As told to Laura Sgroi
My name is Autumn Whitefield-Madrano and I am a beauty blogger. I try to make it clear from the start that I am not a beauty blogger who writes about makeup tips—I am a beauty blogger who looks at why we are invested in beauty as women and the role that it plays in our lives. I started The-Beheld.com when I was 34, therefore I had some sense of what I wanted out of life in terms of who I was, and that enabled me to start this blog in the first place.
When I was a kid, my mother didn’t wear makeup at all—maybe mascara but nothing else. But whenever I would visit my grandmother I would sit at her makeup table and I would play for hours. I just loved trying on the different lipsticks and the different eye shadows, it was just this world of fantasy that I loved engaging in but I didn’t know how to do it because I didn’t learn firsthand from my mom. So when I started working in women’s magazines in my early twenties, even though I wasn’t in the beauty department, my heart was there—I always loved the beauty pages, and loved talking to beauty editors. Beauty is literally the face that we present to the world. I am more surprised when people are not interested in beauty. You are interested in beauty in some way even if you don’t ever wear makeup. It’s what you are showing the world, and that says so much about who we are. That is how I got attracted to the subject of beauty, and I’ve engaged with it as long as I can remember.
Most women become more comfortable with who they are as they get older and that shows in the way that they present themselves. The way they do their makeup or the way they don’t do makeup, the way that they style their hair or the clothes that they choose. When I was younger I was a lot more experimental. I wouldn’t even leave the house wearing wild eye shadow or other things, I was playing around. But there wasn’t the sense of joy about it, it was almost a searching of identity: Who am I? Am I someone who wears bright red lipstick? Am I someone who has short hair? Do I have long hair? Do I have highlights? I was trying to put my identity on who I was physically and we all do that. What happens as we get older is that we understand the variety of identities that any of us have, so instead of searching for “Oh! That’s our one identity!” you understand that sometimes you want to wear your natural curls flowing and other times you are going to want to have your hair sleek, and I am the same way. I go through phases when I want to wear my hair long, and luxurious and puffed out—and other times, like during the summer, I just twist it up with a pencil and that’s it. I understand that there are different faces that I am showing to the world. I’m not looking for my identity, I am presenting various sides of myself.
My approach became a little narrower in a certain sense now that I know what works for me, and that is something I didn’t know fifteen years ago. I didn’t understand what my features were, I didn’t understand what my strong points were, what you should be emphasizing and that is something that you just learn with time. Some ladies have a knack for it when they’re younger but I was certainly not one of those. I also have become more comfortable with what I do have to offer and learned to trust those things that are worth showing off and that was something I had to learn with time. I never thought like that when I was a teenager, I knew that I had nice big hazel eyes but I was afraid to show them off because I thought it might be seen like, “Oh, she thinks she’s all that” if I tried to emphasize them with eyeliner. As I get older I tell myself: Everyone has these things about themselves that they know are beautiful and they should show them. That is something I became more comfortable with as I got older.
I also spent so much time when I was a teenager thinking I had bad skin because of some pimples, I thought bad skin, bad skin…Yes, I had some pimples but I had elastic, smooth skin, except for those occasional pimples, and I wished I had been able to recognize that for myself as good skin instead of always saying “bad skin,” because it was just teenage girl skin—it was in general pretty nice.
Something that helped me in my early thirties was looking at some old pictures of myself and I saw how nice I looked. I was never one of those stunningly beautiful women, but I looked at pictures of myself in college and I saw that I just had this glow, I saw that my hair was shining and bouncy and healthy and I saw this vibrancy that I had. I also saw that I didn’t know how to dress myself and other things that were “wrong”, but I saw all these gifts that I had that I didn’t let myself believe when I was younger and it dawned on me: That means there are still things within myself that I don’t know, there’s still something lovely, there’s always going to be something lovely there even if I don’t recognize it; I have to trust that is there. I try to remember that when I have a day I don’t feel so great. I try to think that whatever I saw yesterday that I liked is still there, and in ten years I’m going to look back at a picture of myself now and wonder why I didn’t see some quality.
One of the biggest things that helped me make peace and make friends with my image was understanding that when I looked in the mirror, I wasn’t seeing what I looked like—I was seeing what I felt like. Once I understood that, I didn’t take the mirror as the final truth about how I looked. I still sometimes wake up and my skin is puffy or my hair just isn’t working, but as long as we are taking care of ourselves and getting enough rest, we look the same most of the time. The biggest problem I see with women in our age, who are a little more comfortable with ourselves than we might have been in our twenties, isn’t so much that they don’t like what they see or that they think they are hideous—it’s that their self-esteem fluctuates a lot. One day they might feel “Hello, I’m Miss Thing” and the next day they feel terrible. I would like to see more women be able to do instead is have trust in those days when you look at the mirror and you feel like you got it going on or you don’t even need to look at the mirror at all, you just have that feeling, have a certain faith that that is what you are showing the world. On those days that we see something we don’t like, more often than not, it’s about mood or something internal—it’s not about “Oh, my eyes looks smaller today than usual” because your eyes do not get smaller, I promise.
