The first time I ever felt like I was “over the hill” was on my 26th birthday.  That day I became ineligible to be Miss America, because I was too old. And that was so long ago that the pageant had not yet dropped its age limit to 24.

Truth be told, I never had the figure or the inclination to enter a beauty pageant. But there was something disconcerting in realizing that even if I did start frequenting gyms and beauty salons, I would never be “your ideal,” “the queen of feminity” or “the fairest of the fair,” as the Miss America song goes. It felt so much better to reject the pageant than it did to have the pageant reject me.

So the announcement last week that 41-year-old Jennifer Lopez had landed the cover of People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” issue was welcome news, even though this selection — like all judgments of who or what is beautiful — comes from the eye of the beholder.

A precise definition of beauty has eluded humankind for centuries. John Keats boiled it down to “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Pre-Raphaelite painters had a certain vision of beauty; Hollywood plastic surgeons have quite another. National Geographic tried to tackle the subject in an article titled “The Enigma of Beauty,” and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is focusing on “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900” in an exhibition that runs through July 17.

But when it comes to women, society’s definition of beauty has been closely linked to youth. Just look at fashion runways, where teenage models too young to enter the Miss America pageant display clothing meant for women who are too old to be Miss America.

In the 1980s, a 41-year-old woman never would have been dubbed “most beautiful” and would hardly have been considered capable of being a TV personality. In 1983, Christine Craft sued a Kansas City television station, contending that she had been removed from her news anchor job because her bosses decided she was not attractive enough or deferential enough to her male co-anchor. She was 38 years old. Certainly it would have been unthinkable back then that 65-year-old Diane Sawyer could anchor ABC World News.

While there have been plenty of advances in this area, some women still face the tyranny of advancing years.  In 2008, three Kansas City newscasters over age 45 sued their TV station – the same station that Christine Craft sued — claiming age discrimination. “Even unaffected newsroom employees have commented about the publicly humiliating and degrading treatment of women over 40,” the lawsuit said. The case was settled out of court last September.

Although age remains a factor for many women, Jennifer Lopez represents a significant milestone. “I feel happy and proud,” she said. “Proud that I’m not 25!”


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  • lara h August 20, 2011 at 2:18 am

    this would be a really nice story if you had paid more attention to the magazine cover photo itself. photoshop work has changed the shape of ms. lopez’ face and eliminated the wrinkles that the great lighting didn’t eradicate in the first place. i am reminded of the old saying “if all the world’s a stage, i want better lighting.” this is not a true representation of a woman of 41. i looked good, heck, great at 41 – but i didn’t look this “perfect.”

  • Robyn Gianotti April 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Another great read! I am really a Carla fan, for sure! Shared with all my girls!!!

  • Joan Soncini April 20, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Bravissima, Carol, the previous commentor. As a psychotherapist, I wish everyone could have your power and values, however, often that is not the case. Women, as well as men, but we are talking about us-women-often don’t have the ego strengths to value themselves over many dimensions. Looks, the size of their hips, lips, boobs (good grief), the color of their eyes, whatever they see is a “fault”, like, hey, age, can make a woman feel less. We need to find our values in many places! To define ourselves by our own factors, many of which are invisible!

  • carol machulski April 20, 2011 at 10:10 am

    I agree with most of what Ms. Baranaukas wrote, but while considering myself to be average in looks I have dabbled in situations for which I don’t fit the visual norm. I won’t restrict myself to someone else’s definition.

  • Joan Soncini April 20, 2011 at 8:49 am

    What a wonderful, meaningful article!

  • Kim Stanley April 19, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Nice article, Carla! I won’t be surprised 10 years from now if a 50 year old beauty gets the prize – laugh lines are the best!

  • ChrisnSheila Gredzinski April 19, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I can’t think of anyone being beautiful knowing they care nothing about animal life. there is something very ugly in a human who can cover her body with fur knowing how horribly that animal has died. I’m sorry, but beauty comes from the heart.

  • jina April 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Of course, her image is completely manipulated to make her look not a day over 30. The rest of us can’t airbrush ourselves before job interviews. Celebrating too soon?

  • Libra Zebra April 19, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Lauren Hutton, now 67, is featured in a current print ad campaign. Can’t remember the product, but she looks great, very elegant. And she’s not PhotoShopped to look 45, either.

  • rozwarren April 19, 2011 at 8:56 am

    You’re right — this is something we can all feel good about. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the day when People celebrates a woman in her 50s as the world’s most beautiful woman. (But I won’t hold my breath…)

  • DMo April 19, 2011 at 8:36 am

    So the media is finally catching up to what the rest of us already knew-it gets better with age!