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What It Means to Age Gracefully (It’s About More Than Appearance)

By Jason Freely / a couple of weeks ago
What It Means to Age Gracefully (It’s About More Than Appearance)
Photo of Khamisa Wilsher by Mariah Millie Photography, via Huha Inc. on Unsplash

The other day, I went to get my first HydraFacial. It has been my biggest anti-aging flex yet. I’d tried a few facials here and there, but nothing to this dedicated enchantress extreme. Everything was fancy, from the machines and display cases to the LED blue-lit bed. I lay for thirty minutes while a delightful esthetician took (what felt like) a squeegee to my face. And I walked out looking like someone had painted moon juice on it. That HydraFacial did a NUMBER on my skin. I was glowing, leaving behind a vile full of my liquidy face-dirt in my fancy wake. Aww yes, instant gratification. 

I mean, to put it lightly—the HydraFacial felt wonderful. It was good for my health, too. Before the doctor got started with the procedure, she rolled out my lymph nodes with, what I assumed to be, a tiny foam roller (I was wrong) to give my lymphatic system a boost. The science of the whole thing was incredibly intricate and something I didn’t previously know anything about. However, something I do know is that I’m not here to write about the HydraFacial phenomenon. I’m here because not everyone is going to spend $250 on a beauty treatment that lasts as long as a Friends episode (without commercials). Short note before getting to the real point though: I realize spending money on self-care is a privilege of mine and I don’t want to diminish the significance of that here.

Because that’s just the thing. Aging gracefully doesn’t rely on expensive beauty rituals alone. Aging gracefully is not a foam roller to the face. It’s not a chin carpet cleaning service. And aging well isn’t science. Aging with grace is so much more about inner work than that.

Aging gracefully doesn’t rely on expensive beauty rituals alone. Aging gracefully is not a foam roller to the face. It’s not a chin carpet cleaning service. And aging well isn’t science. Aging with grace is so much more about inner work than that.

In fact, oftentimes, women are sold the idea of self-care. We know aging with poise is so much more than buying $200 Lululemons to embarrass yourself in barre class or fighting through another chopped salad at brunch when all you want is a pile of french toast. Anti-aging practices and physical self-care can be a balm to our psyches, something to hold the dam we feel breaking of our youth. As women, the things we love get used against us.

Jia Tolentino writes about this in her book, Trick Mirror, in an incredible essay called “Always Be Optimizing.” She writes, “When you’re a woman, the things you like get used against you. Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like.” There’s an undeniable pressure that the things we should be chasing to age gracefully and be graceful are things we should spend a lot of money on; there’s pressure that we find innate pleasure in looking good. 

So, what does aging gracefully and feeling good really mean? Tolentino’s essay supports my belief that aging gracefully shouldn’t be a part of any agenda on women to meet a perfected beauty standard. Real beauty is what makes us feel comfortable and safe, not a failure of self. Aging gracefully has the same pleasure-mantra.

We can learn so much about what it means to age gracefully from other cultures. We can learn from our mothers. We can learn from our mother’s best friends. We can learn from history.

Let’s look at what it means to age gracefully in our world.

1. You love your age like it depends on you. You don’t love it because it defines you.

One of my mother’s dearest friends, who’s seventy, looks like she’s fifty. I’ve known her all my life and I’m stunned by her aging process simply because it’s different. It’s unearthing and celebratory. She talks openly about her relationships and tells raunchy jokes. She travels like she’s twenty-five and has no money—across the world and with relentless grit. It’s not inappropriate, just striking.

Being ourselves, silk tossed to the wind, should be effortless no matter our age. And she makes it that way. She’s cumbersome in a really beautiful way. And when you’re in her presence, you can’t seem to have all of her. Because there’s only so much she allows her age to define her by. 

2. You seek out the naturalness in our world when deeply in need, like community gardens and open water and connection with your inner self. 

Aging gracefully is all about shaping time the way it serves you. You actively seek out what slows the clock down and dig your hands into the guts of the Earth and a centered breath. Finding the Earth in its solidarity reminds us where we came from and where we’ll go. Searching for naturalness and openness deep inside of ourselves gives us repose and energy to do quality growing.

