ome days I can’t tell if I’m conceited or insecure. This thought passes through me on a Saturday afternoon. My partner and I are sitting at an outdoor cafe on Grove street, people-watching in shared silence. It’s June and, as the clock strikes 6 p.m., the cobblestones catch the sunlight and, for a split second, the city sits still. I, however, do not. I fiddle with the neckline of my sweater, cursing myself for picking weather-inappropriate attire. I’m distracted by my bleached-blonde hair, weeks away from a touch-up, gathering at my shoulders like a bale of hay. I run my fingers through the ends and cringe.
I divert my attention, fixating instead on a woman reading at a neighboring table. French, I think. Mid-twenties. Her hair is tousled, but knotty. She probably cut it herself with her kitchen scissors. She is aggressively natural, and yet I struggle to believe that such beauty can simply occur, all on its own. How hard would I have to try to look that effortless? She puts down her book and heads to the restroom. Curious, I lean over to peek at its title. Influencer, it reads. Building Your Personal Brand in the Age Of Social Media. She returns to her seat and we lock eyes momentarily. Upon second glance, we look more alike than I realized.
I’ve come to accept my vanity as part of me. On some days, like when I spend the better part of golden hour analyzing a French girl’s ponytail, I’ll admit it takes the wheel. But there’s so much more that drives me, like empathy, ambition, compassion. Can I actively choose to let those guide me instead? In search of answers, I spoke to three older women—Joan, Jamie, and Geri—about their outlooks on appearance, beauty, and aging. Each of their perspectives reminded me that the qualities of one’s personhood are not mutually exclusive, and they all make us who we are.
Joan, 87, lives in a retirement community in New Jersey, and has never once cared about her appearance.
On Growing Up and Settling Down
I was born on May 22, 1932, in the Bronx. My grandmother was Native American, going back many years. She had dark skin and high cheekbones. She had so much grace. The day she passed, my husband Joe just knew. I never called, but he knew.
I had five sisters and three brothers. We used to play stickball by cutting a broom in half. Nobody bothered us, we all got along. Then World War II came and all my brothers left home. They got back safe, but my brother Edmond was held prisoner for a year. His plane was shot down. I used to pray for him every time I came home from school. Every day I’d think, Who are we going to pray for today?
I met Joe at a wedding. And after we’d been going out for over a year, he said, “I think I’d like for us to get engaged.” But at the time I didn’t think we were serious, so I said, “Uh, I don’t know yet.” He waited until I was ready, then we went to an Italian couple who were jewelers and picked out the stone. We planned our wedding for over a year. I picked the date—May 22.
Joe decided to work for the city of New York—the sanitation department. He was an engineer, so there was no reason for me to work. We had two kids, and they were going to school. We knew the people next door and had a block party every once in a while.As we got older, though, I thought we ought to make a move. That’s when I heard about New Jersey, 28 years ago. So we had a nice house there, with a big garage and kitchen. Everyone was friendly. But after a while it became too much too. So, we moved to this retirement community. We’ve been here four years now.
I never thought about my appearance when I was younger. I wore very little makeup. When I got married, my family forced me to wear makeup. My sister was my maid of honor and she had to hold me down because I didn’t want to put eyeshadow on. I couldn’t stand it, I wanted to take it off right there and then. I’ll wear lipstick now, but that’s it—nothing on my eyes. I wouldn’t know what to do with it! I have to wear sunscreen because I’m fair, but I never thought about my skin. I didn’t really care for fashion, either. I like comfortable clothes. Heels, sure—but not high ones. I’m afraid I’d fall over.
There’s a group of 10 of us New Yorkers, and we’ll have parties. We sit at a table and talk about this or that, and I’ll get dressed up. I’ll put on a pair of dressy flats that are comfortable. I’ll wear a nice blouse, a pair of slacks. I have outfits that match together. I have these white slacks, but I’m afraid to wear them when I’m drinking, because all you need is a glass of wine on your white slacks! I also have a watch that I’ve had a long time. My husband gave it to me as a surprise, I didn’t even have to ask for it. No diamonds—I’m not a diamonds person. I have a son and grandson who are jewelers, but I’m not a jewelry person. I’ll wear it when something special is going on. People will say, “Gee Joan, you never wore that before.”
