'Looking Your Age' Has Lost All Meaning

Our lives are reflected on our faces, so the saying goes, but some of us, by healthful living or good genetic luck, seem to dodge the bullet of life-face impact. In other words, we don't look our age. But what does that really mean? What does any one age look like? And when you're told you look good for your age, are you really being complimented, or is this merely a way of reinforcing that the only correct response to your actual age is to vigilantly dodge it — so good job?

I've never been a fan of the compliment. It means well but feels disingenuous, as if you're supposed to be haggard, but you somehow pulled something off, and the thing you pulled off could just as easily be makeup or cosmetic surgery or excellent lighting or actual vigilant good health. But the compliment implies if you did look your age, that would be bad, so good on you for figuring out how to disguise looking like how you ought to look, or how others do at this age. Aging is bad. Got it.

Can't we just be our age, whatever that looks like on us? Is an age only as good as its strongest representative? And besides, what does 30 look like? I'll tell you what: It looks like everyone you've ever seen who is 30. Everyone who is an age looks like that age, because the very fact that a bunch of people who look wildly different can all be that age only proves age is just a tally of days on earth and not an immediately obvious roadmap of one's experiences.


Speaking of strong representatives, Gloria Steinem famously set the record straight on her 40th birthday when, in response to a reporter telling her she didn't look 40, she replied: "This is what 40 looks like — we've been lying for so long, who would know?" Age really was a great penalty for women.

Last I checked, age is still a penalty for women, but at least one thing that has changed for women in the 40 years since Steinem turned 40: Getting older is no longer what it used to be. You no longer have to trade in your heels for sensible flats if you don't want to. It's much more socially acceptable to be a bangin' 40-, 50-, 60-, or 70-something who dresses up and rocks it and owns her sexuality and even has a sexuality in the first place. This can be viewed as merely more pressure to be pretty OR as a sign that aging is OK and getting older is nothing to be ashamed of. As usual, it's a little of both, just like the concept of not looking your age.


For some people, beating the clock can mean not being taken seriously. For others, it can mean investing heavily in thinking you've trumped biology when you actually haven't. For others still, it's a lucrative thing, even if it's a bit fraught.

A perfect example of this is Louisa Graves, a beauty expert and former body parts model in the film biz who did doubles for Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Milla Jovovich, Cindy Crawford and others over the years, and who now runs a business as a beauty expert, giving advice on budget-friendly body rejuvenation (exfoliating hands with baking soda!).

We spoke from Vegas, where she said she was walking around with a visor, gloves, and a linen shirt on to keep the sun off. She concedes she was also blessed with good DNA and exceptional skin. I wanted to know what a career of being told she didn't look her age felt like.

"At the time it mattered to me," Graves said. "It felt good that people thought I was younger, but it also felt like I was betraying something. What was I supposed to look like? I had to hide my age all the time, because if directors or producers knew my real age they would throw me off the set. Once, they brought me into replace a girl to be Cindy Crawford's hands, and she was younger than me. I felt terrible. I couldn't tell them my real age during casting, either. They would say 'Can you do Brooke Shields hands? How old are you?' I learned to turn the question around and say, 'Well what are you looking to double?' "

But Graves — who admits she is no longer her model weight, but is so much happier not obsessing — says lots of women don't look their age these days, in the sense that our idea of age is changing. We have so much more information available to us about eating low carb, or staying away from foods high on the glycemic index. And lifestyle behaviors that were once the province of models and actresses are now common knowledge for everybody. Ergo: Eat vegetables and fruits. Exercise. Drink water. Use sunscreen. Moisturize.

"In real life, I believe my DNA helped, but I've also always shielded myself from the sun. I still wear my linen shirts, I wear gloves when I drive, I always wear a scarf when I walk, I shield my body. That's really helped."

In her business, she advises women — often who've just hit their 40s and are feeling 'desperate' to find something to make them look and feel better — to take care of themselves, to embrace who they are and focus on stress management and exercise and nutrition. Products and beauty routines can't achieve those results (and often, hormones are the culprit).

But there's a bit of a chicken or the egg wrinkle here. On the one hand, we're still getting a cultural message that we shouldn't age at all, or a misleading image of what it looks like to actually age. In a piece asking what it means to age gracefully, a writer says she thinks we all feel older than we are because media images make even older women look younger than they are:

When I see other women in their forties depicted in the media, their wrinkles and gray hairs have been eliminated. They may be playing the part of a mother of teenagers, but they certainly don't look like mothers of teenagers in real life. The message is clear: Erase signs of aging. Gray hair isn't OK. Wrinkles aren't OK. Sagging breasts aren't OK. A belly that curves and isn't perfectly flat isn't okay. Despite the fact that every woman in my exercise class looks like me, the dominant message sadly seems to override what I see in real life.

