How A Former Model Copes With Aging

Vivian Diller’s advice for admiring the woman in the mirror—at any age

By Janet Ungless  

Most women will, at some point in their accomplished midlife, experience that uh-oh feeling. Maybe you pass a mirror and notice your sagging jowls or the skin fold above your eyelid. Or you have a memory blip you’ve always referred to (with irony) as a “senior moment.” And though the world—and you yourself—may still marvel at your fierce intellect and emotional agility, all those internal struggles you’ve weathered pale in comparison to a glance in the mirror at a face you don’t recognize as your own. Is that really me?
“I think it’s so gut-wrenching not only because it prompts reflection into profound life questions like ‘Who am I?’ but also because there’s a larger, deeper context. It taps into a long, historically connected feeling that has probably existed for centuries. The sole role of women for so long was about survival of the species—attracting a mate and having children,” says Vivian Diller, PhD, a psychologist and the author of the book Face It, who specializes in helping women deal with the emotions brought on by a changing appearance. Our survival role required physical attractiveness, which, by any definition, didn’t include gray hair and crow’s-feet. “Add to that our youth-oriented culture, and it’s no wonder women who are smart and wise and together feel panicked…frozen,” says Dr. Diller.
It’s not supposed to matter, but it does. “Women of my generation—I’m 59—and even women a little older were very wedded to the whole feminist movement, which emphasized that looks should not matter. Please! We live in the real world. Looking and feeling great matters at every age. We have to give value to this issue. What’s inspiring,” Dr. Diller says, “is that we have the chance to be pioneers in this new experience of life, to renegotiate the definition of beauty. It’s time to have this conversation among thoughtful women.”
Vivian’s story
For Dr. Diller, the process of learning how to move forward with time, rather than clinging to a past image of ourselves, isn’t just empty rhetoric. Enthralled by dance as a child, she was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School at age 10, and from that moment devoted every fiber of her being to her art. She put off college to pursue a ballerina’s life of auditions and performances, exhausting herself physically and emotionally. All that came to a grinding halt after a second metatarsal fracture, which caused chronic pain when she went on pointe and ended her professional dreams.
Facing an uncertain future, she signed with the Wilhelmina Agency and began modeling while taking courses at night to get her college degree. Though posing for photographers was more a job than an identity, she observed firsthand the struggles of women coming to the end of careers rooted in evanescent youth and beauty and saw how that elicited the same emotional crisis as when she left dance.
“By the time I hit midlife, I felt like I had already mourned a youthful identity—twice,” she says. “I felt very familiar with the psychology of learning how to make room for what is to come. And I realized this doesn’t just happen to models or dancers. All women go through this to some extent. And when you hit that uh-oh moment, it is not a superficial experience. It is substantive and beyond just our looks. It’s Oh my God, I feel like life is passing me by and Will anybody pay attention to me? It strikes at the core of who we are as women.”
Dr. Diller’s unique perspective inspired her to become a psychologist and begin a private practice in Manhattan. She says she got her PhD and a postdoctoral degree in psychoanalysis to help other women “struggling with their aging appearance in a way that seemed out of control and potentially destructive to them.”
There is no secret sauce or one size fits all, she says, because it depends on the role looks have played in your life. But there are steps we can all take to feel great at any age.
Here’s what she learned:
Let go of your former self-image
The most important step toward ageless beauty is letting go of your attachment to your youthful self-image, not getting stuck on the way you used to look. Mourn it as you would your connection to an old friend. Letting go means making room for what comes next. Even though our culture emphasizes turning back the clock, rewinding, I’m saying that’s the wrong message—50 is not the new 30 or even the new 40. Fifty is the new 50! It’s not that we don’t want to stay feeling vital or looking attractive, but we have to let go in order to move on. I’m constantly revising what it means to be in shape. If my standard for fitness at 60 was based on what I could do as a young ballerina (like being able to lift my leg over my head!), I could never win that battle. For me, it’s now about being able to play tennis for 2 hours and walk away feeling like I had a great time.
Confidence is built from inside out
I have a hard time when psychologists try to simplify things by telling people that “it’s what’s inside that really counts.” Actually, both inside and outside matter, and how the two reflect each other is what really counts. In the end, if you don’t take care of yourself or you let your health and grooming go, “what’s inside counts” is not going to work that well! Women who feel good about themselves still work out, find fashionable clothes that make the most of their figures, and get their hair done—maybe even highlighted. And if they let their hair go gray, they do it with style. A woman who walks into the room who’s put some effort into looking her best—maybe she’s just come from running with friends or lifting weights or getting a facial—isn’t comparing herself to the 20-year-old who just ran a marathon or has flawless skin. She’s thinking that she feels pretty good for her age, and if that’s what 60 looks like, great.
Women who feel great about themselves as they age have found a good balance between looking after themselves and letting other things they feel passionate about matter even more—children, grandchildren, art, sports, an interest in travel. These things play a very important role in ageless beauty. That’s the balance of inner and outer confidence, and it all matters. (Get inspired by the 60+ women who told us why they love their age.)