Mirror, Mirror: Who’s Looking at Older Women?

Wrapped in black and purple velvet, the Queen stands before the Magic Mirror and demands affirmation as the fairest in the land. Up to this point in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the mirror, or rather the gloomy male voice conjured from its recesses, has always obliged her. But now, in a tone that carries the degree of despair that should be reserved for “All within your reign have been consumed by giant bats,” he announces that Snow White is prettier.

When the narrator led up to this clip on the Walt Disney episode of American Experience, I’d anticipated happiness. I hadn’t seen the film for decades. In my hazy memory, Snow White and I were close. Inscrutable forces clouded our young lives, but Fate loved us. Now I felt both alarmed and interested to discover that I no longer identified with the demure heroine, but with the Queen – she whose full name, you may recall, is “The Evil Queen.”

I lived in my parents’ house when I first saw Disney’s Snow White. My mother, the beautiful Alice, reigned over a family of four children. The king, as in the onscreen version, was offstage somewhere, busy with king things.

Disney felt he knew best what children such as I could and couldn’t stomach in a fairy tale. His version drew from an original of surprising violence. For example, although Disney’s Queen was berserk, she didn’t match the mother (not stepmother) of an earlier folk version, a woman who cooked up and ate a boar’s heart while believing that her huntsman had followed her orders and ripped this morsel from the chest of her own daughter. Nevertheless, even in Disney’s hands, the Queen possessed a box supposedly containing the heart of her child rival.

As a child, I’d felt frightened by the Queen’s refusal to accept Truth as the mirror told it. Her resistance led to cruelty and attempted murder. She should have known the young replace the old. How wrong and how destructive to take the natural order of things so personally.

As an older person watching the Mirror, Mirror clip, I sighed and wondered why the Queen’s Counsel failed to mention how this passage can make you feel a little irrational when the natural order of things suddenly applies to you. An older person, particularly an older woman, has been reminded in various, uncomfortable, and often insulting ways to swallow this bitter pill and keep quiet. Stoking up your vanity will only destroy you.

Will it? Downing that pill is a hard prescription. Sometimes when my own Inner Counsel has drifted off for its afternoon nap, I’ll go address my mirror with an accusatory, Hey, what’s happening here? I defy anyone over fifty not residing in a mirror-free convent to tell me she hasn’t done the same. The fairy tale was supposed to provide a mirror narrative for both our young selves and this later stage of life, but it’s an imperfect reflection.

First, it offers a male perspective on beauty. In Disney’s version at least, the judgment that the Queen is no longer the fairest is delivered by a male persona. Equally suspect is the premise that the older woman would naturally despise the younger. This feeds a male fantasy and is not by any means a given – either in Once Upon a Time days or today. In my experience and in the experience of nearly every older woman you could find, I’d argue, this animosity is rare. Yes, there are younger women who step into the lives of older women and abscond with their fickle partners, but the Evil Queen isn’t representing that sort of situation. She’s not hanging on to her man in this fairy tale conflict; she’s hanging on to her vanity. You also won’t find much evidence for older women feeling jealous of younger women in the literature put forward by women, who should know. Actually, among the old in general, there’s a great deal of celebration of youth. Youth rising is not the issue among real life older people. The issue is self preservation as one watches self disappearing in front of the very eyes of others.

“The more signs there are that you’re aging, the more concerning (disappearing) becomes,” my friend Maria, seventy, said when we talked about this, adding, “I could afford not to be vain in my thirties and forties, but now I’m not looking younger than my age any more. Now, pardon the pun, it’s in my face.”

That particular friend was, and is, considered by most who know her to be a beauty, but even attractiveness as perceived by others, men or women, isn’t necessarily at the heart of the matter. We tend to want to preserve the best of what we have. “All God’s children are not beautiful,” the writer Fran Lebowitz said. “Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

I was presentable as a younger woman, but without reason to be vain. In a family of good looking people, I was the plain one. They knew it and I knew it. I reacted by judging them as overly concerned with their looks, especially my mother. Alice died last year, at age 100. To the end she wanted to look beautiful, but then, to the end she actually was beautiful. Nearly everyone in her assisted living facility agreed she was the reigning homecoming queen of the place: clothes and hair always perfect, skin practically free of wrinkles, wide blue eyes alive with curiosity and mischief, posture straight and true. Not for a moment would she or any of her peers or any magic mirror within miles be concerned that I, the younger woman in the equation, was going to topple her from this position. If that hadn’t happened in over six decades between us, it wasn’t in the cards.

