A few weeks ago, I turned forty-three. I felt fairly good about die occasion, but a few of my female friends almost apologized when they offered their good wishes. l know you don’t want to be reminded,” they said, “but … Happy Birthday.”
Perhaps I’m not exactly the “average” forty-three-year-old woman. I have lived much of my life abroad – in Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America – and spent most of the last decade in Japan, writing a newspaper column on beauty and observing the habits and rituals of the women around me. Many times during my travels I have wondered why we American women are so afraid of aging. Why are so many of us willing to exchange the richness of a face that has lived for the inexperience of youth?
Fortunately, some of the older women whom I have come to know m far-flung places have taught me to look at my own aging in a completely different, and very un-American, way. Expressed in their different languages and rituals is this essential truth: Beauty is within. And far more than age itself, it is the sadness, the regret, the envy of those who are younger, that undermines it.
We can learn a lot from our sisters around the globe. While I have seen women in other cultures take care themselves in much the same way as we do here (they apply creams to their faces, massage oils and tonics into their hair, engage m varied and often elaborate beauty routines), they have a more meaningful reason for self-care. Using pure and natural ingredients and simple, empowering rituals, die women in traditional cultures whom I have known cultivate their beauty as they cultivate other aspects of their overall well-being-out of self-love and acceptance, not out of despair at the first signs of age.
Of course, physical and cultural differences limit the applicability of one woman’s advice to another. As much as I may admire an African woman’s hair or physique, her genetic makeup and lifestyle are a world apart from my own. And much as I may envy an Indian woman’s complexion, I can’t duplicate her genes either But we can trade the wisdom of these women concerning healthy self-care and adapt their practices for fostering lifelong vitality and good looks. After all, it is true that a traditional Japanese woman can thank her genes and the moist, skin-loving environment in which she lives for much of her beauty. But she also owes a lot to the fact that she washes her face with rice bran, eats a diet rich in whole grains and sea vegetables, indulges in daily exercise and massage, and never, ever sits in the sun.
Glowing from the Inside Out
Confidence counts enormously in beauty, no matter what the culture or the age. We all know women who may not meet die textbook definition of “beautiful” but who are captivating nonetheless.
It is a chronic ailment in Western culture that women of all ages seek to eradicate flaws, whether its extra weight, a distinctive nose, hair that’s limp, or a face that’s lined. At younger and younger ages, girls in the United States begin purchasing makeup, dieting and exercising for purely cosmetic reasons. And in increasing numbers, both women and men in their forties-and in their thirties and even twenties – seek plastic surgery to correct “imperfections.” Instead of this negative approach, we would do better to focus on our inner being and its outward expression.
A presence that conveys inner harmony through grace of bearing and movement, as well as elegance and self-awareness, erect posture, self-composure, and a direct and honest gaze – such are the attributes of beauty that endure and deepen with age. These are the traits we so often admire in others and, in our quick-fix culture, have such trouble cultivating in ourselves. Add to these attributes a genuine warmth toward others, enthusiasm for life, curiosity, quickness to laughter, and a sense of well-being – what my French friends call etre bien dans sa peau – and you see what I mean.
In order to be as lovely as we can possibly be, women in traditional cultures teach us, we must first develop clear sight. See yourself truly, accept those aspects of yourself that some might call flaws (individuality!) or those new elements in your appearance that have arrived with age. Accept these things and celebrate them, along with the elements you find it easier to appreciate. This type of self-reconciliation may be difficult, especially if you’ve been at odds with your self-image for years, but once you’ve made it, you can allow your true beauty to blossom. As a Japanese grandmother once told me, “A beautiful old woman is old woman is beautiful because her mind and spirit are wise and graceful.” Freeing yourself to be real is to release your own essence.
One component of growing older that’s particularly hard for most of us is gaining weight. The French have a quaint saying, “After the age of forty, one must choose between the face and the derriere.” A woman who starves herself to keep the slim contours of her youth will almost certainly sacrifice a certain facial fraicheur the little layer of fat that gives rounded cheeks rather than gaunt hollows, that smoothest wrinkles and gives pleasing plumpness to lips. The additional weight that may come with age need not be seen as a hindrance. In contrast an underfed, overaerobicized silhouette, I offer the image of a woman who is truly at home in her body I have never seen anyone more dignified than the older women of traditional African societies, who carry their weight with such proud aplomb that they look like royalty.
