On Aging Gracefully... Whatever That Means
Writer Cait Kiernan reflects on the realities of beauty in 2021.
My grandmother, Kathleen Kiernan, was the epitome of a chic, New York City woman. A master of high-low dressing, she was known for pairing Chanel jackets with a pair of wide-legged pants that she scooped up from the $10 sales rack at T.J. Maxx. But it was her signature beauty look — a sleek, low-set bun, creamy coral lips, and sun-kissed skin (created with Guerlain’s iconic bronzer) — that pulled it all together and made her absolutely stunning. Even into her 90s, she looked moneyed.
I guess that’s why I was always struck by one comment she made to me when I was in my 30s. We were at a restaurant, walking to our seats, when she turned to me and said, “The thing I miss most as I age is how nobody looks at me anymore. I used to turn heads when I walked into a room. Now, I am invisible.”
Twenty years later, and this sentence still breaks my heart and reverberates in my head. I think THIS is what most women fear as we age: becoming invisible.
Rightly so. Ageism is a real thing. Our society isn’t exactly inclusive of older women.
Regardless of how “youthful” a woman looks or acts, the minute she turns 40, jobs, relationships, and even health care become harder for her to obtain. There is an unspoken pressure, which is reinforced in magazines, advertising, and even movie roles played by leading A-listers, that women need to remain youthful to stay relevant. It is a real mind-f*ck because it is biologically unattainable.
In 2018, a very telling article, “Harness the Untapped Spending Power Of The 50-ish Super Consumer,” appeared in Forbes. In the story, it basically says that brands, advertisers, and the industry in general thought of women over 50 as “irrelevant.”
The piece goes on to say that Coca-Cola and Mass Mutual conducted a survey that reported: “A group of 40 million 50+ American women represent over $15 trillion dollars in purchasing power and are the healthiest, wealthiest, and most active generation in history. This group of super consumers, who will experience the largest population growth over the next 10 years, represent off-the-charts spending power, yet most of these women feel completely ignored by marketers.”
It wasn’t until it was spelled out in black and white that some companies decided to start paying attention to us. In the last three years, beauty brands like L'Oréal have begun hiring mature actors for their campaigns. There has also been an uptick in, and acceptance of, conversations around menopause with product offerings that help women deal with its (brutal) side effects — including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and low libido. But we still have a long way to go until women are cared for — and celebrated — at every phase of their lives.
There is no question that beauty is a prized commodity in our society. We spurn it in youth, only to find out how precious it was when we age. At 50, I am at this moment of reckoning. I find myself straddling two worlds: the waning days of my wrinkle-free youth and wondering about the best way to “age gracefully” in my sunset years. I’m not going to lie, there are moments I am a lightning bolt of anxiety — especially because I work in beauty.
Of course, “aging gracefully” means something different to every woman. To me, it means doing what you can to look your best, while remaining age-appropriate. There is nothing sadder, in my opinion, than when I see a woman who has done too much — filler or plastic surgery — to remain youthful. More often than not, she just looks like a totally different person. There is nothing graceful, or dignified, about that.
That said, I am not opposed to cosmetic procedures or plastic surgery. In fact, I’m an advocate of them, when used responsibly and appropriately. That’s why, as an “older woman,” who also happens to be in the beauty industry, I feel an obligation to share what I know and my firsthand experience on these topics. When we normalize talking about how to age, that is when women will be allowed to age without feeling the sting of society’s rejection.
There is a strategy to aging gracefully, but it’s the complete opposite of what most people think it should be. Less is more. The fact is, the more you mess with your face, the more messed up it’s going to look. This is especially true of makeup and cosmetic procedures. I am leaning into my aging by scaling back on both.
When I was in my 30s and 40s, I would get Botox every three or four months. Now, I do Botox twice a year, at the start of spring and fall, primarily to minimize the appearance of my 11s and crow’s feet. With deeper wrinkles and baby jowls also starting to appear, I have made laser treatments a more integral part of my yearly skin care routine. Prior to my wedding in March, my dermatologist, Dr. Dendy Engelman, M.D., gave me two Lumenis Stellar M22 ResurFX laser treatments. I looked 10 years younger on my wedding day because of it.
I am active on TikTok, and I find it so funny that I often get accused of having filler in my cheeks from people on the app. For the record, I don’t. I was born with strong bone structure, and I have never needed filler there. My lips are another story. As I’ve gotten older, my lips have become thin, pale, and wormy-looking. So, once a year, I get my pout plumped, with some subtle drops of Restylane via the talented hands of Dr. Leslie Gerstman, M.D., and her protégé Nurse Emilia.
I do feel like it’s important to point out, especially in this age of social media, that good cosmetic “work” isn’t obvious. It should just make you look like a rested, fresher version of yourself. That has been — and will always be — my guiding approach to anti-aging treatments. When Botox and lasers don’t work on my wrinkles anymore, I would consider other options that will. I am not opposed to having a face-lift, but I am not there yet, physically or emotionally. My hope is that when that time does arrive, I won’t want one even if I need it.
I write that hopefully. But I’m not fooling myself. I know it isn’t going to be easy to look in the mirror and embrace the reality of heavy eyelids, deep crow's feet, and saggy jowls. Especially since I’ve spent my career celebrating, glorifying, youth. Karma is a b*tch.
I started paying attention to “lift” conversation in 2018 when I was assigned to cover RHONY Sonja Morgan’s thread lift performed by Dr. Z. Paul Lorenc, M.D., a New York-based plastic surgeon. At the time, thread lifts were a trendy alternative to the more invasive face-lift. I remember sitting in the operating room, chatting with the reality star as Lorenc hoisted up her sagging skin with six sutures strategically inserted along each side of her face. After the procedure, Lorenc told me that the $6,000 treatment would last between six months to a year. I remember thinking “Dammmn, that’s a lot of money for a short-lived result.”
Most of the leading facial plastic surgeons in the USA, including Dr. Andrew Jacono, M.D., in New York, Dr. Rod J. Rohrich, M.D., in Dallas, and Dr. Garth Fisher, M.D., in California, perform deep plane face-lifts. This type of face-lift repositions the deepest layer of facial tissue and lasts up to 10 years. The only downside is the cost, averaging nationally between $20,000 to $35,000.
So what’s my red line? That moment when I will know it’s time for a face-lift? I’m not sure. Maybe when my jowls make me look like a pantomime. Or maybe when my eyelids get so crepey that applying eyeshadow requires a cosmetology degree. My guess, though, is that it will be more of a tired vibe that needs some peppin’ up.
That said, I’m not going down without a fight. I’m leading that charge with good skin care, microcurrent devices, and regular dermatologist appointments. If I win enough battles, I might actually win the war. Only time will tell.