The incomparable Bette Davis once said, “Old age is no place for sissies.”
She wasn’t kidding. Aging gracefully in a youth-obsessed culture requires mental toughness, especially for women.
We’re told over and over that time steals our beauty. We’re bombarded with “anti-aging” messages entreating us to erase every spot, pore, wrinkle, and gray hair.
We’re basically threatened with a grim life of loneliness if we don’t spend half our income trying to look younger, and we’re led to believe that if we look old, only our grandchildren will love us — and maybe not even they will.
No wonder we’re anxious about aging.
When was the last time you heard the aging process described as honorable or fascinating? Beautiful, even? It’s about time for a broader perspective.
Happily, the women featured in veteran celebrity photographer Peter Freed’s collection of portraits — now compiled in a book titled Prime — provide exactly that.
Freed’s project profiles more than 120 women — all over the age of 35 — who boldly faced his lens without makeup or artifice. Each unretouched image is accompanied by thoughts from the subject about her life.
You’ll meet nine of Freed’s Prime subjects and hear some of their thoughts on living and aging well. They make it clear that older does not mean duller, that beauty and vivacity and love all span time, that it is possible to embrace the signs of age as evidence of a hero’s journey.
As these women tell it, aging is not a subtraction, but an accumulation of experiences that make life richer. If that kind of experience shows on our faces, then so much the better.
Here’s to each of us wearing our own experiences proudly.
Profession: Model, humanitarian
On embracing age: I always wanted to be more experienced, more worldly. I couldn’t wait to be 30 when I was 20. I thought that would mean I’m a woman and I’ve earned the right to have an opinion and interests that matter and make a difference in the world. I felt like that’s when you begin the real good stuff.
On being here now: It’s not that I’m realized or have perfect balance, but I do feel like there’s not a lot I’d want to change. I feel excited about what’s ahead, and I’m not in a place to rush through everything like I once was.
On looking forward: Life is exciting where I am, and I like the unfolding of it. I’m interested in aging in that sense:
- What will I look like?
- What will I be?
- Who will I become?
Profession: Author of the memoirs Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Leaving Before the Rains Come, among others
On looking older: I’m not going to outsource my face and my expression so that I look like everyone else or don’t look like I have had the life I’ve lived. I’ve smoked my body weight in cigarettes, I’ve lived through war, I’ve cried and been joyful — I’m supposed to look a little haggard. There’s something so powerful about unapologetically walking around in your own body and face.
On aging enthusiastically: It’s such a brilliant thing, getting older consciously. Even the language shifts. I’m not “shrill” anymore; I’m strident. I think young women need models on how to age unapologetically.
Profession: Model, makeup artist, founder and CEO of BOOM! by Cindy Joseph (a pro-aging cosmetics company)
On becoming a pro-aging advocate: I decided to launch a movement — the “pro-age revolution” — because I wanted to share the good news: Life gets better. It really does. As I get older, I am getting better, happier, sexier. But when we see people who are older, we often see people who are covering their signs of age instead of wearing them proudly. We could be excited about getting there, too, if we saw more of our elders celebrating their age.
On the power of words: We need to pay attention to our language and how we commit ageism. Let’s say “vital” instead of “young.” When we say, “Oh my God, she looks so old,” we could be saying, “She looks unhealthy, tired, or depressed.” But we say the word “old.” Yet you can have miserable, closed-minded, sickly people who are young. It’s not the age that creates those characteristics; it’s more lifestyle and attitude.
Ellen Fisher Turk
Profession: Special educator, photographer
On staying invested: When I was in my late 60s, I started getting very sad and wondering if I was approaching the last stage of my life. And once I approached 70 I was free, because I had my life and my life was getting bigger and bigger. So I wasn’t resigning or retiring or relieved to leave anything. I was invested in my life.
On beauty: I have a bumpy nose, and curly, gray hair that doesn’t make any pretense. That sculptured, craggy carved look is what I like now. I’m wearing my hair pulled back and so there’s nothing but my face. I love it these days. I often see people who’ve had cosmetic surgery and how the surgery fights with their face. I wouldn’t want that.
Profession: Writer, photographer
On being at ease: I’m comfortable in my own skin. I like the lines that are coming. I actually like my face better now than 20 years ago. I’m not going to hide it. I don’t know if growing up in Trinidad gave me a different perspective on aging, but it did on beauty. Everyone wears tank tops and bikinis in Trinidad — all shapes and sizes. When I went back as an adult, that really struck me.
On nostalgia: Being 10 was a great age, but I have no desire to be 10 again! My 30s were an adventure — seeing what was out there for me. My 40s have been grounding. I can’t imagine how it can get better, but every decade has been better than the last one. I come from a line of long-livers. It’s not unrealistic to think that I will live to 100. That means I have an entire lifetime ahead. That’s thrilling. Some day, perhaps, I will have to slow down. But who’s to say I won’t be ready?