When I chided Alice through the years about paying too much attention to appearance and not enough to things of substance, she shrugged. It was only when she moved across the country in order to live closer to me that I discovered she did have an interest in things of substance, after all—proof that vanity, or at least a generous helping of self absorption on the physical plane, can coexist with depth. I wondered why I’d never noticed this about her before, but then, if you are lucky enough to have a parent who lives to be 100, or anywhere close, and who remains in good mental health, many veils will lift. As the cataracts begin to fleck your own eyes, other sorts of scales fall. That, at least, was the way of things with Alice and me. I loved getting to know her.

Now that my mother is gone, I notice that my own outlook on vanity has changed. Until her death, only the slightest signs of it had crept into my life. I identified early on as a hippie and feminist (still identify as the latter), but around age 50 I discovered lipstick can be kind of fun. For years I’ve colored my hair because I didn’t like seeing my father’s hair turn the color of steel wool. I inherited his hair and skin color, so I covered up the first dull strands when they appeared and haven’t looked back.

But lately it’s become clear I internalized my mother’s side of the conversation about appearance more deeply, and the volume is getting louder. On my way back to Portland from her memorial service in the Midwest, it was so loud I found myself impulsively purchasing a bottle of make-up at The Body Shop in the Minneapolis airport. I haven’t worn make-up since college. I tucked the bottle into my pack and walked over to TSA feeling weird. If conflicted emotions and beliefs could set off alarms, mine would have shut down at least my own security line. What had possessed me? Was I actually going to apply this liquid to my face? What next? Blush, or whatever it’s called these days? Mascara? My Second Wave Feminist self reminded me that these products all serve one purpose: pretending to be a dewy thing, eyes perpetually astonished, cheeks falsely set aflame by the befuddling world around me. Was this to happen just at the point in life when nearly every other illusion about the world had fallen by the wayside?

“When I see an older woman heavily made up,” my 66 year-old friend Rebecca once said, “I am transfixed with curiosity. What leads her to this masquerade? Is it a mask to hide the ‘flaw’ of aging, or an announcement to herself and others that she can do whatever she wants in order to be seen?”

The make-up sits in my bathroom cabinet, but once or twice I have tried it on. I can see how it evens out the multiple tones that have, for some age-related reason, suffused my complexion, but it also seems to accentuate the wrinkles. When I wash it off, there I am again, faded and multi-colored. I might stay at the mirror and pluck a whisker or two from my chin while considering the way the Evil Queen’s Counsel also failed to mention how the disturbing appearance of hair in some unexpected places and its disappearance in expected places is part of a woman’s aging. I’ll remember, too, that, for at least the last several years of her life, Alice instructed me more than once: “If I’m ever unconscious in the hospital, be sure to pull out any hairs that might grow on my chin.” And then she would add in a tone she once used to warn me never to get into a car with strangers: “I mean it!”

I rarely linger at any mirror for as long as I once did. Once, mirrors raised questions and held answers, instead of only raising questions. Once, I watched Snow White and wondered: Why would an old woman care whether or not she’s pretty? (Disney’s Queen looks to be around forty, but forty is old to a pre-teen, a teenager, and even to a person in her twenties.) As to the male voice inhabiting the mirror, whose opinions drive the Queen to criminal insanity, in my early viewings I wouldn’t once have thought to ask: But wait! Why should she listen to him?

We tell children that looks should not matter, but they know as well as we do that social reality follows its own rules. What we should tell them is that very, very few people care nothing at all about how they are perceived by others, including physical perceptions, and looks should not matter. And by the way, yes, we know from our own experience that it can hurt a lot when someone tries to diminish your physical appearance or anything else about you.

