THE TGB ELDER GEEK: Keeping Up with Technology

The Appearance of Age

EDITORIAL NOTE: My huge apologies to Virginia DeBolt who writes The TGB Elder Geek column twice a month. For the past two columns, I forgot to put her byline and bio at the top of her piece. I want to clear that Virginia writes that column, not me. Here is the bio that should have appeared yesterday and is now there:

Virginia DeBolt (bio) writes the bi-weekly Elder Geek column for Time Goes By in which she takes the mystery out of techie things all bloggers and internet users need to know to simplify computer use. She has written several books on technology and keeps two blogs herself, Web Teacher and First 50 Words.

category_bug_journal2.gif The media buzz surrounding Susan Boyle, the frumpy, 47-year-old, Scottish singer who became a YouTube sensation, prompted yet another story, this one in The New York Times last week, about stereotypes and the human need to categorize one another based on appearance.

Rounding up sound bites from the usual experts in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, the reporter concluded, as the headline declaims, “Yes, Looks Do Matter.”

They sure do. I'm certain there are some enlightened souls who never give a fig about what they look like to others. For most of us, however, particularly women, we start caring at – oh, about kindergarten age. I must have been seven or eight when, one day, it struck me how pretty all the girls in my ballet class were. And that I wasn't like them.

Although I didn't need independent proof of that observation, it was reinforced at our recitals each year when someone else danced Cinderella and I danced the stepmother. Another girl was the Sugar Plum Fairy; I was the Nutcracker.

But it hit home hardest in my freshman year of high school. Sometimes it is little things that bring home larger truths.

I was shy and awkward in those days, had no idea how to talk to people and fellow students were not admiring when they labeled me “the brain,” shouting the epithet at me in the halls. “There goes the brain,” they said. Could I help it that I had the answers when teachers called on me? Learning came easily; socializing and friendship did not.

A brutal revelation occurred one afternoon when I was walking home alone several paces behind a gaggle of the most popular girls in school. They looked so pulled together, dressed in just the right way, their hair bouncy and perfect as they laughed and giggled together - oh, so comfortable and self-assured in their attractiveness. Something I knew nothing of.

Then I noticed the backs of their ankles. They were indented on both sides. Mine were not and I remembered a saying I had heard now and then that “the mark of a lady is a well-turned ankle.”

I still don't know where that adage comes from or what it means. But that day I came to know for certain, by way of a more familiar adage, that the story of the ugly duckling would not be my story, that no swan ever had fat ankles.

Fifty-five years later, I remember that afternoon precisely. When I got home, I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time and thought about my appearance intensely. I knew even then that pretty people are granted dispensation by others as one expert confirms in the Times story:

“Indeed, attractiveness is one thing that can make stereotypes self-fulfilling and reinforcing. Attractive people are 'credited with being socially skilled,' Professor Fiske said, and maybe they are, because 'if you’re beautiful or handsome, people laugh at your jokes and interact with you in such a way that it’s easy to be socially skilled.'”

The rest of us have to work at it, which in later years I did, overcoming my shyness and learning to make the best of my peasant face and body with artful use of makeup, hairstyles and clothes.

On that day so long ago, however, I didn't yet have those skills and I ended my watershed afternoon of self-assessment with a kind of shrug: oh, well, maybe someone will marry me because I'm smart (remember, in those days marriage was the primary goal for girls) even if I'm not pretty.

Here is another thing I knew – later, but still at a young age: no matter how much I learned about making myself as attractive as possible, when I got old, I would revert to my teenage looks – an older version of plain and ordinary. And it's true. Only it happened differently from what I had imagined.

I had thought there would come a time when the artifice wouldn't work anymore. Instead, I've become consciously, even aggressively what I am. Sometime in the past few years I ran out of energy to make the effort, so no makeup now. No hairstyle. It has grown nearly down to my waist and I pin it up on top of my head to keep it out of my face. I had gained a lot of weight and now I've lost a good deal of it – but that's for health reasons, not vanity this time.

On the half dozen times a year I think I need to boost my appearance – for a TV show or a special social occasion – I can still pull myself together, at least in the context of what my 68 years look like. And it's kind of fun, in a girly-girl way, when it's only occasionally. But I wish way back in high school I could have been as accepting of myself as I am now.


