Los Angeles is not the easiest place in which to be an aging woman. What is, you might ask, and I would agree that getting older is never for the weakhearted. But in certain respects L.A., with its attention to the young and beautiful, the paparazzi sometimes in their wake, is a good notch harder. The streets and sushi parlors are a stage for these beauties, a multicultural, head-turning flock of dazzlers in minis and Uggs or in tight jeans and flip-flops, the eyes of the city on them as they sashay around and among us. If you have been young yourself, worn skimpy things, and caused a head or two to turn, it is hard not to look at this flock with a wistful eye, not because you want to go back, but because they are, each and every one of these women, an exclamation point at the end of a paragraph you cannot write again.
The question then is one of making peace, figuring how best to handle the business of aging, where you snatch grace, how you try to do the whole thing well without overstepping and becoming faintly, or not so faintly, foolish. Should you just march defiantly forward into that sunset, reminding yourself that character is all and neck creases are not (no matter what Nora Ephron says), and that the later face of Georgia O’Keeffe, leathered by sun and marked by a rare creative intelligence, is both singular and stunning? Alas, she was living in a far different region and a far different time, before the anti-aging consumer culture was up and flourishing and playing on the insecurities of women everywhere, particularly in glamour-centric cities like this one.
So what do you do as a midlife woman, someone who hovers around the half-century mark? What do you avail yourself of, what tricks and techniques? They beckon from every TV show and magazine story and newspaper ad, the procedures that can make you younger, keep you in the game. After all, 60 is the new 40, we keep hearing, so jump in, sign on, don’t hesitate. No question, the aging boomers, in their much-noted narcissism, are driving this determination not to grow old. They—we, I should say—have for so long been the center of the country’s attention, and we cannot bear the idea that it will wander away from us to the younger generations, cannot bear surrendering the youth that was our swaggering collective calling card. No, no, we cannot be here. This cannot be me I see in the mirror. I have to do something, and there are plenty of choices. You can just tweak a bit, bleach your teeth and cut your hair and call it quits (and, yes, again remind yourself about character and contribution being uppermost). Or you can take an extra Pilates class or do more downward-facing dog and/or eat more greens and grains and content yourself with the idea that health is of the essence, not beauty.
But there is that tantalizing cornucopia of more extreme and expensive, not to mention potentially painful, measures: the fillers and lifts and tucks. However squared away you might be, however securely married, when the wrinkles come, the temptation to do something more dramatic might assert itself, especially if you hear one more tale of one more cad leaving one more terrific, age-appropriate wife for a babe half his age. Those stories swirl through this town like a cautionary refrain, helping push women into the skilled hands of the plastic surgeons whose offices line Rodeo Drive. There are more such surgeons in Beverly Hills than in many entire states, and myriad cases of women—certainly on the Westside, where I live—who have gone to the makeover well over and over, their faces smooth and taut, their bodies sharp with thinness, as if you could starve time. They are a weird breed unto themselves, preserved girl-women with Botox foreheads and Restylane cheeks, spooky-shiny apple faces. In fairness, you can see the look in other cities, like New York, where the charity circuit and the society pages are full of those faces, or even Washington, D.C., not notably trendy or fashionable but where some of the most powerful females (Nancy Pelosi, for example) look—certainly to my eyes—plenty pulled and plenty polished.
Still, the pressure to stay lithe and lovely is decidedly worse here. In part that’s a result of the weather, the perennial sunshine putting an accent on bareness. The body is on display, too. Upper arms, I’m convinced, are the key. That neck is a weak spot, yes, but you cannot see that unless you are looking in the mirror. It’s the arms, stupid, and if they aren’t toned, you cannot wear—or don’t feel as if you can wear—sundresses or sleeveless anything anymore. You begin to take your body back from the sun bit by bit by bit, a repossession that carries the sting of retreat and lonesomeness.
Then, too, L.A. is the center of the entertainment business, home turf for actresses chasing youth with every dollar and everything in them. How could they not, silly and sad as some of them look post-scalpel, brows lifted skyward? I sometimes see them around my neighborhood—a Goldie Hawn or a Kim Delaney—with those lips and those manes of tousled hair, and there is something both touching and disquieting in the effortfulness of all of it. Even the younger ones start fixing and plumping, having bought into the new plastic surgery mantra: The earlier you start, the better the results. Desperate housewives, indeed.
In public they also have to be preternaturally perky. Think of Meg Ryan, trapped into trying to personify an arrested-development adorableness well into her forties. Or Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. An adult and an allegedly successful playwright, she simpered and sobbed and flirted like a teenager with Jack Nicholson’s geriatric swinger with a heart of gold. Is this how grown women behave, should behave, when confronted with later-in-life love? Haven’t we earned the right to some dignity, the right not to have to squeal when someone catches sight of our aging bodies as Keaton did when Nicholson accidentally espied her nude? Can you imagine Sophia Loren squealing like that—even now in her seventies?
This does seem to be an American tendency, the mature cutes women are forced to adopt, almost as if such an affect contains an apologia for ambition and achievement. In many cases, that placating kittenishness goes back to our baby boomer childhoods and the autocratic World War II-era fathers we sought to soothe or navigate around with our baby-girl wiles (one of the daughters in Father Knows Best was actually called Kitten). I am always surprised at the number of strong, successful women I know who, even when grown, called their fathers “Daddy” and, in their reminiscences, still do. Not exactly the language of an adult woman.
Is it any wonder then that we don’t have a lot of examples in this country—certainly not onscreen—of accomplished, sensual aging women to applaud and admire, someone you can imagine not only handling Jack Nicholson but also seducing a younger man, as those European actresses, like Jeanne Moreau or Anouk Aimée or countless others, have always done with such lust and authority. Occasionally a Diane Lane or a Jessica Lange is allowed to show her womanly stuff, and what a relief it is. What a similar relief to see the grown-up Christiane Amanpour (though, come to think of it, we haven’t seen much of her lately) instead of the standard TV newswomen, even someone like Diane Sawyer, who often giggles and cavorts through her a.m. chores. In her morning slot Katie Couric, of course, pulled off that act better than anyone, but she has had a hard time hitting the more sober notes required of her evening anchor chair.
There is admittedly another side, a happy side, an under-the-media-radar group of women—right here in Plastic Surgery Central—who are aging well, with exhilaration and grace and maybe a twinge of ruefulness, but mostly with that observable sense of being fully present in this time and this place with this face and this body and this history that is mine-oh-mine. I see them sipping coffee or laughing with a friend, untouched women. They are not perfect. They are sometimes a little too loud or a little too thin or, conversely, a little zaftig with a little too much cleavage. But there is joy in the bearing and—best of all—no strained attempt to tack against time.
Illustration by Nick Dewar