Beth Teitell: On Not Looking Old

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Author Beth Teitell

Author Beth Teitell has decided to take on the malady that often afflicts American women: "Fear of looking our age." Teitell, who is 47 ("the youngest I'll ever be again in my life") and writes regularly for the Boston Globe, spent a year exploring the American obsession with youth — the Botox Industrial Complex — for her new book, Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth (William Morrow). TIME Reporter Andrea Sachs caught up with Teitell by phone at her home in Boston.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I guess it was personal and also societal. Personally, a trickle of insults became a flood. A skirt that had been just fine all of a sudden seemed inappropriately short. A liquor store clerk asked for ID and then laughed as if he had made a funny joke. I ran into a suspiciously fresh-faced friend and, when she confessed to Botox, I wanted to yell, "Hey, that's no fair!" Then I wanted to get some for myself. I thought I'd crossed that invisible but really visible line into middle age. And as a longtime journalist and social observer, I really felt that I needed to chronicle the experience of what it's like to be a woman aging in a culture that demands we stay forever 21. (See pictures of facial yoga.)

What kind of reporting did you do?

For a year I explored all these claims. Age is the new fat, in the way that there are things that used to say low-fat or low-calorie, which now claim to be anti-aging. You've got age-defying water. In other countries there are collagen-infused marshmallows. In Japan there's beauty ice cream. Food that used to be reviled for being fattening, like avocados, olive oil and nuts have been reborn as elixirs. Chocolate, once the poster food for appearance problems, now [claims to have] anti-aging properties. Maybe if you eat a lot of chocolate, your wrinkles will plump out.

How do you feel about plastic surgery?

I am not in any way ethically against it. [But] the more people who get plastic surgery and have injectables, basically the more who have to. The CDC has not yet used the word epidemic, but it really is like an epidemic in that it goes from one person to the next. You know, in 2007 there were 11.7 million cosmetic procedures done. That's a 457 percent increase since 1997. So if your friends or people around you are having work done and you're not, overnight it's as if you've aged ten years. If you don't do anything, you're the athlete who's playing by the rules. The others are using appearance-enhancing drugs, and you're not, and you're being penalized.

What about skin creams?

I use Retin-A right now and I do think that works. The other creams might actually reduce your wrinkles the tiniest bit because some of them make claims that they do. The problem is, nobody is examining your face as closely as you do. What I learned after a year — this is really to me the take-home message — is that there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to look younger. But the good news is that it's possible and actually relatively easy and inexpensive to appear more youthful. Is your posture good? Are you physically fit? Is your hair nicely cut and groomed? Are you wearing current clothing? Basically, you want your age to recede as an issue, not become the issue. Another thing I learned is that people are willing to forgive a lot if they like you. If you're nice to people, you look better to them. The real trick to the fountain of youth is not working on your own appearance, but actually blinding others to your flaws.

How did your husband regard your experiments?

Well, for a while we had an ongoing discussion about whether or not I was going to get Botox. He's a doctor so he's always concerned. He considers that a medical procedure; I was making the argument that something done in a mall next to a Cinnabon can't truly be dangerous. But just between the two of us, he thinks of me as a youthful person. I guess that makes me feel more youthful. I hardly ever do complain [about my age] because I think that's one of the things you should not do. But when I let down my guard and say that I do want to do something, he'll say, "But where do you need it?" I'm smart enough not to point out the exact area. (See pictures of the twentieth century's greatest romances.)

You also write about dressing age-appropriately.

One of the hardest areas for women, I think, even more challenging than finding the right face cream, is finding the right thing to wear. Once you hit a certain age, it's hard to find the garment that says, "I still care, don't count me out, but I'm not delusional." If you go too young, you look desperate. If you go too old, you go right to Queen Mum. I was in a store a while ago and I saw this really cute shirt and the young boutique owner rushed over to me and said, "That top is adorable." I said, "I know, but you don't think it's too young?" She said, "No." I said, "The sleeves aren't too short?" She said, "No, your arms are still good." I could hear the biological clock of my arms ticking.

So, after all of your research, what's your advice about dealing with aging?

Find things that you're interested in and that you enjoy. Instead of spending a lot of time looking in the mirror or having work done or recovering from having work done, instead of wasting hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars every year on creams that don't work, explore new things. Take the focus off how you look. You know what? You're never going to look 25 again. Once you accept that you're getting older, do it in a graceful way and try to look youthful. The key to that truly is being interested in what you do, happy, excited about other people, curious, and smiling even if you don't feel like it. One of the biggest complaints many women have is that once you hit a certain age, you're invisible. I find that if you just smile at people when you're talking to them, they're actually really happy to talk to you.

Read a Q&A with Charla Krupp on how not to look old.

See pictures of the world's most celebrated senior citizens.