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Lookin' Good as You Gray                   (April 2009)


Bill and I have a standing joke: something happening twice is enough for me to seriously take note or act on it; five occurrences are generally needed before Bill considers modifying what he is doing. While in Portland one year I twice heard friends comment: "You should write about that on your webpage" so here it is, a summary of my observations made while traveling about looking good as one gets grayer and why it matters.


Risking Irrelevance

Somewhere in my 30's it sunk in:  I too was going to get old.  I decided that, like everything I did, I would strive to do it well. I began scrutinizing the movements and bodies of those a generation or 2 older than I to see what the bigger issues were--and where there were opportunities to do it better. One of my early observations was that older people often lost the ability to turn their heads and so would turn from their waist or feet to look behind them (a loser when driving). As I gathered more sidewalk data on the overt indicators of age-related disability, it became clear that tending to one's strength and flexibility were critical. In response, I focused my attention on sustaining a healthy body and took-up running, cycling, yoga, and receiving massage.

In my 50's while we were traveling abroad I added a new layer to my "aging well model," which was a deeper appreciation for the importance of  maintaining social vitality. I looked at social vitality in 2 ways. The more familiar and more studied aspect of social vitality is the importance of maintaining strong social connections to support mental health and wellbeing.

In my mind a second, less obvious and less talked about aspect of social vitality was appearing socially inviting to strangers--the aspect that facilitates generating new social connections. My "field work" or observations  while we traveled focused on the later, on how one maintains their social opportunities with strangers through the accumulating decades. It became apparent that one of the pitfalls of aging was being deemed irrelevant by those younger than oneself. (Being considered irrelevant and therefore ignored by teenagers isn't all bad, however.)

Traveling highlighted one of the ways in which our own ageism operated. I realized that I used a complex decision matrix when selecting a person on the streets or sidewalks to ask for directions or information. A number of factors clicked through my subconscious checklist as I targeted an individual to approach: does he or she look available, knowledgeable, sane, sober, helpful, and trustworthy? I also noticed that age was a consideration, with either too young or too old being a turn-off. With older people there were the matters of adequate hearing, whether they had their glasses with them so they could see the map, how receptive they might be to strangers, and how aware they appeared.

As I observed my own biases on the road, I realized that my ageism wasn't based strictly on biological age but that it also factored in how "with it" the individual appeared. In fending off having the tables turned on me by me becoming the victim of ageism, I could see that the "with it" factor created an opportunity, something to be manipulated to avoid being discounted as irrelevant and subsequently become more socially isolated

Not that being asked for directions is a sought-after experience, but how one is sized-up for receptivity and availability for engagement by a stranger presumably paralleled closely with how an individual is received in general. It seemed that to ensure being fully included in the larger community, to maintain one's general social vitality, one needed to avoid looking irrelevant, one needed to look "with it" regardless of the aging process.


What's on the Outside Matters

Despite all the wonderfully affirming advice about our beauty being on the inside, of the importance of self acceptance, and of all the hazards of being overly fashion conscious, I decided that focusing on appearance had a special place in one's strategies for aging gracefully. I decided that what was on the outside became important in new ways with advancing age. I saw how off-putting the visual impact of aging could be but I also saw how some seniors quite successfully counterbalanced that common reaction by the management of their appearance, whether it had been intentional or not.

I also saw that our lifestyle as perpetual travelers had made our social vitality increasingly dependent upon our reception by strangers. Like other retirees, we no longer had the routines of employment to ensure a certain level of social connection, a certain level of social acceptance. We were now on our own and we had to create social connection opportunities ourselves. It was easy to see that all first-impressions made on strangers would be strongly influenced by our appearance.

As I carefully noted my first-impressions of people, especially older people, I saw that as we age we are more likely to become invisible, to be unseen, unnoticed, discounted, or disregarded.  Older people are at greater risk of being looked beyond. When we were younger we struggled to position ourselves where we wanted to be on the scale, whether we were striving to be cool, to be attractive, or to look professionally credible. Somewhere in the graying years the challenge becomes to be on the scale at all.

In pondering one's appearance and first impressions and the hazards of being invisible, it also became clear that one is always in costume. One is constantly making a statement about themselves with their appearance, even if don't think you are or you'd rather not. One cannot not make a statement with their appearance. One's clothes, one's posture, one's expression, are all a part of our costume and they are all constantly making a declaration.