Some people think that if they are unhappy they need to mask it somehow and maybe put in a little more effort those days. I don’t think that is the best way that beauty can relate to happiness in our lives. First of all, there is no evidence that beautiful people are happier. There are also statistics about how the conventionally attractive ones earn more money—more so for men than for women, but that is another story. They might be seen as more competent or more likable but there is no evidence that they are happier. Science has shown that as we get older we do get happier, which is contrary to what some people think but when they look at their lives that is what they see. I’d like to see us applying the same thinking to beauty, recognizing that most people look how they feel on a day-to-day basis, and they do feel better at this age and possibly even more as they continue to age so they will also look better. I would like to see women trust their instincts more and draw on their real life experience instead of looking at what the media and advertising are telling you with all these messages about youth being something that we need to cling to. Our real lived experience shows the genuine connection between our own form of beauty and our own happiness as well.
Women learn to trust more what they have to offer just on a pure physical level—the more that they learn to highlight that, the better they feel. Maybe sometimes you do mask, because some days putting on lipstick transforms the way that you look at yourself and that can be an important tool towards shifting your mindset. I remember talking to an Iraqi war veteran not long ago, and she said that in the Army you learn how to apply camouflage makeup, and that after doing hers, making her face blend into the background, when she looked in the mirror she saw herself as a soldier. It changed the way that she view herself and she now applies that to the way she wears makeup in her daily life. When we put on our face, our “war paint”, it transforms the way that we see ourselves, and that could be something joyous there for women to draw on.
The concept of mature beauty in women around the world and from many different paths of life is interesting. For example, I haven’t interviewed women from France yet but from what I understand from just talking with French women and women from some other European countries is that the age range in which women in the media are considered beautiful is much larger. There is a scene in “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, where she goes to Italy in her late thirties and she is surprised that men aren’t chasing her down the street like they did when she was 20. And another character says something like, “It’s not like France, where they dig the old babes.” You look at French movies and mature women play the leads and they are seen as beautiful and sensuous. That is happening more in America but we have a ways to go still. Other cultures have a stronger holistic view of beauty. Many Asian cultures revere the elderly—for them it is a given that you would take in your parents and/or your grandparents as they age, there is an understanding of the respect that accumulated years of life give you. We don’t understand that yet in our culture; we understand it intellectually but we don’t value aging that way; at least our generation doesn’t.
In the past twenty years there has been a change of our roles in our society, which is wonderful for women for the most part. Our grandmothers could only be housewives and mothers, maybe career women but they couldn’t have children, or they had to choose. Women from our generation have so many more options, which is wonderful, but that can also be overwhelming. In America, we are looking to beauty as “here’s a role that we can fill”—certainly it’s the role that women are told to fill. What I would like to see happen is, as America and the West in general become more comfortable with the variety of roles that women can play now, that we can opt-in and opt-out of, that beauty will become one of many roles we will begin to see in a more holistic sense. I’m not trying to say that Asian cultures are doing that already but there is more understanding that a 65-year-old woman has a lot to offer to the world and to the younger and maybe more active members of society, and I don’t think we get that fact yet. Once we get closer to that, it will help us understand a holistic concept of beauty.
We are the first generation that has had the opportunity to see women we considered starlets in our twenties, grow in to be who they are now. Julia Roberts, is still on magazine covers after her mid forties, Helen Hunt is in her fifties. Julianne Moore, who is a mature woman who is still seen beautiful, is 52, the same age that Rue McClanahan was when she was cast in the Golden Girls. When you think of that—McClanahan was a beautiful woman but she was seen as a senior citizen, she was an “old woman”, while Julianne Moore is a sex symbol! But there is a counterargument to be made: At what age can women stop trying to be seen as beautiful? That’s another discussion; as far as understanding that women over 25 are sexual creatures, that’s a positive move for us to be seeing, we’re lucky that we get to see that now in our lives.