This is a webcam shot taken yesterday as I was writing today's post. Still not the beauty I wished to be as a kid, but I don't mind now. I am what I am and beyond neat, clean and appropriate, I don't pay much attention anymore.

It was Susan Boyle's dowdiness that caused the sensation. If she had the attractiveness of a Julia Roberts or Demi Moore, who are in range of Susan's age, I doubt her performance would have had the same kind of impact. No one expects plain people to be anything special and except in rare cases like Susan Boyle, hardly anyone allows them to be.

Good looks give people an advantage over more ordinary appearance and it causes so much angst – of which my younger self is proof. One of the advantages of growing old is that we can get over such things.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Carmi writes of a harrowing story from her husband's experience as a young soldier in World War II – Kakushka.


I wrestle with my fading (arguably) good looks. Funny, but they carried me for years, and now, without them, I'm becoming invisible. Oh, the ravages and reality of old age! Being in sales, appearance counted, and, now, as an emerging frumpy old guy, my best efforts cannot overcome the fact that my younger and more digitally capable competitors. They are easier to look at and are faster than me. If only I had the money, I'd simply drop out and simply do volunteer work, and not having to deal with this, so much at least.

You go, girl (as "they" say)!

Some times, Ronni, I do believe you read my mind. We can be more visual as the elders of this society if we simply put ourselves out there in all our aging glory as you have. Just as you've dropped the effort to be like the the-cuter-girls, we can make a statement to ourselves--and others--right here on blogs.

Let's see. I know how Claude looks, Darlene, Hattie. It would be great to see the rest you, Elderbloggers.

Hair to waist, awesome.

Nearly everyone feels inadequate or comparatively inadequate about something. We who are not natural beauties (and/or who lack the will/knowledge of how to become an "unnatural" beauty) tend to be over-achievers in other ways. Our beautiful/cute/chic friends admire and wish they were more like us in the ways that we excell. Life isn't easy for anyone, is my motto. I love my beautiful/cute friends for what they contribute to my life. The same may be said for my "un-beautiful/un-cute" friends.

To me, your line-up of photos prove that you were not un-beautiful/un-cute, even if you felt that way. You are smart/intelligent/caring, as proven in your writing. As we wrote to one another in our highschool year books, "Love ya, Ronni!" (I didn't write this article to elicit such a response; but, I get to choose my response...thanks to your attitude toward your commenters.)

How right you are. I've noticed that people, and more particularly women, become more truly themselves as they age. I've been fortunate enough to be pretty all my life, although beautiful was beyond my reach and the latest fashion has often been beyond my means. However, the "brainiac" moniker followed me around. It didn't help that I was, and am, just plain odd. As I age and become invisible I have reveled in becoming more truly myself, and have formed friendships based on respect and enjoyment of each other's real selves.

As 'Cop Car' says, you appear quite cute in your photos, but as you say, Ronni, you worked at it and clearly you achieved your end in doing so. I used to feel quite ugly, now I look at old photos and think I wasn't ugly at all, too bad I didn't know that then.

There's an excellent science fiction story by James Tiptree Jr (a woman) called "The Women Men Don't See", about that pall of invisibility that falls on most women at a certain age (and clearly, John, on men as well). I read it when I was young but still was surprised when it happened to me (I guess I thought it was science fiction!). At first I resented it, but now I see that there are advantages hidden in invisibility. You gain a lot of freedom when you are no longer quite so concerned with keeping up appearances.

Ronni my dear, speaking of ankles….

As a boy growing up it seemed each time it was time for me to get new shoes, my mother, along with most shoe salesmen would go on and on about my feet and how high my “in-step” was for a boy. She would often mention that I had an in-step women would kill for. From my perspective, however, every time I got new shoes it felt more like I was going to be the one killed, given the pain I went through because of the high in-step when breaking in new shoes. I never got a pair of new shoes that the tops of my feet did not anguish for days upon days in pain.

Of course all the hoopla about a high in-step that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever other than the fact I apparently had a least “one” desirable body part. And if it was to do me any good in my quest to attract a mate, it would seem I would certainly have to go barefoot for at least most of my courting life or at the very least…….wear high heels in an effort to flaunt my asset which was definitely out of the question!!

