On Monday (July 23) Americans will celebrate Gorgeous Grandma Day – at least those who are familiar with the holiday. I knew nothing about GG Day until my oldest granddaughter Natalie ran across it while doing some online sleuthing a couple of months ago. The celebration of older women’s beauty is a heartening concept, in light of the mistaken yet tenacious belief that age and beauty are mutually exclusive. However, in places where elders are revered, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. And the Japanese have a term (shibui) for a particular kind of natural and unobtrusive beauty that deepens with age.
Unlike flawless or flashy beauty that draws attention to itself, shibui is characterized by beautiful imperfection, effortlessness, elegant simplicity, and understatement. It is apparent in weathered wood and stones, simple handmade pottery, the bark and bend of ancient trees, and in the faces of many elders.
The British film Calendar Girls presents a refreshingly affirming view of older women’s beauty, inspired by the statement of one of the characters, a man in midlife: “The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire—the last stage of their growth is the most glorious.” Rather than worrying about “losing our looks” as we age, we can broaden our definition of beauty and perhaps even celebrate some of the changes, like Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers: “I wish all my peers could enjoy their wrinkles as much as I enjoy mine. I regard them as badges of distinction that I have worked hard for.”
William Shakespeare observed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and we can learn to recognize and appreciate shibui. The fresh beauty of youth is a delight and is easy to appreciate. But the fine lines at the corners of older eyes and those that reflect decades of laughter (and even distress) reveal a person’s character and life story, adding texture and richness that are also beautiful.
The kind of beauty that comes with age shines from the inside out, and the winter of life offers some of the most potent beauty secrets available: growing self-acceptance, a deepening sense of connectedness with all of life (gero-transcendence), humor and gratitude (dimensions of late-life contentment), playful engagement (emancipated innocence), increasing kindness and compassion toward self and others, savoring small pleasures and living one’s genuine priorities (late-life paring down and selectivity), and making peace with ourselves and the life we have lived through a process called the life review. These trends and tasks of later life may not preserve youthful prettiness, but they do radiate beauty.
Our attitudes toward aging are also a major factor in how well (and how beautifully) we age. In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. He observes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”
An optimistic outlook—about aging in particular and about life in general—is also essential for radiance in later life. Negative attitudes toward growing old are easily and often unconsciously absorbed, and they restrict our sense of what is possible. On the other hand, the combination of affirming our age, realistically facing limits, and remaining focused on what is now possible, engenders vitality.
In Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer Connie Goldman and Richard Mahler observe, “The sensation of being fully alive, spirited, and aware in later life is not a function of being young in the chronological sense. . . . The secret of remaining truly youthful means tapping into . . . the winning combination of a fresh, optimistic outlook with the kind of wisdom and self-knowledge that comes with each passing day. . . . An attitude that accepts change and encourages growth can be a guiding force in remaining healthy, upbeat, and invigorated, whatever the date on your birth certificate.”
Openness and optimism enhance our lives as we age, and they create a beautiful radiance. As Richard Rohr suggests in Falling Upward, “Just watch true elders sitting in any circle of conversation . . . This is human life in its crowning . . . All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that he or she is surely the goal of humanity.”