As I studied the elders in more than a dozen countries and the packs of international tourists visiting those countries, I could see that some seniors were vastly more successful in looking like they were fully 'there' despite their age. It became clear that one could at least partially counter the isolating effects of looking old by being strategic with appearance. So, what follows is what I've concluded by studying how to tip the balance in one's favor, the factors that increase the odds of making it onto the 'relevant' pile in the minds of the dozens or hundreds of people we may encounter in a day. These are things I'm doing to increase my odds of social connection outside of my established sphere--the things I am doing to sustain my social vitality as I gray.


Standing Well

A good upright stance is an excellent starting point at any age for looking with-it. A slouch that looks cool or coy in the teens and 20's is a loser-look as the decades roll by. Hunched over with a gaze fixed on the pavement doesn't invite engagement, doesn't send the 'somebody is home' message. It not only deflects the people you'd like drawn towards you, it makes you look like an easy mark for the one's you'd rather be deflecting.

Standing well both communicates vitality and increases it. Maintaining good posture improves your body mechanics, it improves the functioning of some of your organs, and signals that you are involved in the world around you.

I check my alignment every day when traveling and know that the strengthening I get from cycling and walking and the flexibility work I get from yoga are important for maintaining a welcoming, vital stance. I also appreciate the contributions that regular massage work when we are at home makes to my posture .

And standing well also sets you up for making eye contact--another easy way to improve your odds of connecting with people.

Smile and Smile Some More

Though I'm told that the French think only idiots smile at strangers and in some cultures a woman's smile with eye contact is considered an overt sexual invitation, I now consider a big smile on my face as my 'default' mode. It's usually on and I select to turn it off in specific settings as seems appropriate.

In our culture the capacity for a welcoming, confident smile is a winner throughout our lives and it is even more important as our expressiveness gets buried in sagging flesh and wrinkles. Both my 92 year old mother and I have had our own separate horrors when looking at photos of ourselves when we thought we were smiling. I shared my conclusion with her:  most of us with gray hair must feel like we are smiling like a clown in a circus act for it to show through. I remind myself everyday: smile big, smile bold, smile often.


Getting Bold with Lipstick

When we were home one year I discovered a genuinely long-lasting lipstick and was amazed at what wearing it did for my social vitality. When I went out for my long fitness/commute walks wearing both a smile and an uncomfortably bright lipstick, it broke the monotony--people noticed me and smiled back. I loved the little emotional lift I got with each returned smile and the extra "Hello's" sent my way from people of all ages. What a simple, sure-fire way to enhance the way a woman is received in the world. (I use Revlon ColorStay Overtime, about $10).


Splashing Some Color Around

Wearing bright lipstick was an obvious extension to what I'd already decided as I aged: color, even done badly, was better than no color at all in the graying set. For Caucasians, it's easy to drift into wearing pastels as both our hair color and skin color become lighter--all of those baby blues and pinks go so well with nearly white skin and hair. But for those who have always been fair, wearing pastels also sets you up for not being seen at all. It becomes too easy to look like a puffy cloud in the background without any substance if everything about you is pale.

The practical demands of our overseas cycling life firmly anchored black as the color of 90% of my wardrobe but I strive to always have color around my face (unless it's a hunker-down in the rain-and-wind day.) Off the bike, a bright jewel-toned scarf was always my color splash on my all-black outfit when traveling in the winter months. My odd rust-toned rain jacket was hardly my first choice of colors when I bought it, but for town-wear I coordinated an equally strong-colored scarf, earrings, and lipstick with it to frame my face. I quickly learned that a colorful triangle made by a neck scarf, earrings, and lipstick was a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to giving my face some pizzazz, especially when there is nothing special about the rest of my attire. (A cheap way to evade earring allergies is with simplywhispers.com nickel-free products.)

Strong contrasts & a big smile can get you noticed.

And speaking of color, in 2009 the best replacement for my durable, waterproof, rust-toned cycling jacket was a flaming red one, and I couldn't believe the heads it turned. The few friends and family we said goodbye to on the way to the airport all commented on the jacket. I of course knew it was more than the jacket--it was the combination red lipstick, simple red earrings, and black and red scarf against the red jacket and utilitarian black clothes that packed the punch. 