Cutting to the chase and realizing of course that you, as a young girl, would certainly have concern over such issues as seemingly plump ankles, I would not dwell to any degree on it. I feel reasonably sure that those “full-figure ankles” never, ever, cost you a beau or loss of an employment opportunity in your ‘entire’ life.

And viewing these type things from the perspective of a man, I can honestly say that at age 67 when I find myself looking back over my life, I can honestly say that I never once got “laid” due to the fact that I had a high in-step. Go figure!!

I think you look just fine and, having seen a photo of teen-aged Ronni not too long ago, you definitely were that adjective we over-used as our highest compliment in high school: cute.

I haven't been cute since I was five.

Oh well.

I remember a man who was visiting our next door neighbor, when I went over to show them what I was wearing to a dance. As I left the house, he said..."She'd be perfect if her ankles were thinner." And guess what I have focused on for the past 50 years? I wish I had never heard him say that (or that he'd had enough sense to wait until I was out of earshot.)

Ronni, I love your face. One of the things that immediately drew me into your blog when I first stumbled upon it about a year and a half ago was the photo montage of your face at different ages at the top of the screen. So compelling. It made me really want to get to know the woman behind those images. I think you are very pretty, then and now.

Pretty in the way I think me and my dearest friends are: smart, spirited, interesting women who came to peace with the realization at an early age that we weren't considered to be great beauties by society at large. . . so we just shrugged, got on with our lives and developed deeper, more enduring traits. And in doing so we became beautiful. I look in the mirror and I like what I see. Then I go about my day and don't think about it much.

I'm 44 and at an age when women I know are just starting to get "procedures" done. I myself am looking as role models the older people I know who are comfortable in their skin and are wearing their own faces. Among the lines and sags I find glimpses of that person at every age of their life: the child, the adolescent, the adult, the elder. Such a rich tapestry. I find that to be so much more attractive than the artifice that's worshipped in our society.

I'm curious about how much of a role parents' reactions to a girl's looks shape how we see ourselves. I always thought I was pretty because my father thought I looked like my mother...and he thought she was gorgeous. My mother took care of her looks--eyelash curler (which fascinated me) and lipstick and perfume when she went out--but she never agonized in front of a mirror.
We were lucky, in our family, that weight wasn't much of an issue, which is a huge help re: looks.
I'd be curious what other people's parents' message was about their looks.

Interesting post and something with which I think most of us wrestle at least off and on given the culture in which we live. My bet is all cultures are a lot the same for having some set of unwritten standards for beauty. Coming to grips with it not being the most important thing is necessary for happiness when young or old. I have said that beauty can open doors but it can't keep them open. When a society rewards it so much though it's hard for people not to lose touch with more important qualities. You can know something but have to keep reminding yourself.

Why you are just lovely!

The first two things I saw on my computer this morning: this link:, and this blogpost. I'm pondering.

There are some beauties in my family (I'm not one of them and never was), and I think the advantages of beauty are overplayed. The lives of the beauties have not been any easier than mine.
You look wonderful, Ronni. I wish I could wear my hair pulled back in that simple, suitable way, but it does not suit my face.

Well, while out enjoying my 25th anniversary dinner last night, at the next table was one of those aging plastic Barbies, overly tan to the point of being orange with fake tan crap, overly plasticized in the chest, obvious face lift, botox, overly made up with raccoon eyes, platinum hair, the whole bit.

And, she looked like ass. Seriously. I was laughing (not obviously, of course...) at her, she looked so bad. So hey, most of the time, beauty is nice, but, trying to look like a freakin' doll is just ridiculous. Ease up on those "procedures", people! Enjoy who you are!

And Ronni, you have gorgeous eyes, which to be honest, are about the only thing about people I ever actually notice.

OMG ... you have just written my life's story!! I knew the first minute I read your blog months ago that there was some kind of a strong connection between us ... but this is eerie! It's hard to believe that someone has lived a life so similar to mine. It's got to be some sort of a "sisterhood" thing.

Ronni - you and I seem to resemble each other quite a bit in looks. And I can truthfully say (and I'll bet you can too) that I never met a man who wasn't attracted to me to one degree or another. I have long thought that it has nothing really to do with whether you are "beautiful" in the classic sense, but that women "emit" something that attracts men (a combination of pheramones and attitude, probably)... and some women send forth that signal more than others ... and it really does not depend primarily on your outward appearance at all. I have known wonderful women in their 80s and 90s who could draw a crowd of men around them at any social gathering while far younger and more beautiful women sat and watched in fascination.


