February is a lovers’ month, and Shmirshky wants to emphasize the importance of loving yourself. Be your own valentine. Just for a moment, push all of your anti-aging products aside and immerse yourself in some helpful tips on how to create a balance in your life between having your looks matter and accepting that they change. Dr. Vivian Diller, Ph.D., author of the book, Face It, is a ballerina and model turned psychotherapist and helps us celebrate ourselves.
Q: Face It teaches women to feel beautiful at any age. What motivated you to write it?
A: While aging is one of those foreseeable facts of life, we know that millions of women are panicked about losing their youthful appearance, fearful of becoming invisible, ignored and lost as they age. I wanted to write a book that helped women confront this fear and emerge feeling more confident as their looks changed. Because of my history and experience, I felt I was particularly suited to write about this topic.
You see, before becoming a psychologist I had been a professional ballet dancer and model, so I knew firsthand what it is like to place a premium on youthful looks and have to leave it behind. When I became a psychologist, I entered a world where beauty was pretty much dismissed as irrelevant. Few academics believed it was even a subject worth talking about. As much as the phrase, “It’s what is inside that counts,” sounds great, I knew that a woman’s self-esteem was based – at least in part – on her outside as well. There’s an emotional upheaval that takes place when the role looks play shifts in one’s life. While my shift may have been accelerated and exaggerated, going from being a model to a therapist, the fact is, when looks change, it creates some degree of ambivalence and angst for all women. I wanted to write about the psychology of that process.
Q: Women encounter body image issues as their looks change with age and in menopause, but these concerns are prevalent in young women, too. In your experience, is there an age-frame during which women generally start encountering beauty and body issues?
A: When I researched and wrote Face It, my focus was on studying women between ages 35-65, since I believed an aging appearance would trouble that group most. But, as I started speaking around the country, these issues were of interest to younger and older women – and men as well. The reality is that the fear about aging is a cultural and global phenomenon, hitting men and women with a much wide age range all around the word. We are youth and beauty obsessed – surrounded by the cultural message that we must do everything possible to avoid looking old – so concerns about aging start as early at teenage years, and last well into people living into their 70s and 80s.
Q: Beauty does seem to be something that permeates our society. I recently heard Meryl Streep on NPR discussing how the roles she was offered began to change in her mid- 40s and 50s. I feel like I’ve seen several TV shows and movies in which the female lead complains that her husband gets better-looking with age while her looks diminish. Do you think this is a common sentiment? Do men have these issues as well?
A: For a very long time, the media has not strayed far from the stereotypical storyline, “men look better in gray” and “aging women should disappear,” which has reflected a sentiment that goes beyond the screen. As a result, female actors have worked hard to maintain their youthful looks, even taking radical measures to appear younger. Male actors, on the other hand, have been able to move more gracefully into middle age, portraying characters their own age, finding roles that continued to appeal to audiences.
Although this trend, to some extent, continues in Hollywood, I believe there is a shift beginning to occur elsewhere. We are seeing more women take pride in their natural looks and some are even embracing gray hair. And, the playing field between men and women seems to be leveling. Men are acknowledging that they are feeling more pressure to ‘anti-age,’ using cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery to stave off an aging appearance. As we all live longer, expecting to feel and look vital well into our 80s and 90s, we are all trying to figure out a proper balance between how to maintain our youthful appearance while gracefully moving forward.
Q: We’ve seen a rise in consciousness about the media’s representation of women in documentaries like Miss Representation. The New York Times also recently reported that New York Fashion Week designers and models are pledging not to use underage models so they give a slightly more realistic representation of adult women. Do you think media is a notable factor in women’s self-perception and society’s view of women in general? How do you feel about it?
A: Our self-perception begins to develop in the context of our families. But once out in the world, our experiences within our culture – e.g. school, friends, media – influence our development. This is especially true for those whose original home environment was not consistently supportive. For example, a young girl, whose self-esteem may be low as a result of a rejecting or critical parent, will be more influenced by the media. She may grow up to be a woman who constantly compares herself to images in the media, always falling short of an unattainable standard of beauty. How do I feel about that? I think all women today — especially those with roles in advertising, publishing and the media — need to join together to encourage a more realistic view of beauty, so that the next generation benefits from our effort.
Q: You have a very good grasp on how to effectively respect yourself. How have you been able to maintain a healthy, happy self-esteem?
A: I follow my own advice. Instead of trying to hold on to an earlier image of myself, I keep in mind that aging is a continual process of letting go — facing loss and moving on. That doesn’t mean I don’t take care of myself. I maintain healthy routines, like eating well, regular exercise and getting annual check-ups with my internist, dermatologist and gynecologist. Most importantly, I keep my expectations realistic, which leads me to feel pretty happy and fulfilled most of the time. My goal is to look and feel the best I can for my age — a goal that is pretty attainable!
Q: What are your top three basic steps for women to raise their self-esteem?
A: Women who seem to feel best about themselves as they age have these three qualities in common:
- A flexible self-image. This allows a woman to let go of her youthful image and continually redefine what it means to be attractive.
- Positive self-reinforcement. Women who maintain an internal dialogue with themselves and their mirrors that is kind and gentle can maintain high self-esteem at any age. They are less self-critical and more accepting of change.
- Balance. Focusing on health and beauty are important to feel good about oneself, but maintaining good self-esteem requires keeping that in balance with a focus on other aspects that define you.
Q: A flexible self-image, positive self-reinforcement and balance. I think I can remember those (with a post-it)! Finally, what was your most significant ‘aha’ menopause moment?
A: My ‘menopause moment’ was realizing that the only constant in life is change. Menopause is just a reminder that our bodies are always changing. Learning to adapt to new physical, emotional and perceptual changes is key to my happiness.
Thank you, Dr. Diller, for inspiring us to embrace aging with confidence and love for ourselves. As Hoda Kotb, co-host of the TODAY show, says about Face It, “This is a smart book for smart women. There is something here for all of us, and it is a perfect gift for others we care about.”
Celebrate YOU – love yourself!