Evolutionary Psychology, Aging, Beauty, and the Baby Dreams

When I was 19, I started having recurring baby dreams. The typical plot was something like this: I’d be at an important event and would look in my purse, finding a thumb-sized baby. I’d close the purse and then feel guilty about doing so, and would open up the purse and I’d realize I’d lost the baby the way you might lose a pack of chewing gum. Sometimes the baby would reemerge at my feet, throwing tiny knives at my ankles, but more often than not I’d just have lost the baby.

It makes sense that my body might have been sending me some primordial signals around that time: At 19, I was at the dawn of my most fertile years, and indeed the dreams continued for a couple of years, dwindling around 21. But let’s also pay attention to the content of those dreams: The tiny babies found their way into my possession through no will of my own, and then they kept getting lost, and occasionally attempted to harm me. Which is to say: My body may have been wanting to play house, but the rest of me in no way wanted a child.

This struggle between biological destiny and human will illustrates one of the greater flaws of evolutionary psychology as applied to beauty. The idea behind the evo-psych line of thinking is that we apply cosmetics to highlight or mimic the traits a woman has at her most fertile: We use skin creams to appear youthful, blush to capture the “rosy glow” of youth, and so on. And as I’ve said before, I don’t entirely discount evolutionary psychology. But it’s only one part of the beauty equation. Human will is a crucial element of what we find attractive; the ability to go beyond the basics of what’s required for our species’ survival is part of what makes us human. (Do we truly think that we as a species can invent karaoke but are limited to having sexual impulses toward people who look like they’re 19?) The reason anyone lusted after Mrs. Robinson wasn’t that she looked 19; it was that she didn’t.

There’s a picture somewhere out there of me at age 20, getting ready to go out with a bunch of friends. One of us was wearing a high-low combination of a sequined dress and flat leather sandals. I was wearing a velour T-shirt, velvet heels, and hot pants over black control top pantyhose, and only in looking at the photo did I realize that the “control top” was below the hem of the shorts. My friend who looked classiest of all of us—truly—was wearing jeans and a bra with an open white button-down tied between her breasts, exposing her midriff. When I looked at the picture only a few years later, I couldn’t believe how ridiculous we looked: We were all reasonably good-looking girls, and we had no clue how to act sexy. Whatever sexiness we had came from being 20 and daring and able to stay up all night with no consequence and just being young and in love with independence, life, ourselves, each other. Our appeal didn’t come from culture or comportment, and it certainly didn’t come from styling.

Today, I’m still not the most cultured creature alive, and the only reason anyone would think I have style is because I’ve learned how to fake it on occasion. But it took me years to learn that: How to figure out not only what pieces emphasized my best features, but what my best features even were. How to maximize my beauty labor to get the most bang for the buck. How to find a balance between Clothes That Are "Flattering" and Clothes That I Can Breathe In; how to detect when a situation is worth your effort, and when it isn’t. Part of this was becoming more skilled in artifice—including the sort of artifice that makes us seem younger, livelier, and, yes, more fertile. (And certainly there are plenty of young women who know how to present themselves well—I don't mean to imply that people under a certain age are bedraggled kittens.) But also allow me to mention the obvious: Like most people, I am more cultured, more informed, less self-absorbed, more seasoned, and a better conversationalist than I was when my fertility was at its peak—and therefore, by evo-psych standards, when I was most attractive. All of these things come together to make me more attractive than I was back then, and today when I see my college friends, I see this truth multiplied. I am more attractive at 35 than I was at 20 not because I’m mimicking youth, but because I’ve grown into myself in a way I couldn’t have in that youth.

I’m not denying that there’s a unique, intangible charm to women—and men—at 20. I see the dewiness, I see the zest, I see the shiny enthusiasm that seems to come naturally, and there’s no doubt it’s attractive. And as I write this, I can feel that my facial skin is no longer as soft as it was 10 years ago. I see stretch marks that weren’t there before, and not long ago I was vexed by a stray hair laying across my forehead that wouldn’t budge—only to find that it was a wrinkle. Cynics might tell me I am writing this post mainly to feel better about myself—and hell, maybe they’re right.

Yet when I look at that photo of myself, beaming but trembling in velvet high heels and a pair of hot pants, I am so relieved not to be her anymore. I wasn’t unhappy at 20, or unattractive. There’s an attractiveness I had then that I’ll never have again. And there’s an attractiveness I have now that I definitely didn’t have then. Evo-psych still has a role here too, I think: Consider the instinctual repulsion we feel when we see an older person who takes drastic measure to look young. I’m not talking skin cream; I’m talking injectables and rearranging—the sort of thing that makes us ridicule older women for trying to look young. From a feminist standpoint, we can say we recoil from that look because women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But knowing the shudder I personally feel when I’m on certain stretches of the Upper East Side, I think it’s more because that rejection of the natural order of things—preserving youth at all costs—feels far more unnatural to me than the God-given attractiveness of a woman past her childbearing years who has aged, as they say, gracefully.

When I turned 30, I wrote a letter to a friend of mine who was in her late 40s. I told her of my excitement for the upcoming decade: I’d left a bad relationship, was excelling at my job, had a tight circle of friends, and looked better than I ever had. I was more verbose than that, but the point was, Man, my thirties are going to be the best. Which made her response, presented here in its entirety, all the more delicious: “Happy birthday! Thirties are good...forties are even better. You’ll see.”


This post is a part of the monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup. This month’s prompt: youth and aging. To read other FFB posts on the prompt, click here.