The red jacket affirmed the 'be bold with color' lesson once again: bright colors are an easy way to avoid being invisible. And a well-crafted use of strong color ensures that it's not snickers that you are triggering.


Color Contrasts

Along with a strategic use of bright color around my face, I also make a point to create color contrasts to support that "someone's home" look. The black clothing I've drifting into wearing makes an easy launching point for creating color contrasts with thoughtfully selected accessories, lipstick, and eye glass frames with strong colors.

While traveling one year I discovered that a simple way for graying brunettes to maintain face-framing color contrast a few years longer was by using a henna shampoo. Like my mother, my hair was graying more quickly in the front than in the back. Not only does it look a little odd, the gray hair deprives my sagging face of some color contrast it could use. Daily use of the henna shampoo puts a touch of temporary brown stain into my hair, which smooths out my uneven graying pattern while partially restoring my more youthful hair color. The henna shampoo is cheap, easy to use, and doesn't discolor anything else. Coloring my hair would be much more effective but that is a non-starter with our overseas cyclotouring life, so the supermarket henna shampoo is the perfect intermediate solution for creating color contrast around my face. 

I've also become a big fan of whitening toothpastes, and sometimes something stronger, to brighten my teeth. Yellowing teeth suggest aging and worse, so I like to keep my less than perfect smile looking its best. I also switched to using sodium fluoride instead of stannous fluoride for my home care program as one dentist said the switch would further reduce yellowing. Whiteners and fluoride are both contentious issues so its best to gather opinions from professionals you trust before using these products.


Eye Glasses

Many people loath wearing eye glasses but I've decided that they are a wonderful bit of camouflage for my aging face. My latest frames are squat and rectangular and they do a terrific job of breaking up that expanse of sagging eye flesh that I lamented long before the rest of my skin started sagging. Plus, well chosen frames can add some needed color and interest to a face that's losing its expressiveness. And glasses are an easy element to exploit for maintaining a contemporary look.

 The best thing I ever did for my appearance as a "gray-hair" was to take a risk by getting fashion-forward frames. I bought them in the US but selected the frames because they looked European. Since I was spending most of my time in Europe, that was where I wanted to fit-in the best. Three years later I was still getting comments from strangers on what great frames they were and how terrific they looked on my face.

When this first bold pair of glasses began to disintegrate, I replaced them with a similar pair. Both plastic frames have black, white, and gray in them. I gradually learned by wearing the first pair that the gray tones nicely accented my blue eyes without the color-coordination limitations of having blue frames. The bit of black puts some needed contrasting color on my pale face and then, with the aid of black garments or earrings, helped to frame my face. I think the touch of white on the frames gives a hint of an upward lift to the look of the glasses--an upward lift my former hair stylist said was a good trick for countering the increasingly strong downward lines aging brings to our faces.

Whenever I look at new frames, I think back to the face of an ancient woman who has become imprinted in my mind--a woman I briefly passed on the streets of southern Italy. She was a delicate, withering-looking elderly woman but she stood up straight and her jet black, oversized, round, owl-like glasses were in startling contrast to her white-on-white hair and skin. "Good for her" I thought. Her tasteful but bold look got her noticed, got her remembered, and in a more social setting, I would have gladly struck up a conversation fully expecting a lively response. She still inspires me to push beyond my sense of fashion boundaries and will hopefully continue to remind me to take risks with my look.

Though I now consider well-chosen glasses frames as my key fashion statement and as my most potent device for maintaining my social vitality with my appearance, they are extremely difficult for me to select. My vision is so poor that when I try on frames, I can barely see what they look like on me. I am left with sifting through the hundreds of choices and then relying on the judgment of someone else as to what is a good pick. Bill has been very patient in learning what I want from my frames and giving me feedback on the choices, but it puts a big burden on him. After he was instrumental in making my last successful selection, he figured out a better way for us to buy frames for me.

The next time I need to replace frames, he will take snap shots of the finalists in the store with our digital camera. We'll then load the images on to our laptop, either in the shop or at home, and I'll be able to see what they look like on me. It's a  bit of a cumbersome process, but it eliminates the suspense from evaluating my decision only after investing $300-400 in frames and progressive lenses.


