in New York.  Her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” is a frank, funny and heartbreaking collection of essays about growing older.

One of the many revelations in that book is that Nora got her hair blown-out twice a week and called it “better than therapy.”  She was obsessed about her hair, which to me always looked perfect but apparently required major professional intervention to keep looking great.  In fact, the New York Times obit for her recounted a phone conversation that she had just two weeks before her death with Scott Rudin, the producer, about an idea for a TV pilot. “If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting,” she told Rudin.

I was glad to read that Nora shared my obsession with hair, and in homage to her I have decided to devote this latest blog to my lifelong struggles with my own sorry head of hair.  Like Nora’s small breasts, which she wrote about so eloquently in her essay “About Breasts,” my own hair has been the source of more angst than any other part of me.  It is too curly to be manageable, with a wave that goes its own way, and too thin to be luxuriant like Julianna Margolies’ or Andie MacDowell’s crowning glory.  It is an exquisitely sensitive barometer of humidity; even the slightest whiff of vapor arouses my inborn frizz, defying my efforts to torture it to death with gel, blow dryer and straightening iron.

I am writing this from Nantucket, where we are vacationing with Bob’s brother Mike and wife Erica. When we first hatched plans to come here I felt a little apprehensive.  I still remembered my neighbors’ tales of vacationing there in 2011 roughly the same week as this one, when their friends hosted a destination wedding there.  It poured, it drizzled, and on a good day it misted.  Everybody at the wedding was a soggy and frizzy mess, after paying Ritz-Carlton rates to stay in those signature weathered gray cottages and eat in Nantucket’s notoriously overpriced restaurants.  I was afraid this would happen to me.

And indeed it did, at least part of the time. The early part of this week was sunny but humid, and my hair was at its worst.  Despite being in the presence of my loving family, I felt like shit. My hair, which looked halfway decent after my ministrations with a blow dryer, looked like Dilbert’s boss after a few minutes outside.  I cursed myself for not wearing a baseball cap, which would flatten my hair and accentuate its thinness.  It was hard for me to enjoy a stunning sun-shower a few days ago.

Over the years my hair has gotten me mistaken for a boy (when I was a toddler wearing it short.)  During grade school in the early 1960s, when all of the little girls wore pixie haircuts, mine was a lumpy tangle, more frizzy than curly.  In one neighborhood photo I look like Larry Fine.  In middle school I was asked, “Catherine, did you get a perm?” or “Catherine, do you set your hair with Spoolies?”  (Anyone remember Spoolies?)

I began a lifelong series of interventions with my hair around that time.  The first was huge rollers, with my hair cemented in place with bobby pins and Dippity-Do. Until we had a bonnet dryer I’d spend half my day wearing those things.  Sometimes I would sleep on them, feeling like a knight sleeping in armor, tossing and turning all night.  The rollers did straighten things out somewhat but gave me a puffed look, like an inverted kettle.

Then I discovered Curl-Free, the chemical straightener.  After about an hour of combing a vile, tear-inducing concoction through my head, and setting my hair in soup-can-sized rollers, I looked fabulous.  My eighth-grade classmates lavished compliments on me and I felt like Jean Shrimpton, the 60s model and “it” girl.

Until my next shampoo, when my curl reasserted itself.  “Catherine your hair is getting curly again,” my classmates reminded me.

I remember going to a swimming pool on a hot but dry summer day and being afraid to ruin my recently set hair.  I had a deluxe bathing cap that had promised to keep the water away from my hair but did not realize that its warranty did not cover diving accidents.  I fearlessly dived in and was dismayed to feel the rush of chlorinated water that stabbed through the rubber barrier around my hairline.  I spent the rest of the day with my hair lacquered with Dippity-Do and pulled tightly into a ponytail.

Finally, during senior year of high school my sister Julie and I began ironing our hair…not with a  hair iron, but with mom’s clothes iron. One of us would kneel in front of the ironing board while the other one brushed our long hair over the board, followed by the iron. It was a religious ritual, an offering to the straight hair gods. My hair eventually broke so much it started growing shorter,   but I did get to be in the homecoming court that year.

During one summer after my freshman year in college I was at a party with a group of friends, where the gathering included a cute boy I wanted to impress.  My hair had been blown out; I looked tanned and summery.  But an evening mist crept in and I felt the inevitable happening, with my confidence slipping away one baby hair at a time.  The porch light behind me made my head cast a shadow, and as I talked with Steve I observed my sillouette’s changing and softening shape in dismay.

“Why are you staring at my shoulder?,” the guy asked, sounding irritated.

My mom would sometimes grow frustrated with my obsession with my hair, and I could not blame her.  “When your hair frizzes,” she told me, “your whole face changes.”

