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Joanna Coles and Naomi Wolf Talk Honestly About Beauty and Aging

Noël Duan
Assistant Editor
Yahoo Beauty

Barnard College’s Beauty and Aging panel discussion in celebration of the women’s college’s 125 anniversary. (Photo: Instagram)

“Having lots of great sex is the key to having a great glow at any age,” announced Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles in front of an audience of young college women, grandmothers, and professors on Tuesday night. Coles along with Naomi Wolf (bestselling author of The Beauty Myth), Dr. Rhoda Narins (cosmetic dermatologist and clinical professor), and Dayle Haddon (former face of L'Oréal and Estée Lauder and founder of nonprofit WomenOne) sat on a panel discussion on beauty and aging at Barnard College of Columbia University.

“How do we think about beauty for women who are older than 22? How do we deal with the common perspective that women are less beautiful after their 20s? How do feminists think about beauty?” These were the three questions posed by the moderator and Barnard president, Debora Spar. Between a cosmetic doctor, a women’s magazine editor, a former model, and a third-wave feminist activist, there were differing and conflicting opinions on the matter at hand. “I think it’s OK to feel conflicted,” said Coles. “I feel conflicted—and know that we have choices.”

Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles. (Photo: Getty)

“We should acknowledge Hillary Clinton having just stepped up to the plate at 67, and we should celebrate the will to make a difference and be heard,” said Coles, noting that 56-year-old Madonna is on the May 2015 cover of Cosmo. “I do think it’s different for men and women. Just look at Hillary. On her last campaign trail, she said Barack got an extra hour with the press because she had to do more hair and makeup.”

The five power women, in spite of some of their differences, shared a moment of understanding when Spar shared an anecdote about giving a speech at a major research university recently: “The first question after my speech was, ‘How can you stand up there as the president of Barnard College with colored hair?’”

“That’s a very aggressive question,” said Coles while the other panelists nodded in agreement. Wolf added, “I always get furious comments on my Facebook page when I do something with my hair.” The Beauty Myth author—who published her book 25 years ago at age 26—is famous for writing about how as women have gained more prominence and power in society, their appearances have become increasingly policed and scrutinized. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience,” Wolf once wrote in her book. “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Author Naomi Wolf, who wrote the bestseller, The Beauty Myth. (Photo: Facebook)

Reflecting on the 25 years since she’s written The Beauty Myth, Wolf feels times have changed. “Women are redefining beauty and reclaiming beauty,” the author said at the panel. “We should have that light shine and own it. I’d like us to challenge this notion that there is a progressive decline of our worth as we get older. There’s a glamorization of older women nowadays, and it’s something good. Casting a women at her peak from 18 to 22 is damaging—you can’t have fun or be change making if you’re anxious about your age.”

At the end of the discussion, a first-year student asked the panelists how she’d know whether she was wearing too much makeup or not enough makeup to a job interview. Coles requested her email address to send her some relevant reading material—and perhaps that’s where older age trumps youth: Outer beauty can be bought to a certain extent, but wisdom is priceless.


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