Keeping Contemporary

The tiny Italian woman with the black, owl-like frames used a simple but well-crafted technique to remind people who saw her that she was with it. Though her frame selection wasn't the style that was hot in Europe at the time, they were clearly contemporary. They were retro but obviously not something she'd been wearing for 40 years as their slightly elliptical shape was a fresh and new look. As she demonstrated, being decidedly contemporary is an easy trick for not being brushed past because of your age.

 One's wardrobe is usually the most common and most telling marker for how contemporary one is. I think it is less important to be up to the moment with fashion and more important not to be 10 years behind.  Being an almost fulltime traveler for 8 years has meant that I basically have 2 outfits: a summer one and a winter one. And I wear the same seasonal outfit morning and night; on and off the bike. But even so, I keep an eye on the fashions and try to reflect what is contemporary in my choices as I can.

One's hair style is of course another obvious way to stay contemporary but for those of us with thin, fine hair, it's easier said than done. But keeping one's hair style shifting with the times is another opportunity to make a positive statement about being with it--one that shouldn't be missed.

The woman who cut my hair for years had 2 pieces of advice about hair and aging. The first was to cultivate upward lines with one's choice of style, as with glasses frames. She said that there were already enough downward lines in the aging face, so there was no reason to add to that energy with your 'do'. Her other advice was a caution about coloring. Especially for people with black hair, it is a mistake to stick with your natural shade as you age. She commented that one's skin also loses color and that artificially maintaining your natural hair shade may create too much contrast and result in a disquieting look. Though I champion color contrast around my face, I have seen these too-severe contrasts about which she was cautioning.


Looking Your Best With What You've Got

We all have a different mix of opportunities and challenges for manipulating our appearances for improving how we are received by the larger community. Men are at a disadvantage compared to women when it comes to hair and accessories as they may have little hair and our social norms give men fewer accessories to work with around their faces. On the flip side, I think the effects of aging on men results in less discrimination in the social scene than is the case for women of the same age. Older men have to capitalize on other attributes to make their statement, with good posture and a ready smile being all it takes for them to stand out from most of their peers.

Sunscreens with mexoryl, a UVA block, was something I went looking for when we touched down in Frankfurt in May of 2001. I'd read about it for years though it was not yet approved by the FDA for use in the US. In 3 weeks I was a believer. Even though cyclotouring immediately increased my sun exposure, the texture of my skin was actually improving with the use of the mexoryl.

I don't think the mexoryl itself improved my skin but I think that it was so much more effective at blocking UVA rays that it was preventing  further sun damage and allowing my skin to recover a bit of what it had lost. I believe low concentration mexoryl products are now available in the US though I continue to use the higher percentage, European formulations.

Another personal opportunity that I revel in is the effect of estrogen on my facial skin. I was off estrogen for 10 months in my early 50's and the vitality and texture of my face tanked. Back on estrogen, it perked up again. This of course was an 'incidental finding' and my estrogen use was driven by more pressing needs but nonetheless, I love the boost it gives to my appearance.

People who are overweight tend to look younger because their plumpness fills out some of their wrinkles and a sun tan can enhance one's appearance and yet both come at a measurable health cost. Like I have done with the use of estrogen and better sun blocks, there are choices and trade-offs to be made by all of us in managing our health and our appearance, some of which are potent enough to affect how we are perceived by the community.


Maintaining Social Vitality

My strong bias towards sensible footwear and sun-protective clothes and hats will always mark me as the weird duck that I am. But my goal is to diminish the dismissiveness that my garments and aging may trigger with an even stronger message communicated by my posture and my face.

Continuously repelling the temptation of my body to fold inward and forward and instead standing well with the look of some physical vigor will hopefully keep me looking like "somebody's home" despite the odd clothing.  And capitalizing on drawing attention to my face with considered use of color and contrast in my selection of accessories and glasses frames should further tip the balance in my favor. These are the opportunities I see to minimize my individual shortcomings to create an overall welcoming, interesting affect to keep my level of social vitality high, to sustain my opportunities for connection in the larger community as I age.



Late in 2009 I became a believer in exercises for the face after I'd been doing a speech therapy regime for my snoring and nighttime breathing problems. I faithfully did the exercises and noticed that my breathing issues improved as promised and my face was also looked firmer. A little surfing quickly landed me on www.shapeyourface.com which has a routine that is more straightforward than that in the medical journal I was using. I now do both sets and continue to be pleased with the results. You can reduce the time commitment by doing them while you stretch or do simple exercises.

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