To age gracefully, you must be able to grow up. The Zen teachings of nonresistance apply here. We must learn to let go of the past, to rediscover ourselves anew as we move through life. In Japan, there is a wise admonition: “Do not envy the fresh blossoms of youth. Accept yourself as you are. Jealousy, worry, and negative feelings will destroy your beauty far more than the natural wrinkles of age.” Another thing my Japanese friends say is this: “At forty, your life shows on your face.” If one has lived a life of wisdom and grace the small lines around mouth and eyes will reveal it. And if one his lived a life of bitterness and regret, this too will be seen.
Beauty Is Health in Motion
While the origin of beauty is on the inside, the outer self must also be cared for with dedication. Naturally, we must pay attention to-diet, exercise, and a maintenance regimen for skin, hair and body. For this, we can learn from traditional Japanese women Stay out of the sun, remove toxins like alcohol and tobacco from your life, sleep well and regularly, indulge in fresh air activities, cat a diet rich in whole foods, and know how to relax.
Women in Japan have also taught me the importance of appreciating yourself regularly, because it is only with such intimate knowledge that you can work effectively on the art of presentation. Every now and then, take stock of yourself. Notice changing hair color and texture, skin tones, facial volumes, silhouette. Realize that as these elements change, your approach to skin care may require adjustment. Drier skin is typical of women over forty. Also, the way you cut and style your hair might need rethinking.
To be beautiful, every woman must liberate herself from the past, from her former self, in order to prepare for the new. The women of traditional cultures think of the process of aging as a ritual “becoming,” a festive transition. They know that beauty lies within, and this knowledge has put them at peace with themselves – both inside and out. The process of growing older commitment to becoming – and also remaining – at peace. To live is to continuously reborn, each time evolution into a wiser, truer, lovelier self.
Perhaps most important, however, is the message behind this self-care: Sensual, sybaritic beauty rituals send a clear signal to both body and spirit of attention and love. Traditional Asian teaching stress the importance of taking time to pamper yourself. Consider this saying, which dates to tenth-century Japan: “To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put scented robes … Even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.” Give this gift to yourself and celebrate the results.
FIVE WAYS TO SMOOTH THE SUN’S DAMAGE
Ninety percent of the effects of aging (wrinkles, dryness, blotchiness, freckles and “old age spots,” plus loss of elasticity and skin tone) can be linked to sun exposure – and can be prevented, or at least offset, by a smart sun policy.
To keep your skin looking youthful, do what the traditional Japanese do: Stay out of the sun. When you do go outdoors, wear a broad-brimmed hat and the ’90s equivalent of a sheltered life: a high SPF, full-spectrum natural sunblock, which will protect you from both UVA and UVB radiation. The sun’s aging rays will find you anywhere – on city streets as well as on the beach – so wear sunscreen every day. If your face and body already show the evidence of years of sun exposure, don’t despair. Sun damage is cumulative, so any effort you make today to prevent additional damage will help your skin in the years to come. Focus on maintaining as much of your skin’s youthful texture and moisture as you can.
Chinese women teach us that a compress made from chopped fresh sorrel leaves, left on the skin for fifteen minutes at a time and repeated every two or three days, will fade freckles and other sun-induced spots. Just wash a bunch of fresh sorrel leaves, slice them into thin strips and arrange on a sheet of gauze; fold the gauze to make a compress, put in on the freckled area, and relax. You can apply the compress once very few days until the freckles have faded. Other cultures recommend compresses using lemon juice or, for more sensitive skin, buttermilk.
You all can try a once-a-week mask made with honey and red wine, and ancient Roman remedy for wrinkled, older skin; the wine contains a natural acid that can smooth superficial lines. Mix a tablespoon of red wine with two tablespoon of honey. Smooth it onto your face and allow it to dry, then rinse. Be sure to follow up with moisturizer – try traditional antiaging emollients like jojoba, cocoa butter, olive oil, and aloe vera.
FOUR SKIN TONICS FOR INNER AND OUTER BEAUTY
Many traditional beauty remedies can do double duty, functioning as both foods and beauty treatments.
Take green tea, for example. Japanese women – and men – drink green tea around the clock. A powerful antioxidant, green tea purifies the system and helps combat the aging influences of a polluted environment, a less-than-perfect diet, and stress. Cooled green tea can also be applied directly to the skin. Just boil twelve ounces of water with a teaspoon or two of loose green tea (or one tea bag), let the tea steep for several minutes, and then cool it and apply it your your skin with a cotton ball.
