Every week, it seems, we hear news of another beauty product or procedure designed to erase years from our face and body: lasers to zap sun damage; moisturizers to vanish wrinkles; injections to tighten sagging jowls and frown lines; liposuction to flatten the stomach; veneers and whiteners to give you a radiant smile.
Join our discussion: Do men age better than women?
"It's no wonder people have complicated feelings about their appearance as they age," says AARP Ambassador Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "We're constantly getting the message that thin, young and sexy is the best way to look."
That message, no doubt, is behind the recent surge in cosmetic surgery. As increasing numbers of people push past 50, women — and increasingly men, as well — want to look as young as they feel and they’re doing something about it. According to the American Academy of Plastic Surgeons, the last 10 years has brought a 77 percent increase in cosmetic procedures, despite the severe economic crisis.
Women are by far the biggest consumers of cosmetic enhancements, accounting for 91 percent of them. Millions of women each year, most in their late 40s and early 50s, go under the knife for such procedures as face-lifts, breast lifts, eyelid surgery and buttocks implants. Millions more get so called noninvasive procedures, such as Botox injections, cellulite treatments and chemical peels.
But more and more men are opting for a nip and a tuck, as well. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of male patients who got a face-lift increased by 14 percent. Other procedures that saw a spike? Ear surgery, Botox and Juvederm injections, liposuction, eyelid surgery and dermbrasion.
Intellectually, most of us know that crow's feet, a bald head, a thickening around the middle don't really change the core of who we are. But the truth is, the physical effects of aging can throw the most resilient among us off track. For those who have prided themselves on appearance, reality can be harsh.
"It's perfectly natural for our bodies to change as we get older, but many people view signs of aging as flaws and imperfections," says Schwartz.
She believes that it's essential to come to term with those changes if you want to grow old gracefully, feel vital and look your best. While you can't change the physical process of aging, you can change your experience of it by figuring out why you feel the way you do and then doing something about it. Schwartz offers these five suggestions:
1. Understand what's normal, and what's not. "Men and women face separate physical challenges as they age and these affect not only what our bodies can actually do but also how we feel about ourselves in general," says Schwartz. Physiologically, men's erectile capacity starts to diminish in their 30s and 40s. By the time they hit the 50-plus years the ability to have and sustain an erection may be a huge psychological mountain to climb. "This is something they counted on; it's how they defined themselves," explains Schwartz. What's more, if a man has always been very athletic, not being able to play in his weekly tennis match, or shoot baskets every Tuesday night is going to chip away at his self esteem.
Menopause, Schwartz notes, affects every woman differently. "For some it's a minor event; they may even find that not having to worry about pregnancy is liberating in every way. For others, it's horrific. They can't sleep and they suffer night sweats and mood swings leave them feeling desperate. Their skin becomes dry, their hair brittle, and all that's going to have a huge impact on body image."
Then, too, when backs and knees give out, even can-do boomers will feel as if their body is letting them down. "But there are things we can do to help, so don't just sigh and think, 'Well, I'm getting older, what do I expect?'" says Schwartz. "Make an appointment with your physician to talk honestly about what's bothering you and find out what medications or treatments might be best for you."
2. Forget about looking young. Boosting body image shouldn't be about looking younger but rather about looking, and feeling, the healthiest and best you can right now. The first step: Changing your mind-set. Start by deleting the self-deprecating messages you send yourself, often unwittingly. Eliminate the phrase "anti-aging" from your vocabulary and replace it with "healthy aging" — a subtle but important distinction.
Now, make a list of all the negative things you say about your body: Where do those messages come from? (Your weight-conscious parents who called you pudgy when you were 10? The celebrities you see on TV, who have a slew of personal trainers and chefs whose job it is to keep them looking svelte?) Now, consider whether you would say the same thing about a friend if he looked like you. Probably not. We're much harder on ourselves than others.
Make a vow to simply stop repeating disparaging things about your own body and weight — even seemingly harmless things such as, "I can't believe I ate that frozen yogurt! I'm so bad!" Instead of being your own toughest critic, focus on the physical traits you like most about yourself: your hair, your shapely shoulders, whatever you feel good about. Think of them as gifts to yourself and your partner.
3. Get moving. Exercise is like Miracle-Gro for your brain and body: It increases cognition, slashes your risk of Alzheimer's, protects your heart, dials down stress, builds muscle, strengthens your bones and boosts your immune system. What's more, brain chemicals called endorphins that are released during exercise yield a powerful feeling of happiness and well-being.
Even if you've never belonged to a gym and your exercise bike functions as a mere extension of your bedroom closet, it's never too late to start building aerobic endurance, muscle strength and balance. Start with a regular walking program; build up to an exercise class or the recumbent bike. Schedule a session with a personal trainer who can show you how to safely use the machines to work on areas that bother you.
4. Pamper yourself. Focus on doing those things that make you feel good about your body. Go ahead, have a massage, facial or body scrub. Schwartz says that such pampering can bring out your sensual side so your body remembers how nice it feels to be touched.
If possible, go for a weekend or longer to a destination spa, where you combine spa treatments with a wide range of activities from golf, hiking and horseback riding to yoga and tai chi. Enjoy the benefits of an overall sense of well-being.
5. Take action. If you think you look better, you feel better. Buying a new outfit, covering the gray or getting Botox to erase the lines in your forehead that make you look angry when you're not, really do boost confidence and self-esteem. So stop judging yourself (and others) and just do whatever makes you feel good.
Week 4: Afford Your Dream. »
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