There is no secret or magic bullet. If you eat healthfully, exercise, get enough sleep, drink a lot water, don’t smoke and don’t drink much alcohol, that will show up in the way that you look. You can dye your hair if it starts to go gray but there is no way to fake that natural glow that comes from taking care of yourself, and I certainly did not understand that in my twenties, not at all. I thought advice telling us to take care of ourselves was a trick to get us to do the healthy things—I felt fine no matter what I did in my twenties. Now, the difference is amazing—if I’m in a heavy work schedule and I can’t get to the gym for a few weeks, I can tell in my energy, I can tell in my face. It’s not that I look ugly is that I don’t have that natural glow that you get when you do everything you should be doing. Women in our age understand that a lot more.
There are certain things that you can do like using retinoid creams, which are the only thing that has been proved to work on fine lines and wrinkles. They’re a little expensive but they last for months and with that I’ve seen a difference in my skin. I can’t recommend them enough, they work wonderful. I wasn’t great at eating a lot of vegetables before—eating a salad takes a long time and I just don’t have the time to sit there and eat twelve ounces of greens, so almost every day I have a green smoothie and I get all my vegetables for the day. I get other vegetables throughout the day as well, but if I don’t have a chance, it falls under one smoothie. That’s my biggest trick: the green smoothie. As far as muscle loss, I’ve been going to the gym regularly for ten years, but I only started seriously strength training a few years ago and I feel amazing, I can tell the difference in my body. I don’t want to say I look younger because I don’t, but I look better than I did five years ago, even though I look five years older, so I can’t recommend strength training enough. I see a lot of women in the gym just spending all this time in the treadmill, running is good for you but only until certain point; if you want to keep your metabolism up you have to strength train and you will feel and see the difference in your body. It’s been a wonderful journey for me. I wish more women weren’t afraid to pick up heavy weights—you are not going to get big and bulky. I lift the heaviest weights I can and I got some muscle there but I’m not the Hulk or anything, so you are not going to get too big.
Understand what your features are. If you are insecure about that or you are not genuinely sure, there are makeup artists that can help you identify your best attributes, like “you have these amazing lips let’s play them up by doing this”. Most women in this age know what their gifts are, we all have times that we look in the mirror and we feel amazing. I see this more and more as we age, and I just want more women to be able to embrace what is striking, unusual, or just sexy about them. This sounds cliché but is true: Confidence is attractive, confidence is sexy, and there are no shortcuts to that. Those times that you just don’t feel it, meditation helps bringing up a sense of calm that accompanies confidence. I can’t say that it directly translates, that when I’m doing a good job at meditating every day, or as often as I can, I’m more beautiful—it doesn’t work like that. But we live incredibly stressful lives and stress does show up in our faces and our bodies, therefore doing whatever you can to find some center is very helpful. In my personal case, exercise, meditation, and recognizing my need for alone time are key. I am friendly but essentially I am very introverted and I know I need a lot of time to myself. I wish I recognized that when I was younger; I spent a lot of energy putting that outward. A lot of these things come naturally to women, as they get older.
No one is going to think that you are more beautiful than you at your best believe that you are, there is a truth to that. Of course everyone looks at us and sees something different and we have no way of controlling that, but as long as there is some part of you somewhere in there that believes that you have something special to offer, people will see and respond to that. You don’t always have to feel it, but learning how to access that can be a great gift.
I was at a baby shower a few years ago where I was one of the mother-to-be’s oldest friends, and she was the oldest of her friends. It was interesting to be there with a group of twenty-three year olds. We were talking about age and I mentioned my age—I was thirty-seven then— and these women turned around and said: “You’re thirty-seven? But you look so good!” And I was like: “Thank you!” But I don’t look any better or any younger than any of my friends who are in the same age group; we know that you have to take care of yourself. When you are young you have this notion of what being thirty-something or forty-something looks like and that’s an outdated idea. Those twenty-three-year-old will see in fifteen years, that being thirty-seven doesn’t mean that you are writing yourself off, it’s the beginning in a lot of ways.
I want those twenty-three -year-old women to be reading this. I want them to see what we have done with our lives and that there is so much to be looking forward to. That sentiment is out there and growing but you still hear women who think thirty is old…Oh Gosh, not thirty! When I was twenty-three, I couldn’t wait to be in my thirties, I was so excited to turn thirty, and whenever I hear women say the same, I smile and think: Right on!
About Autumn Whitefield-Madrano:
Author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Marie Claire, Glamour, Salon, Jezebel, The Guardian, and more. She created The Beheld, a blog examining questions behind personal appearance. Her work on the ways beauty shapes women’s lives has been covered by The New York Times and the Today show. She lives in Astoria, Queens, and will tell you her beauty secrets if you tell her yours.
Author’s Photo Credit: Siouxsie Suarez