Aging gracefully is all about shaping time the way it serves you. You actively seek out what slows the clock down and dig your hands into the guts of the Earth and a centered breath.

Holistic practices have been widely used in Black culture for hundreds of years. The practice of yoga, which originated in India long before it was widely commodified, has historically been used by Black women as a tool for healing, as described in this article from Well and Good. In the article, author Yannise Jean notes that Angela Davis practiced yoga, before it was a multi-million dollar business, in her jail cell during the 1970s. After being in solitary confinement for several weeks, Davis practiced yoga to keep her sanity in check. This sense of searching can be very simple and is a huge part of sourcing beauty in age. And yet another reminder of how much we can learn from Angela Davis.

3. You know aging is always self-evolving. But every day, all we have is one moment. We must know how to bend with the wind and each second.

I read a really wonderful poem by Rumi recently about being present in mind and body (please buy his book, A Year with Rumi, preferably at a Black-owned bookstore like this Florida-based indie spot). The poem starts describing what loving peace feels like, “Because I love this, I am never bored. Beauty constantly wells up like the noise of spring water in my ear. Tree limbs rise and fall like ecstatic arms. Leaf sounds talk together like poets making fresh metaphors.” It ends beautifully, reminding us how we must be a deepened part of the now. “This now is it. Your deepest need and desire is satisfied by this moment’s energy here in your hand.”

This now is it. This now is it. This now is it. God, I love that.

4. You find the truest details of life in the wrinkles.

I’m reading L.A. Women by the ever lovely Eve Babitz. During a scene in the book between two Hollywood-thirsty stars, they talk to each other about the negative implications of reading books. One says, “Why should I be expected to do anything? Learn things? Read! . . . Details give women wrinkles. I’m over fifty and I don’t have one line on my face. Details! Like good and bad!”

Details! They give us wrinkles. Which could be the most beautiful thing I’ve heard. Why iron ourselves out like perfected bedsheets? Details are like the crease marking after you dog-ear a page in a book you never want to forget. Details are the parts of us we want to remember; proof of things we’ve learned. Why wouldn’t we want that map on our skin?

Details are like the crease marking after you dog-ear a page in a book you never want to forget. Details are the parts of us we want to remember; proof of things we’ve learned. Why wouldn’t we want that map on our skin?

My mother originally inspired this one. I asked her what it meant for her to age gracefully. And she said, “Aging gracefully is embracing every wrinkle because it means you’ve lived. Your face ends up being the story of your life. Embrace the person you’ve become with all the bumps and bruises.”

5. You live against what it means to optimize. 

Aging gracefully means doing so how you want to do so, not how the world sees it so. We are always trying to figure out how to “get better” and live our lives under the pressure cooker that is capitalism. It’s exhausting and makes aging feel like a taboo, as if we’re swimming against a current inevitable to us—and we should just give the hell in. Jia Tolentino said it best in her book, Trick Mirror. “It is very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimacy for a long time.”

Because of this, aging gracefully doesn’t mean we have to look exquisitely happy and carefree. Aging gracefully means we can be flawed, ruthless, and hellbent at times. Aging gracefully means we don’t have to optimize; we don’t have to make the best of anything. The women who are open to bending the way we see beauty and ourselves—that’s the most stunning truth about age. We see what’s real.

6. You understand that aging gracefully isn’t about self-preservation. It’s about walking with others and caring for the oppressed. 

Truly aging gracefully is collective. It’s a community effort. Taking care of others makes us truly beautiful, starting from the inside. We allow other cultures to teach us and we listen to them. So we should hold them and help when they need it most. When you volunteer, give communities money—you don’t want to turn it into a self-fulfilling process, but it will feed you as well. That’s what walking alongside each other does.

Truly aging gracefully is collective. It’s a community effort. Taking care of others makes us truly beautiful, starting from the inside. . . Aging gracefully is centered in being human. Pain and beauty and all.

Pick up the slack when others need it. Amplify unheard voices. Stand up for others. Be kind. Apologize for being unkind. Aging gracefully is centered in being human. Pain and beauty and all.

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