By Annie Rosemurgy
Take a quick glance around the bastions of culture— magazines, movies, Instagram influencers—and you’ll see that youth is the holy grail, especially for women. We are inundated with messages that aging is something we should dread and fight. Psychologist Karen Kimball says that our culture’s overemphasis on female beauty leads women to struggle disproportionally. “For women, I think our physical appearance often equates to our value as a person, and when that appearance changes, as it normally does through the process of aging, we can feel ‘less than,’” says Kimball.
It’s possible, however, to abandon this struggle and cultivate a new, gentler philosophy which honors the realities of aging and celebrates a life fully lived. “We can be the generation that re-defines what it means to age as a woman by cultivating a pro-aging mindset. We do this by learning to embrace each season of life,” says UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain.
Reframing aging is so important because internal dialogue affects outcomes. “Attitude about aging makes a huge difference in quality and quantity of life,” says Erin Eggert, a research associate with the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging. She notes that people who have a positive perception of aging live 7.5 years longer than those who don’t, experience higher rates of recovery from illness and injury, have better brain performance and improved memory, and are more likely to engage in other healthful behaviors such as exercising regularly, getting an annual flu shot and scheduling doctor’s visits.
Pelin Kesebir, a scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds, advocates starting with a conscious move toward gratitude. “I think the critical ingredient of cultivating a pro-aging philosophy is recognizing that living and aging are synonymous. If we are aging, it means that we are alive. If we are grateful to be alive, we also have to be grateful to be aging,” she says.
“Fundamental to a pro-aging mindset is to understand the later years as a time of freedom,” says Kimball. “We can be unlimited in our learning, curiosity and drive. We can finally define ourselves.” With age and experience women often feel freer to express their individuality, and less constrained by cultural norms. “Gaining more years can motivate us to do and be things we always wanted to do and be!” Kimball says.
Instead of focusing on what is lost through the years Mirgain says we can focus on what is gained. “We can look at aging in a different way by exploring what is becoming enlivened within us through the years,” says Mirgain. She asks, “How is my heart learning to love more deeply? How is my mind developing greater wisdom for the world? How might my body be a vessel for deeper compassion?”
Finally, give yourself the loving kindness you deserve, says Mirgain. “Treating our body with care, giving it enough exercise, healthy nutrition, healing touch, surrounding it with beauty, creating environments where it can feel comfortable and bringing in nurturing relationships are the context that allows a woman’s life to thrive.”
Check out our Web Extra on embracing gray hair now.