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Interview: In Search of Beauty in Later Life


Dr. Laura Hurd Clarke

Dr. Laura Hurd Clarke is an award-winning researcher at the University of British Columbia. She carries out research with older women on body image, health and the aging experience. Currently, she is investigating older women’s use and experience of non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

I reached Dr. Hurd Clarke in Vancouver.

Ruth Dempsey: What sparked your interest in aging? Were older people important in your life when you were growing up?

Laura Hurd Clarke: I grew up in a family where my grandparents were a central part of my life. They are dynamic, creative, vital, strong, and loving individuals who have had a prominent influence on my life.

Up until very recently, I had the good fortune of having three living grandparents. Considering I’m in my mid-30s, this is very fortunate indeed. My two living grandmothers are both in their 90s and I share close, loving relationships with both of them.

The importance of extended family and older relatives is something I intend to pass on to my own children – my three-year-old son and my daughter, born in January. My son and my daughter have four living grandparents, and four living great grandparents. We frequently get the four generations together and we enjoy each other’s company enormously.

Undoubtedly, the richness I gained from being part of a family that values close intergenerational relationships sparked my interest in aging generally, and ageism more specifically.

RD: In one study, you interviewed women aged 61 to 92 about body image. What did you learn?

LH: I can sum the findings up in four main points:

Women over the age of 60 are concerned about their appearances. They often feel dissatisfied with their bodies, similar to their younger counterparts.
Weight is a source of dissatisfaction for many older women. While the women I interviewed who were under the age of 80 tended to want to lose weight, those women who were over the age of 90 tended to want to gain weight.
Health tends to replace appearance as a priority in women’s lives, in the face of illness and loss of physical abilities.
Older women’s concept of physical attractiveness is often different from their younger counterparts. Many of today’s older women grew up with female media personalities who had more voluptuous bodies than today’s Hollywood actresses. Many of the women I interviewed suggested that they, too, preferred more rounded, soft female bodies to that of the ultra skinny ideal, common today.

RD: The research suggests the majority of women of all ages feel dissatisfied with their bodies. How do older women cope with the pressure to conform to current beauty standards?

LH: Well, that’s a complex question.

Some women feel very dissatisfied about their bodies and their appearances. These women may choose to seek out surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures in order to maintain a more youthful appearance. They argue that failure to use youth-enhancing products such as hair dye, make-up, or non-surgical and surgical procedures put them at risk of being invisible in a youth and appearance-obsessed society. At the same time, they want their enhanced appearances to be viewed as the result of graceful aging and good genes.

In contrast, some women resist current beauty standards in which attractiveness is equated with young thin bodies rather than voluptuousness. These women suggest an alternative beauty ideal that is reminiscent of Marilyn Munroe, who was a curvy size 14.

Similarly, some women argue their wrinkles are badges of honour and signs of lives well-lived rather than something to be fought against and remedied with products like Botox and injectable fillers like Restylane, Artecol, Hylaform, or Perlane.

Finally, some women talk about the importance of inner beauty and argue that even if one is beautiful on the outside, one cannot be truly attractive if one lacks personal character, integrity, compassion, and serenity.

RD: The beauty industry focuses on appearance and chronology. This would appear to set us up as victims of age. Is that right?

LH: Yes, I would agree. If less than five per cent of us approximate today’s thin, toned, youthful beauty ideal, and the beauty we see in the media is largely the product of Photoshop, make-up, and other forms of digital artifice, the majority of us will be found wanting and undesirable.

The question is, are we really willing to accept these notions of beauty and social currency? What about things like experience, integrity, intelligence, or alternative visions of physical and personal attractiveness?

RD: More than 30 years ago, literary critic Susan Sontag argued society has a double standard of aging, judging older women less attractive than older men. Is this true today?

LH: Yes, I think so. Thus, women lose social currency as they age while men can be distinguished and handsome, if not sexy, in later life. Evidence of this can be seen all around us. For example, look at Hollywood movies. We see many examples of leading older men who star against young, beautiful women but we rarely see older women in sexy roles.

Similarly, if you look at the beauty industries – women continue to be the primary consumers of beauty products. Indeed, 90 per cent of individuals who get cosmetic surgeries and non-surgical procedures are women.

RD: Is demand for cosmetic surgery on the upswing?

LH: Canadian Statistics are not available. But the demand has increased astronomically, according to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS).

The ASAPS statistics indicate that since 1997 cosmetic surgeries have increased by 119 per cent, while non-surgical cosmetic procedures have increased by 726 per cent. Non-surgical cosmetic procedures such as Botox injections, injectable fillers, chemical peels and laser skin treatments have eclipsed surgical procedures. Thus, 455,489 liposuction procedures were performed in 2004 in the United Sates compared to 3,294,782 Botox injections.

Interestingly, the main consumers are women aged 35 to 50.

RD: Finally, have the stories you hear about beauty and later life changed?

LH: Well, yes and no. Recently, some of the baby boomers have been talking about how they are aging differently from their parents. They see themselves as younger in both behaviour and appearance than previous generations. They talk about wanting to stay young. They see themselves as a powerful force for social change, for example, in redefining aging.

At the same time, the stories I have been hearing over the past decade have stayed remarkably the same. Women often talk about feeling invisible as they age. They talk about wanting to have the bodies they had when they were younger. They express dissatisfaction with their appearances, usually in relation to their weight.

Finally, women’s feelings about their bodies are often fraught with contradictions and tensions as they struggle to live in a society that emphasizes appearance while simultaneously not entirely accepting or liking the emphasis.

I hope that in the future the stories will change – that men and women will increasingly challenge and resist current standards of physical attractiveness and redefine how we view aging.

I hope we will embrace the fact that bodies are evolving entities that change over time and that these changes are to be celebrated rather than disparaged and feared. And I hope, as a society, we come to place more value on aging and later life, as a result.