This does not magically end once you’re past a certain age. Another friend, a poet in her eighties, always has a reaction when she sees a certain photograph of herself. This photo records a close-up view of every line on her face and is often used in stories about her. “I don’t know why they have to do that,” she told me. “It’s not necessary and it hurts my feelings.”

Was the photographer clumsily groping for a comment on age? If so, his result was an objectification of age. Did he mean us to find his photograph fascinating? I would say aging is fascinating, yes, but not in the way that photographer is thinking. It isn’t her own vanity that’s hurting my friend’s feelings, but what underlies vanity for everyone. Old or young, we want to be seen, not objectified. Certainly many young women will use cameras on their iPhones to self-ify themselves into oblivion in order to take the objectification if that’s all they can get, but it’s a cheap prize compared to actually being seen. We don’t want to be invisible (as even old men can be; ask any who have walked down a sidewalk and had to step quickly out of the way of younger men), and we don’t want to be so conspicuously observable as to have our faces magnified – all the better to ogle and exclaim over signs of wear and tear, my dear.

Rebecca, known for her spirited outlook and a confident stride through life, told me about a recent lunch with an old love she hadn’t seen for years. “He used the phrase ‘snaggle-toothed’ just in passing,” she said, “and I found myself wondering if he was secretly alluding to me.” She wondered if he saw her as a woman still, or was he expressing disappointment in what he thought she’d become, her teeth drifting further out of alignment, as the teeth of older people will do? Or maybe he’d used the phrase with no intention of alluding to her? It hardly mattered because it takes only a moment for vanity to plant the seed and for the seed to take root. Rebecca came away from the conversation remembering a childhood with parents who couldn’t afford to buy her braces and asking herself, “Is it vain to want perfect teeth?”

If we judge vanity as wrong, we can feel superior to it, not that disapproval gets us very far in shaking it off. Some people, though, don’t care if they’re being vain. They’ll get Botox injections because they’re sick of people asking them why they look mad all the time. Twin parallel lines on the forehead that deepen with each passing year may be nothing more than the result of simple genetics. No inner fury required. Botox eliminates the conversation.

Botox is expensive, and so are all the other so-called “solutions” for aging. As fast as fixes come along, though, the body outpaces them. There are too many things going on to keep up with. What are you going to do about that fatty lump protruding from your thigh that appeared at age fifty-two, for example? Surgery? I don’t think so. Grow one fatty lump and you are likely to grow several more. And what’s your plan for skin spots? Bleach? Think again. You can now find many doctors who will gladly take your money to transfer some of your own fat to your face, but then you need to shell out more to pull back all the skin that’s falling away from the bones of your neck. You need wider shoes because your feet flatten and broaden. The fat on their soles thins out until, like Alice when she was in her late nineties, it disappears almost entirely, making it painful to walk. It doesn’t help that your toes curl up like snails, either, or that you look down one day at the skin on the backs of your hands and see a sheen resembling the one on your grandmother’s dining room table, as though some naughty fairy has been sneaking in at night and rubbing your appendages with Pledge. Capillaries, once concealed beneath the skin of your thighs, spring leaks that rise to the surface, creating blue tributaries more complex than the Amazon’s. And that’s not everything because, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, aging is personal; each of us can make her own list.

All the money and vanity in the world cannot address all this, any more than the physical changes that faced you as a child or adolescent or young person or middle-aged person could be stopped. Old age is not another country you need to be well-armed to enter but an expansion of the borders of the homeland you’ve lived in all your life, your body.

You know your body. It’s not a hostile environment. You’ve cared for it, dressed, fed, and groomed it, exercised it, given it pleasures great and small, taken it out for many spins in a multitude of (to you) uncharted territories. Should you curse it now because it’s following, as it has been following all along, its own natural path?

Alice paid careful attention to her clothes, her hair, her make-up even into old Old Age. All along the way she tried to take care of the things she could still control and she did it with grace, letting the rest fall away as it would.