“Couldn’t you find other curly-headed girls to share this struggle?” one might ask. Indeed, I have sisters and a daughter, all with curly hair, but different from mine.  Not to minimize their own struggles, but Julie’s hair straightened out in midlife; Maria’s is still curly but much thicker…she can rock her curls, like Sarah Jessica Parker.  Both my sisters struggled with their hair just as I did, but have come to terms with it far better than I did.  Julie, who never wore curls after childhood, relied on scrunchies, elastics and cute baseball caps if the weather did not cooperate.  Maria’s curls have a great wave and thickness that allows her to wear them with insouciance…although recently she has occasionally treated herself to the “Brazilian Blowout,” a modern and longer-lasting version of Curl-Free.

My daughter Rachel inherited my curls, and has also found a way to rock them.  With her green eyes and pale skin she looks like a young Andie MacDowell.  She lives in California, home to millions of identical blondes with straight blond hair, and stands out like a gorgeous wild rose in a field of daisies.

But unlike my loved ones I have not yet found a way to come to terms with my hair, because it is so fine and thin as well as curly.  I did embrace it periodically over time…once in young adulthood, when I had a lot more hair in healthier condition, and the second time a few years ago when I spent a fortune to have a “Ouidad” stylist cut my hair with a patented “carve and slice” method guaranteed to bring out the best of your curls and minimize frizz.  Ouidad is known as the “queen of curl,” but my hair was too hopeless even for her proven methods.  The curls were lank and my hair flattened at the top, and I could not give it height despite endless duckbill clips and gobs of Ouidad’s expensive styling gel.

So I went back to Tammy, a stylist who comes as close as anyone to truly understanding my hair, and she gave me a much shorter cut that is longer in the front.  With highlights, keratin treatments and careful ministrations with a straightening iron it looks pretty good.  It’s still too thin to be swingy but if I keep it shorter I can get a little height on the top.  So at least half the time I actually like my hair, thanks to Tammy.

Until the humidity rolls in, and then I go into an existential funk about my hair once again, the depression creeping in like frizz, one baby hair at a time.   Keratin treatments do give me some immunity, but I am overdue for one and I feel as angry as I did when I was a middle schooler being asked about Spoolies.   I am sure that my whole face has changed.

My friends with straight hair tell me they’d give anything for curls.  Their hair just goes stick-straight whenever humidity rolls in, they mourn.  They can’t do anything with it.  They think curly hair is sexy, they reassure me.

I think they are full of shit.

Is It Ever OK to Look Your Age?

The unvarnished Hillary in Bangladesh.

Cable television, twitter and political web sites are abuzz with the news that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done the unthinkable: she went on a diplomatic visit to Bangladesh wearing casual hair and little makeup, looking every second of her 64 years.

I Googled this to see what all the fuss was about, and agree that Hillary appeared like she was going to a library trustee meeting instead of a summit with a head of state. But she still looks pretty damn good, and I’m sure she didn’t offend the Bangladeshi. You can see for yourself in the photo here. Contrast it with the other photo of Hillary as a senator in New York, where they’re less forgiving of unstylish people.

Hillary Clinton with the New York treatment.

As I sit here, wearing fading lipgloss, smudged Maybelline and drugstore moisturizer, I was wondering whether it will ever be OK to give up on the endless pursuit of youth and glamour and just look our age. Thank God I’m a nobody so I won’t end up on YouTube if I forget to wear eye shadow, which I do often. In our New England town nobody talks about you if you show up at the local convenience store or coffee shop in sweats, or if you have two inches of grey roots when you take the microphone at a zoning meeting. In fact, the au naturel Hillary would be considered pretty smart-looking here; and even smarter when she starts talking and you realize she has a brain.

But culturally we middle-aged women – and men, too — are still held to an impossibly high standard. We spend billions to keep grey hair, wrinkles and stomach flab at bay. We spend hours covering up and camouflaging before we can make an appearance before polite company. We go back and forth over whether to fight old age with everything we got – weight training, no carbs, expensive plastic surgery and face creams – or enjoy life and gracefully accept that ultimately we will lose a few battles with Father Time. Unlike Hillary, we don’t have to wrestle with these questions in front of ubiquitous, unforgiving cameras waiting to surreptitiously capture every wrinkle and sag.

So is there a happy medium between looking as youthful as our kids and looking decrepid? Between looking like you’re trying to hard and looking like you pulled the ripcord?

I think that age can and should be worn with great élan, like a great scarf or a vintage Chanel jacket. It helps to have great genes (like Helen Mirren and Audrey Hepburn), but confidence, intelligence and a sense of insouciance goes a long way to make up for that. It also helps to have an attitude that you have bigger things to do than fuss over your looks. I think Hillary has nailed it.

