By Maria Russo
At the beginning of the millennium, this look was all over moneyed New York and the Westside of L.A. Then in 2005 arrived “The Real Housewives of Orange County” to take it downmarket, exaggerating its many details until it conveyed not carefree, extended youthfulness but rather a ferocious middle age, a grim determination to throw money at the problem of getting older, via regular trips to dermatologists’ offices, hair salons and cosmetic surgeons’ operating tables.
Then came the financial crisis, and even in the high-end ZIP codes the look began to fray. That day in Beverly Hills I realized I hadn’t seen a woman sporting this level of the look in quite a while. Granted, I’d moved to proudly unglamorous Pasadena. But still, I wondered, could the type be in its final iteration?
There are other versions of middle-aged beauty visible now: While the Housewives TV franchise was hauling its Botox needles and gallons of filler to more workaday places like Atlanta and New Jersey, the beauty industry — the beauty industry! — was broadening the range of middle-aged looks. By 2008 we had Diane “La-Di-Da” Keaton and Ellen DeGeneres as faces of L’Oréal and Cover Girl. Once a middle-aged woman could sell cosmetics only if she was an ex-model, an official Aging Beauty like Isabella Rossellini or Andie MacDowell, and even they were airbrushed liberally. But Ellen and Diane are both average-looking people who look their ages. In the ads their makeup looks nice, but what makes them beautiful is just that we love them.
And then on PBS’s “Downton Abbey” arrived Elizabeth McGovern at 50: If her creased visage peers out at us a little sheepishly, that’s because her character is a fish out of water, not because she is apologizing for her lack of access to collagen. With its even more bewitching Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, this is a show that put to rest the idea that women should hold tight to a particular age, a particular look, rather than giving their faces permission to move through the life cycle.
For me this stuff is not just theoretical, because at 45 I’m the advance guard of Gen-X middle age. As our youth peels away, my peers and I are just beginning to admit that we aren’t sure how we’ll keep looking good. How will we age? We are often called “quirky.” My own approach to beauty products no doubt qualifies.
In flusher times, I would buy Dr. Hauschka lotion, because just looking at the old-fashioned minimalist bottle relaxed me, making me think friendly but no-nonsense German people were in charge of my skin care. Surely they knew better than I did what was good for me. When I used their products, I could discern a kind of toned freshness to my skin that, along with the outdoorsy but studiously nonflowery scent, would call to mind a walk in the Alps, or maybe the Black Forest. I also liked Yonka, because the company was French but not in your face, as it were, about its Frenchness. There was a mystery there that drew me in: Why would someone French name a skin-care line so unalluringly?
In my late 30s I decided I needed to use something “anti-aging” for the new “fine lines” I saw. I looked into the futuristic department store lines whose aqua-green ads coolly promised breathtaking results, but the prices only furrowed my brow further. I wished I could try Retin-A, which I remembered a smooth-skinned 40-year-old woman I worked with in my late 20s swore by, but which you can get only with a prescription from a dermatologist; I avoid doctors besides my OB-GYN religiously. But then I had the idea of using Roc antiwrinkle cream from the drugstore because it has Retinol in it, which sounded appropriately medical. I stuck with that for years, and it seemed to be working O.K., though I periodically wondered if the real, forbidden Retin-A would have packed a much more satisfying punch.
As for makeup, a similar feeling of resignation crept into my routine. At 35 I discovered the Nars Multiple in a rosy brown, a chubby flat-topped obelisk, a combination product that was hands down the best lipstick and the best blush for me. It felt like falling in love, a euphoric thrill followed by a slight backdraft of ennui, because I knew my lipstick and blush explorations were effectively over. Continued© 2012 The New York Times Company
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