That's true, but on the other hand, maybe we all actually are looking younger, too, and have yet to really redefine what various ages look like.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., a former model and pro ballerina, and now a clinical psychologist in New York City, tells me that, though we live in a youth- and beauty-oriented culture, "Saying that you don't look your age, in part, comes from women post-50 who look so much better than their mothers or grandmothers, who are healthier, more active, and more vital than previous generations," she said. "Today women are caring about appearance for much longer than ever before, well into their 70s and 80s."

Diller wrote Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change and What to Do About It, and writes extensively about aging and beauty — she's also said something happens when women get closer to 40 that sends them looking for solutions.

She concedes that there is a less positive interpretation of that phrase that has trickled down to younger women: "There is so much emphasis on looking younger, though, that many women can hear that as 'What do you mean? I think I look pretty good for 30!' "

Nailed it! Why would it be bad to look 30 in the first place? Or 40? Or 50? But Diller, too, thinks that we are all getting used to a new normal, a new standard of self care, and we should embrace looking better at any age, because every age looks better.

"The work I've been doing is that instead of feeling pressured by that phase — we are told not to age, to turn back the clock — if you listen culturally to what that phrase is, it's that women are looking younger than ever before, in part because even at your age, you've worn sunscreen where you mother might not have, and are probably already moisturizing, too," she says.

"So in general, women are not looking how they once did anymore," Diller says. "Maybe 10 years from now we'll get used to that, and simply say 'Wow, you look great!' instead of 'Wow, you look so much younger!' "

Her advice, which is also what she tells her aging patients: Don't focus on the panic-driven message, but rather do things that make you feel good and healthy.

"Moving along as a 35-year-old gracefully into 45 means you will age, yes," she explains. "Your looks will change and the texture of your skin will change and your hair will change. But we know so much more about that now. I color my hair — used to be that was a secret. What was the commercial? 'Only your hairdresser knows for sure.' It's more of a topic now, where there are options to stay healthy and strong, go to the gym. Do things to take care of yourself. Look at the examples of women who are embracing their 60s and 70s and doing it beautifully, like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep."

Of course, if there are dubious intentions behind being told you look younger than your age, make no mistake, looking older than your age is nearly always a bad thing (unless you're trying to pull off a fake ID, or looking younger is preventing you from moving ahead/being taken seriously). It reminds me of the carnival-style guessing makeover show "10 Years Younger," which aired in the UK and the US. It invites a person who looks "older than they are" to step into a glass box in public while onlookers shame-guess their age. It's always brutally to the point. This clip from a British version of the show (which, need it be said, is about as subtle as their tabloids) depicts a woman named Viv. She's described as having "hippo skin" that's "leathery" and a "sunken, aged" face. Complete strangers say she "looks quite wrinkly" and "needs a lot of help." (Help! Wrinkles!)

She's 48, but everyone guesses she's 55. The show's task is to then makeover Viv so she looks 10 years younger. In her case, it's a cinch: "All it took was an upper eyelid reduction, brow lift, full facelift, nose job and a chemical peel to turn her ancient, sagging face into a thing of beauty," says the voiceover.

After that, she looks younger than she did, certainly. But is she really "younger than her age" now? Or does she also look like any reasonably vigilant 48-year-old could look? If we rewound her life and forced better choices on her, would she already look like this after picture?

More importantly, she isn't actually any healthier now, given that this has all been pulled off with cosmetic surgery. Just more aesthetically in line with what we call youthful (for 48). For what it's worth, subjects on the show are made over to look 10 years younger than the average age strangers guessed them to be, not 10 years younger than their actual age.

This seemed weird to me, but research suggests that it actually makes sense. Part of any discussion of how a woman looks is fraught, because it's so long been the only gauge for measuring at all. But if you take away the vanity and aesthetic considerations and politics of aging (for a brief magical moment), looking "younger than your age" is a good thing on a cellular level. Because when it comes to health, perceived age matters — apparently even more than actual age.

A 2009 study of the faces of 102 pairs of Danish lady twins (age 59 to 81) and 162 British women (45 to 75) found that "perceived age is a better biomarker of skin, hair and facial aging than chronological age." These biomarkers can help predict mortality, or age-related diseases, and they help determine what we are noticing when we say someone looks good for their age.

Specific to women, the study found that what makes a woman seem younger for her age is having large lips, lack of of sun exposure, and not having gray hair or excessive wrinkles. Have you thought about your lip height lately? One more fret to add to the list. Makes sense: These are exactly the cosmetic enhancements women are routed toward as they get older — lip plumping, smoothing out of subcutaneous tissue, washing that gray right out of your hair, etc.

Assuming that the compliment shouldn't actually be paid to your plastic surgeon, then, looking younger — having a "baby face" past an age when baby faces are common, fewer wrinkles, seemingly more "vitality" — often means living longer:

Death records were then used to track the survival of the twins over a seven-year period, say findings published on the British Medical Journal website bmj.com.