She lived at the assisted living facility for seven years. During that time I watched her, along with several other women, speak to their peers over and over again in positive ways about the smallest of things – the attractive lines of a new pair of glasses, a consistent flair for choosing an interesting accessory, the gift of always bringing levity to group gatherings, a talent for singing, a strong handshake, a welcoming tone of voice, a sense of rhythm, a commitment to including others, a distinctive walk. The remarks were never flattery doled out to feed vanity. My mother and these other women pointed to real things they’d noticed, using only a few words, a nod, a touch. They underscored strengths, acknowledging what all the years could not stop from shining through. They did it in order to bring each other into view and to say: I see you and there is something lovely about you that has captured my attention.

All residents of these facilities, most of them female, once stood before mirrors and were affirmed as singular and present. Vanity may rise when visibility falls, but a very good thing about community living, or a social network of any kind as we age, is that sometimes it takes a village to raise up an old woman and give her back to herself. It’s no secret to the old that death is on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean other things can’t be in view as well.

I learned from Alice’s practice and have used it with peers and older people in this past year since she died, including people I see in the grocery store, at the post office, in line at the bank. Sharing with these others that I see them and, more importantly, want to see them, is one of the ways–and an unexpected one–of keeping my mother alive and with me. It also helps balance out my own vanity and fears of becoming invisible.

I think these small moments of acknowledgment will increase in years to come among the general population because, if the trend continues, each succeeding generation will perceive even more beauty in humanity to draw into the light and celebrate. More than ever before, the young have come to insist on a much broader spectrum of appreciation regarding gender, race, ability. A fresh take on what comprises loveliness and grace is worth absorbing, even if we are not yet part of it. Who knows? Maybe old age will be included in the next generation’s perceptions, or the one after that. It feels inevitable that some day enough voices will rise and speak to the mirror loudly enough to put Gloom Voice in his place and to save his despair for giant bats: Reflections allowed – no opinions! Is that a hair sticking out of my chin?


Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Travelers’ Tales, J Journal, So to Speak, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in four anthologies, most recently in Visiting Emily: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Emily Dickinson, published by the University of Iowa Press, and Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press).

7 Replies to “Mirror, Mirror: Who’s Looking at Older Women?”

  1. The perfect piece of reading on my 63rd birthday morning. It returns me to myself and reminds me once again why I love you so much as my very dear friend. Always and not matter how many chin hairs we acquire in this final stretch of living!

  2. I am Jenny Ellen Haarsma’s mother and I’ve just turned 75. My mother Ellen was like yours in so many ways, She couldn’t pass a mirror without looking in to check out her appearance before leaving her assisted living apartment at age 95. My younger sister and I thought her vain, but we misjudged her, she was like Alice, but vain is the wrong word. Controlling what she could control is much more accurate.
    You are a remarkable writer and this is the most thoughtful and meaningful essay I have ever read on Mothers and on growing old. Thank you for your time and effort in writing it. Hope to meet you someday! Suzy

  3. To read this piece is to begin to get a sense of how not only to inhabit the world as we age, but to find it re-enchanted. These are the things that we aging women think about but seldom take time to fully explore or articulate, especially with the combination of curiosity, insight, tenderness and honesty that Andrea Carlisle brings to it. I fell in love with the blog she wrote about her mother’s final years, “Go Ask Alice–When She’s 94.” Through her own capacity to love, Andrea shows us ways to really see ourselves and others.

  4. I like the way this essay reaches deep into our collective psyche with fairy tale images of women and then moves into more personal experiences with aging. The way Andrea Carlisle’s late-in-life relationship with her mother, Alice, changed her own perspective on vanity and aging interested me, too. I appreciate the way she examines the complexities of how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. The perspective in this essay is seriously feminist and deeply human. I hope this piece is widely shared with male and female readers!

  5. I knew there were women out there somewhere expressing these thoughts and feelings. My own have been swirling through my consciousness from the other side of youth and beauty for a couple of decades. Thank you Andrea for bringing so much depth and consideration and generosity to my vague unspoken musings. This is rich soil. I wish we could meet for coffee!

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