What do you think? Is it worth the fuss to look your absolute best every single day?  And for a hilariously funny point of view on the subject of Hillary’s fashion sense, visit one of my favorite blogs, Life In The Boomer Lane.

Where did I misplace my youth?

My husband and I were rearranging furniture in our bedroom the other day when I found a photo of myself that I had not seen in decades. We had taken out the drawers in our bureau so that we could move it, and I had grabbed the hand vacuum to clean the dust out of the openings where the drawers fit in.

A 3-by-5 white rectangle was facedown on the bottom of the slot for the top drawer. I reached into the empty hole, pulled it out, turned it over and felt a wave of shock.

The photo showed me with my first husband at a wedding, half my lifetime ago. Hadn’t seen that photo in at least 20 years; that’s how long it dwelled under my sock drawer. I was a year older than my daughter is now. My face was unlined, my hair longer and more luxuriant and not yet needing hair dye. I was 10 pounds thinner and free of the sorry-looking bags that are a permanent part of the midlife body. We were smiling and our faces were free from care. A few empty glasses that once held wine are on the table.

I try not to look at photos of myself, especially those from long ago. Despite our efforts to take care of ourselves, we never quite recapture the carefree beauty of our 20s, when we think we will never grow old.

A few years ago a commencement speech attributed to Kurt Vonnegut stressed that youth is fleeting and we’d better appreciate it while we still have it. While it was later debunked (Vonnegut never gave that speech; it was an urban legend that spread on the internet), one passage stands out:

“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”

It’s hard to look youthful after a certain age without looking as if you are trying too hard. And despite the wisdom we gain from decades of experience, accomplishments and mistakes, our faces and bodies do suffer in the process. Trying to keep the ravages of time at bay requires great genes, relentless discipline, over-the-top vanity or some combination of the three. (But mostly great genes.) An old photo and a mirror provide a jarring report card of how well we managed.

So does it matter if the years have not been kind? Not really. I’ve been too busy living my life and enjoying my loved ones to dwell on these things. Until I look at a 30-year-old photo.

And that’s why the photo was quickly tossed into a drawer and covered up with a mound of socks. The practical and unglamorous kind that keep my feet warm.

“You’re still beautiful,” Bob said as we moved the bureau into its new place.

“More” and less: Why I canceled More magazine

Is there any other midlife woman out there who gets annoyed when she reads MORE magazine?
I canceled my subscription last year after their story about Nancy Pelosi. The story itself, by Lynn Scherr, was great…well-balanced, neither fawning nor trashing. What bugged me was the tease for it on the cover: “The most hated woman in America.”
Who are they talking about? I wondered, since the tease did not include a name. Is it the woman who drowned her kids? Ruth Madoff? Casey Anthony?
Instead, their “most hated woman” could indeed be the epitome of MORE’s target reader: middle-aged or older, impossibly well-coifed, impossibly well-dressed, well-spoken and rich. A woman who has everything except self-doubt.
And that’s what else bothered me, beyond MORE’s assumption that Pelosi is universally hated. MORE is more or less for older women who have the world figured out. Does that include you?
I’ll admit that MORE celebrates many successful older female role models with inspiring stories. Many have overcome early setbacks that would have destroyed a weaker or less talented person.
But those stories about those women who are so comfortable and secure with themselves are nearly buried in the pages upon pages of ads for Restylane, Botox and Juvederm. Even their editorial pages are replete with $300 Tory Burch shirts and other pricey accessories, affordable only if you’re Meg Whitman or a Texan’s kept woman.
The more I read, the more I thought that MORE was little better than Glamour for grandma. An aspirational magazine that offered a glimpse of what can be yours…as long as you are very wealthy, very skinny and genetically gifted.
It’s bad enough when younger-skewing magazines pitch that message to our daughters. But when a magazine pitches that message to an older audience, it’s disturbing for a different reason. The implication – to me at least — is not only that it can be yours, but that it oughta be by now. We had years to get there, ladies! And now we’re out of time.
Most older women are dealing with at least one of the following: health issues, divorce, aging parents, empty nests, lost jobs, ageism. We are also dealing with fine lines, sagging jowls, thinning hair, thickening waistlines.
I would love to see a magazine that celebrates middle-aged women who do the best with what’s been given them genetically, within reason and without plastic, $1000 hand bags and extreme dieting. Who are neither fashion plates nor frumps. Who are still vibrant and engaged in the world despite loss, hot flashes and years that have not been kind. But of course that doesn’t sell Botox.
Maybe the whole idea of a “woman’s magazine” sounds a little silly as we age. What kind of magazine does an older woman really need? And between all those trips to Neimann Marcus and the plastic surgeon, who has time?