Perceived age was significantly associated with survival, even after adjusting for chronological age, sex, and the environment in which each pair of twins grew up.

The bigger the difference in perceived age within a twin pair, the more likely it was that the older looking twin died first.

Jokes abound about plunging into the nearest vat of anti-aging cream, but that would miss the point. The people in the study had not had any cosmetic surgery — they were in Denmark, where cosmetic surgery rates are very low because, I suppose, everything is better there, including how you feel about yourself just as you are. This was about lifestyle primarily.

This is worth pausing on. I know it's really obvious, but still, there is a huge disconnect between having a healthy lifestyle — which makes you look good, too — and doing things simply to look good. Both make you feel better and are well within your rights, but only one means greater longevity.

There's of course nothing wrong with looking good (even regardless of how healthy you are), but makeup and peels and cosmetic enhancements do more than just enhance — some of us use them to "correct" the effects of late nights, drinking, drugs, smoking and shitty food, without ever thinking about just working on being healthy first to see if we need as much of the stuff. I definitely could have spent more time not drinking than using the knowledge that blue eyeshadow offsets bloodshot, hungover eyes.

This is also fine — I'm not being prescriptive, but rather, trying to point out that there's a huge difference between dodging actual aging and versus dodging simply looking old. They can be connected, but not always. One involves shoring up your physical health and well-being, not just fretting over whether your ponytail is tied too tight. So it's worth understanding what it means to actually look younger than people think you would for your age when it's come by honestly, you know, with real effort.

I wanted to check with a medical doctor about it, and what it really means in terms of our health. Dr. Brett Osborn is a neurosurgeon who is deep in the anti-aging crowd and researches anti-aging and regenerative medicine, writing and speaking about how to age well. He's written a book called Get Serious: A Neurosurgeon's Guide to Optimal Health and Fitness and appears to be extremely buff.

He told me, point blank, that aging is a disease. A death switch turns on at the age of 16 in humans that from there, doubles your mortality rate every 8.5 years and "knocks 100,000 people off the face of the earth every day." In spite of this, most modern diseases are preventable. He believes there will be a cure for aging — that real life-extending technologies will be developed. (He also said to watch the diabetes drug Metformin, which will play a huge part in anti-aging down the road. It's all about the glucose control, kid!)

We talked for a while about what aging is actually doing to your body, and how much the biological age of a patient factors into his appraisal of their health (he says he can tell more about health by reflexes and brain function alone than age). Ultimately, he said that living well and healthfully is not about crushing it on The Biggest Loser. It's a lifelong endeavor that involves exercise, some nutritional supplements, some stress management, and medicines if necessary. Vigilance, devotion, effort, all that stuff.

Typically, he said, how you look on the outside is a reflection of how you look on the inside. But he stressed the exceptions to this rule. A facelift will disguise that someone has been smoking for 17 years. A plastic surgeon can make a very sick cancer patient look healthy. You're only as old as your arteries, ultimately. And the best approach to the health of the body is to think of it as a car. Aging is like wear and tear on a car. Marathon runners are putting 10,000 miles on their body in an hour, basically. And eating poorly will ravage your body — particularly sugar.

"Yes, there are predispositions to youthfulness," he explained. "But typically, a person less weathered is a person who is going to live longer overall, in all likelihood."

We talked about negligible senescence — that in species who live longer, like turtles or elephants, there is an extremely low metabolic rate. We talked about the importance of caloric restriction, and not being so hard on your body.

"A car is going to last longer if you let it idle," he said.

But it got me thinking: Your investment in the idea that anti-aging is a disease to be cured or a major problem to be staved off has everything to do with how you feel about aging in the first place — is it a thing to let happen naturally and accept, even dig, or a thing to fight with every measure of assistance within reach? What matters more, how you feel or how you look? In the best of all possible worlds, you look and feel good and actually like yourself. You can pursue health and anti-aging in a way that maintains a healthy self image without feeling like a desperate lemming terrified of the inevitable — but in my experience, there is too much earnest "How to Not Look Haggy" advice and not enough "Do This Stuff to Look and Feel Great At Any Age" (at least, not targeted toward women in preventive mode rather than corrective).

This is not to say that plastic surgery is a bad thing at all, but more options in advance could save us all some money and stress.

"To me, it's not about judging women for the choices they make," Dr. Diller says. "It's letting them feel more optimistic, doing the things we can do. We don't have to stay stuck at 35 or feel there's a rigid definition of what is beautiful anymore. The definition of what is beautiful at 30 and 40 and on is changing. It's a new thing to feel attractive at any age. So don't panic. Look around. More and more women are finding ways to take care of themselves, so you don't have to look like you froze your face, or are neglecting yourself. Now there's a middle ground."

As always, let's raise a glass (of something with anti-oxidants in it) to the middle ground. (And Gloria Steinem. I still think she was right.)

Image by Sam Woolley, source image via Shutterstock.