Health & Fitness

With age often comes fashion invisibility

One thing about being a boomer is that we keep our friends. I've known my friend Barbara for nearly three decades. She's always been sharp and vibrant; and still is, but much of our friendship is now by phone and e-mail because we live so far apart.

But when we got together for a rare visit over the holidays, I was shocked at how she had changed. Her hair was no longer the carefully styled, shiny russet mane it had always been. It was now a nondescript jumble of gray. Her always-elegant clothing was gone, replaced by plain sweaters and sweat pants. Most startling to me, she had stopped wearing makeup. The wonderful youthful quality that always seemed to belie her age was also gone. Suddenly, in less than a year, she looked 20 years older.

We're close enough so that I could ask her about it. Her answer shocked me.

"I've just given up. No one ever thinks someone my age (63) is attractive. No one markets any fashion or cosmetics to women my age. We're just not considered worth looking at. Trying to fix myself up was just a waste of time," she said.

It was a horrible answer — because she was right. The image of what is attractive, pretty or good looking in our society is unwrinkled youth. This image is constantly conditioned into our minds in every form of visual media: magazines and newspapers, films, and most especially, television. Character doesn't count, only a lack of wrinkles and youth.

The constant reinforcement that age is ugly has been such a profound conditioning process that no one even likes to look at an obviously older face. It's had a sad and serious effect in the workplace. A boomer, even a young boomer, finds it almost impossible to be hired for a job. Talent doesn't matter. The ability to be a real asset to a company doesn't matter. The only thing that seems to matter is that the face of the job applicant looks young.

So some boomers, like Barbara, give up. They give up hope that expensive wrinkle creams can disguise their age, so they stop buying them. Both men and women boomers have closets full of expensive and stylish clothing that they never have occasion to wear — so they stop buying new clothing. They realize it's impossible to look young any longer, and so there's no sense in trying. They know the sad truth — that today, a large and ever growing segment of the population essentially becomes invisible once they start to look older.

I'm not pretending that there's anything photogenic or attractive about a wrinkled face. But how much of this attitude comes from long-term conditioning, and how much is actually based on reality? I know that before Barbara "gave up," everyone forgot about her age as soon as they interacted with her, as soon as she opened her mouth. She was so interesting, funny and charming that any negative association with her age disappeared.

Barbara isn't the only one. It happens mostly with women, but I've seen so many boomer male and female friends hit that moment, the "give-up" moment when they realize that their age has shoved them outside the mainstream of social life.

And for the sake of reality, that process should stop.

Look at it as a form of protest to keep making an effort to be attractive at any age. Regard it as a way of fighting against the existing — and growing — anti-age bias. Because the truth is, not everyone is 20, and even 20-year-olds won't stay young forever.