M. Joy Rose
Profession: Educator, activist
On the fire of purpose: My friend Pam donated her kidney to me 15 years ago. I was a decent person or she wouldn’t have given me a kidney — but her generosity shifted my priorities. I became fiercely committed to having a life that benefited not just me but other people. We can’t always change the body; I know that intimately from being ill. But we can feed the flames of life, passion, and purpose.
On celebrating reality: I love myself, and I have to tell myself that every day. If I didn’t, society might tell me I need a facelift or I’m too old. Or that I should be wearing heels or be 20 pounds lighter or that I shouldn’t have pink hair. That I should get some injections. The antidote to that is literally to tell myself, I love me. Then I surround myself with people who will celebrate me, and I will celebrate them.
Profession: Holistic lifestyle expert, blogger, activist
On getting better with age: I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I have more energy, and I feel alive creatively. I feel like I’m a little bit more fearless, maybe because I’m older. I’m taking chances, and doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do, because I realize how precious life is. Yet I’m young enough to still enjoy it.
On self-care: I’ve been doing kundalini yoga seriously, and it has helped me tune in to my intuition. I have a morning ritual of drinking living tea and sitting in meditative silence. It has helped me not be dictated to by what the media is telling me, and instead I’m listening to what’s real and true for myself. I think if you have self-love, you appreciate what your body has been through. Like scars — look at them as warrior marks.
On overcoming illness: There were years that I lay in bed with pain everywhere from arthritis and constant fevers from lupus. Doctors told me there was nothing they could do. But a close brush with death woke me up. Time passed, my body responded to my efforts to train it and regain strength. I started to run a little, holding small weights in each hand. Fast-forward 10 years to today — I’m a runner. My body and mind are awake, pain-free, strong, and alive.
On the value of suffering: The Buddha speaks of “meaningful suffering,” a state of consciousness where one’s suffering has value. It is a state of reflection, a serious consideration of one’s experience of pain. Being sick is part of my story. I am the phoenix that rose out of the ashes.
Profession: Author of Broken Open, cofounder of Omega Institute and the Omega Women’s Leadership Center
On age and agelessness: My first job was being a midwife. I delivered enough babies to know that every one of us comes into this world in possession of a radiant, pure, ageless self. It taught me that we all have an eternal soul we come in with and that leaves with us. So on that level, there is no such thing as aging. But I am also quite attached to my body, my life here on Earth, the people in my life. I live in both of those realities — the eternal soul and the vulnerable human self.
On the spiritual side of aging: My spiritual life helps me choose the good parts of aging and shrug off the scary parts. The good parts are the wisdom gained from years of living, the way I no longer need to prove myself, the sense of humor I have about my own foibles, the acceptance of others, the joy in the simplest acts of being alive.
Photography by Peter Freed
Current age: 59
Profession: Retail manager, model
On maintaining perspective: I don’t focus on looks, to be very honest. I feel like I’m lucky that I look the way I look, but it’s not a concern for me. I am from Barbados. I am the seventh of eight children. I was born in a house. If you went the hospital, you went there to die.
On the gift of time: I think aging is a beautiful process. I’m happy to be here. I don’t want to die young. I want to be here as long as I can. It was a huge loss when my soulmate died. I went to Argentina to get myself together, where I knew no one, where I didn’t speak the language…. Someone snatched a necklace from me. It was a present from him, but I had to let it go. It freed me. I let go of my past. I started to tango. I let the dead be dead and live life.
Profession: Author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Women Don’t Get Facelifts
On mental age: I’ve met people in their 30s who look old inside and outside, and people in their 70s who look and feel young. Age is in your head. Right now, I can be 20 or 30 in a minute — or at least my spirit can be which is what matters, isn’t it? I don’t look at myself in the mirror often enough to spot my facial wrinkles — a true sign of the kind of life I lead…lots of kissing and laughing, so, yes, wrinkles around the eyes and mouth — and most of the time I feel physically well, and certainly happier and stronger than at 20 or 30. And so much love to give.
The happy surprises of aging: That I would love more time for solitude. That silence would become the height of luxury. That I would be even more sensitive than I have been all my life to the beauty of the universe and to real friendship. That I would meet so many new and interesting people. That age is about why and how we live.
Profession: author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, among other books, professor at University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, speaker
The problem of shame: If I had one career goal, it would be to spark a global discussion about vulnerability and shame and the dark emotions — the things that get in the way of us leading truly joyful lives from a place of worthiness, a place of “I am enough. I am imperfect, I’m vulnerable, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time… but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m brave and worthy of love and belonging and joy.”
On opening up: The irony of being an adult is that in order to be the partner and parent and person we want to be, all of the windows we’ve closed, the doors we’ve shut, the walls we’ve built in our lives, have to come down and open up. I think that is the work of midlife.