Japanese women also drink tea made from seaweed, which is said to beautify aging hair and restore its color and shine from the inside out. Simply boil a strip of dried kombu seaweed (available in Japanese groceries) in two cups of water for ten minutes, then strain, or mix a teaspoon of dried kombu with a cup of boiling water. You also can use the seaweed as a shampoo: Just mix a teaspoon of dried, powdered kombu with three-quarter cup warm water and massage it into your hair. Rinse well. To revitalize and detoxify their skin, Japanese women also use seaweed as a scrub. Rehydrate a few strips of dried seaweed – any variety will do – by soaking it in tepid water for twenty minutes (be sure to rinse the seaweed well to remove any salt). Rub it over you face with a washcloth or your fingers for a few minutes, the splash your face with cool water. For a more intensive, once-a-week treatment, apply several strips of rinsed, fresh or rehydrated wakame seaweed to your face; relax for twenty to thirty minutes, the rinse.
SIX SKIN SAVERS: SCRUBS, SMOOTHERS, AND STEAMS
Women in Japan have relied for centuries on pure, natural grains – tied up into a small silk bag and used as a facial scrub – to keep their skin luminous. Powdered rice bran offers nourishing and soothing natural oils; a azuki beans, ground to a powder and mixed with an equal amount of ground roasted pearl barley, can be substituted if your skin is blotchy or freckled. Fill a silk bag (you can easily make these bags at home) tightly with a powder and soak it for a few minutes in warm water; it’s ready when you can squeeze out a milky liquid. Gently rub the bag against your face for a minute or two, then rinse. (If you’d rather, simply mix a bit of powdered rice bran with some warm water in the palm of your hand, rub it over your face with your fingertips, and then rinse.) You can use the gag for two or three washings – hang it up to dry between uses. After three washings, discard the powder, wash the bag thoroughly, and allow it to dry before refilling it.
Many Japanese women also rely on another traditional beauty ritual – a nightly facial cleansing using fragrant camellia oil. This remedy translates beautifully into our modern times, as it makes an effective makeup remover. Using light strokes, gently rub about a teaspoon of camellia oil into your skin, then remove it with a tissue before washing your face as usual.
In India, women keep their complexions glowing with rose water, sprayed lightly on the face and allowed to dry, followed with a bit of ghee, or clarified butter, which moisturizes and protects the skin (this treatment works especially well for an older or dry complexion). Many Indian women also rely on herbal steams to remove impurities, increase circulation, soothe and heal the skin, and impart aromatherapeutic benefits. Bring to a boil two pints of spring water and add a few handfuls of mixed dried herbs (pick a few of the following, all of which condition older skin and, when combined, offer the subtle, intriguing aromas of India: bay leaf, licorice, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, fennel, ginger, mint, nettle, orange peel, or pine). Remove from heat, cover, and allow the herbs to steep for a few minutes, then add ten drops of rosemary or sage essential oil. Drape a towel over your head and sit with your face twelve to eighteen inches above the pot, allowing the steam to gently bathe your face for five to ten minutes. You can follow your steam with a facial pack, made with equal amounts of mashed fresh apples, avocados, and grapes (mix in a teaspoon of fruit pectin, agar, or oat flour to form a paste). Smooth it on your skin, relax for up to twenty minutes, the remove the paste with cool water and a cotton facecloth. Treat yourself to a steam and facial pack every other week.
INDIA’S THREE KEYS TO BEAUTY
According to the five-thousand-year-old Indian science of ayurveda, true beauty is not a stand-along attribute. Instead, it rests on three “pillars”: outer beauty incorporates the appearance of skin, hair, nails, and teeth; inner beauty is the clarity of mind that creates personal confidence; and lasting beauty involves the ability to look beautiful throughout life – and even to look younger than one’s years.
An Ayurvedic daily oil massage keeps both skin and spirits pampered. Simply rub yourself from head to toe with sesame oils and leave it on your skin for fifteen minutes before showering. The oil’s rich emollient and anti-inflammatory properties will make your skin glow, and the self-pampering rituals will leave you calm and centered. Follow with a steam bath that incorporates revitalizing bay, eucalyptus, and ginger; add a handful of dried herbs to you tub and soak for twenty minutes. Rinse in a warm shower and finish with a blast of cool water.
Ayurveda also teaches you to pay special attention to your hands and feet, which can make your whole body feel wonderful, says Melanie Sachs, author of Ayurvedic Beauty Care. Treat your hands to a soothing massage with this potent moisturizing cream: Mix together three parts lanolin, six parts sesame oil, and one part ghee, or clarified butter. If your hands are chapped, add a few drops of chamomile essential oil. To take care of your feet, try a sandalwood foot soak, a traditional prescription for inner calm and outer beauty, and one that’s especially good in the spring and summer for hot, puffy feet. Add a handful of fragrant sandalwood powder to a basin of cool water and soak your feet in it for fifteen minutes (bathing your hands can also be very refreshing).