I don’t waste time worrying about my wrinkles. I just think, “Well, thank God I’m still here.” I know my personality is the same. I was never really vain, but I had a sister or two that was like that. My Joe isn’t like that, either. He was a professional clown. He used to dress up and go to hospitals. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We just like to make people laugh.
I am always happy with what I have. I make the best of every situation. I didn’t spend a lot of time over the years thinking about my appearance because I was thinking about my children. I believe it’s not about looks—it’s personality, the way you feel, how you treat people. You’ve got to be a happy person.
And I have my Joe. 65 years, I’m married! He still tells me I’m beautiful.
Geri, 61, is a brand consultant and creative living in Philadelphia, and has always cared about her appearance.
On Finding Her Place
I grew up in Baltimore. I never felt it fit me, so at 18, I left for school and never came back. I wanted to find where I was supposed to be.
When I moved to New York, it awakened something in me. Everybody is outwardly exhibiting part of themselves there—the way they dress, how they carry themselves. It’s a city that’s aware of more than just the internal. I’ve always had a sense of my surroundings. The first thing I notice about people is the way they orchestrate themselves—not just what they say and do, but what choices they make, from haircut to makeup. That always gives me an idea of who they are. It’s a cheatsheet. Now, that’s not true with everybody. But your outside persona can reflect your inside persona. If you let it.
I met my husband and we stayed in New York for five years, then moved to Chicago. We had lost two babies, and it was traumatizing. It was the most depressed and awful you could ever feel and there was nothing that could make it better. But I believed it was out of my hands. No matter how painful, it was part of life’s journey, like the Game Of Life. I learned to negotiate the curves, to get that zest for life back. We later had a miracle baby, a daughter. Out of the darkness came the most brilliant light. In the midst of that sorrow, I couldn’t imagine being uplifted. But that’s human connection; it surprises and awes you.
We were really happy in Chicago. The midwest is a whole different vibe, you know? We learned a lot about ourselves. New York was like a litmus test. It was the summer of crack, and it was beginning to be too much, so we welcomed the change. We left Chicago 12 years later, which was the hardest thing ever. But life changed and it was time to roll with it…
We wound up in Atlanta. Very different, but we found our people. I became a community woman, I grew through understanding people. I made it my business to know everyone. I worked on a lot of independent projects—political campaigns, brand consulting. I’ve always had a marketing mind. It’s the way my brain operates, and it awakened my artistic side. None of it was really deliberate, but more of an evolution. My generation, we wanted it all. The world was at our fingertips. I just had to figure out where I fit.
On Being Superficial
Visually, I’ve always been into the superficial. I love looking at striking things. I’m taken by beauty. I think humans are a form of performance art. I’ve always worn myself on the outside. People can recognize the kind of person I am by looking at me. I’ll pass people that I don’t know and get a smile. If I dress like a black cloud, you know I’m in a deep, dark place.
I’ve always had some sense of self. When I think back to a certain age, I’ll remember wearing something that half my family hated, but I saw the romance in. Shopping for school clothes became a way of expressing myself. It was my super power. I figured that out early on. I do think I have a lot of vanity. I’m orchestrated, but I’m laissez-faire. The way my jeans are rolled up at the bottom is laissez-faire. I try to add a touch of comic or whimsy. I want to offset expectations. It’s feng shui. I love the abstract, and I can see art in things that other people can’t always see.
There are days I’ll tell myself I don’t care about my appearance, but I obviously do. I’ll go into that closet and throw something on—it might be what I wore yesterday, but I’m editing as I walk through the door. Whatever I look like in that bedroom is something totally different by the time I leave. The oddest, craziest, quirkiest, most wonderful thing I can think of—because it’s mood. It’s expression. It’s my subconscious, guiding me. I’m not cognizant once I’ve done it. In fact, I may not look at myself in the mirror for the rest of the day!
Timeless style is anything that looks good on you, style that you’re in control of. It’s all about how you wear it. You could find the most magnificent piece in the world, but if it doesn’t complement you, the piece becomes the vehicle. It overshadows you. No, it has to be something you love. It’s not what’s in or fashion-forward. It speaks to you.
The other day, I was on a street corner waiting for the light to change, and I got stopped by this young guy. He turns to me and says, “You’re cool, I like what you’ve got going on.” I don’t even remember what I had on! I took it as a huge compliment, because he was a millennial. He added, “I like when people show who they are. I can tell you have a little something whimsical in you.” And I did. It’s fun to look at the world through a whimsical lens, because it can be so serious.
You’ve got to own your destiny—how you see, celebrate, and love yourself. If you don’t do that first and foremost, you’ll never get it from anybody else. The gratification comes from self-acceptance. That’s where the struggle is, for all of us. We all want to be part of something greater, but first comes self-understanding, part of which is embracing your vanity. What’s wrong with enjoying the visual? Vanity is part of what keeps us alive—understanding that you have something of value within yourself. Isn’t that what keeps you in the game?
Jamie, 72, owns a nail salon on the Upper East Side, and has started caring more about her appearance.
On Moving to New York
I immigrated from Korea in 1987. I have two kids and wanted to work to support them, but Korea is a very small country and it was difficult to get a job. My husband and I were well-educated, so he suggested we move to America to chase bigger opportunities. I’ve been in New York for almost 30 years now.
Back in Korea, I worked for a bank. But when I came here, I was told that my education was too different and my language was a problem, so I had to switch industries. I looked into the opportunities that were available to me, and finally found work at a hair salon. I noticed that one of the ladies who worked there also gave manicures, and she had a lot of loyal customers. I thought, “Hm, maybe I can do that!”
After working at the salon for a while, I craved independence and decided to open my own business. I would walk around, looking for open storefronts. I noticed uptown was hipper and the people lived well. I liked the neighborhood, so I found an empty space and rented it. Within a year, I opened my own nail salon. At the beginning, my rent was $2,800, and it stayed like that for 10 years. Now I’m in my 23rd year and the lease is changing. I’m paying, like, $12,000 in rent. It’s very difficult to keep my doors open.
All business is challenging, especially in the first year. But I created a loyal customer base. Within months I had 100 regular customers I had individual relationships with. I really enjoy what I do because I love people. I learn so much from my customers. Korean and American culture are totally different, so they’ve taught me a lot about lifestyle. In Korea, we learned things like one plus one is two, but here, people learn how to keep an open mind. I have a really diverse client list, and everyone has something to teach me.
My hobby has always been painting, especially watercolor. Anything that uses brushes, I enjoy. That’s actually how I got into the beauty and nail industry. The two are not too different. When I saw how happy people were getting their nails painted, I knew I could make them happy too. I love making people feel beautiful.
I enjoy making things around me pretty—spaces, people, my customers. Growing up in Korea, people didn’t really worry too much about how things looked because they needed to make a living. But so much has changed since I left. Now the economy is better and more people can afford to cherish beauty like I do.
I care much more about my appearance now than when I was younger. I have a lot of young customers, and I want to look younger, to appeal to them. But to be honest, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it doesn’t matter—old or young, everybody wants to look and feel pretty. Even my oldest customers, they come once a week for a manicure. When I first opened, my core base of customers were in their 60s, and now, they’re all in their 80s. But they still come once a week to get their nails done and feel cared for. Beauty is about maintaining a routine. As you get older, that becomes even more important.
When it comes to style, I like the classic stuff. I avoid anything that looks like imitation—I prefer one-of-a-kind. A real piece of jewelry! That’s what ages best—something that always looks good. The same goes with makeup: When I like something, I’m unlikely to change it. I like Estée Lauder and Bobbi Brow—it isn’t too expensive, but I don’t go for the cheap stuff either. Something that will last me a long, long time. That’s all I care about.
There’s a difference between vanity and confidence. You have to feel confident, that’s the key to beauty. Not just in the way you look, but in the way you carry yourself. You don’t need to spend all your money, but do invest in yourself. Find something you like and stick to it. A lot of young people have nervous habits—they’ll pick their skin or their cuticles. I tell them, “If you want to feel beautiful, start by listening to yourself.” Only by feeling better can you achieve true beauty. Everyone is so stressed out all the time! Living in this city is not easy.
I have a few customers who are obsessed with their appearance, but I think they’re just in a bad place, mentally. I can’t tell them what to do—they have to figure out what matters to them on their own. But I have a daughter in her 30s and she’s very confident, and therefore, very beautiful. I learn more from her than she does from me. She’s a modern American woman.
Perhaps I’ve grown wiser with age as well, but learning is forever. For as long as I’m alive, I’m willing to learn.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.