I've met plenty of men who were not attracted to me, sometimes to my chagrin.

However, although my - um, love life is not a topic for discussion at TGB, you are generally correct. Let's just say I have never lacked male attention.

At 58 I began a 21-month-long adult orthodontia odyssey last week. I could sure use a face lift, but I've wanted (needed) braces all my life and who really ever needs a face lift. I have those sparkly little braces glued onto each tooth and Friday comes the banding. I used to look at my crooked teeth and think What the hell, I'll just get dentures when I'm old, but now I'm ready for this fight to save the real things.
Incidentally, I've been told that the orthodontist treating me has a practice consisting of 1/3 adult patients and the oldest so far was 76 when she had her braces.

I failed to say this in my previous comment: Ronni I wish my eyes were as huge as yours! They are beautiful.

As many of today's comments mention, the concept of female beauty is so ephemeral, so culture-based, and so shifting by the year that it's a full-time job just trying to keep up with it. The broad hips that were every woman's envy only a few decades ago are the bane now. The pouty lips so popular now will go out of style shortly, to be replaced by who-knows-what (lizard lips and a flicking tongue?).

From the male standpoint, physical attractiveness is much more of a gift than something that can be acquired by artificial means: You are either born with the Adonis face and physique or not. This leads to a certain amount of Stoicism about how you look, since males have few options to tweak their appearances (though that's changing, alas).

It has been my experience that male appearance is tied up much more in fitting in with a culture-based set of role stereotypes rather than some concept of beauty, and avoiding a look that would signal being outside an unwritten set of cultural norms. According to your social setting, you might emulate a "teacher look," a "businessman look," a "weekend suburban father" look, even a "cultural misfit" look. Each of these "looks" can be achieved by most men given the desire to conform to them and the funds to arrange for the necessary grooming and clothing.

An interesting trend related to the concept of both female and male beauty is the rapid rise of the global internet. On the internet one's physical appearance is of minimal importance; it's the content of the mind that matters. Meaningful interpersonal relationships can be maintained between two people thousands of miles apart, without even knowing what the other person looks like, or even their sex or age. It is only within the context of tying this new kind of relationship to the traditional relationship that we choose to post photos of ourselves, or reveal other details that would be instantly ascertained in a face-to-face encounter.

In this context, the internet is the "great leveler" that obliterates the concepts of personal beauty, physical ability or disability, gender, age, social class, wealth, and a host of other personal characteristics so traditionally important in face-to-face encounters. It will be interesting to observe how -- or if -- the internet will change our cultural expectations and stereotypes of a person's physical characteristics on the face-to-face level.

Why Ronni you look like someone I would want to strike up a conversation with on a plane. Someone intelligent and probably a good conversationalist. I like the way you look.

I admire you for letting your hair grow and for pulling it back. Such freedom!

Ronni, I've seen you on TV, and your style is great. Don't change a thing.

I was an OK-enough-looking (if a bit plump and tomboyish) little girl. Like you, I stared in admiration at the perfect swinging hair and really nice clothes of the girls who had everything I already knew by 9 I would never have.

How do we decide that so young? But we do.

With age and experience come a little more insight into what's possible and what matters.

It's hard to avoid the idea that making girls and women feel horribly insecure and perennially off-balance IS exactly the point of several major industries.

A few thoughts crossed my mind when I read this commentary. The first was a friend who took her daughters for make-up lessons and to a stylist when they were teenagers. Here, they learned how to and what worked best for them. This, in reality, has little to do with measuring a current fad of beauty/cute/pretty but more to how to properly dress and use make-up. This, ironically, was the last of my thoughts.

The more important thought was how little high school or junior high considers this aspect of life. Folks seem to think that pretty vs. smart vs. geeky is all part and parcel of teenage years... Some of us outgrow these awkward times - some of still have scars even though we care less about them or perhaps we care more than we pretend. Mmm...

Yet, in retrospect, the pretty (only) may have held on to looks but some didn't develop much beyond it and as "one" ages, we learn rather quickly that it is more than looks. In retrospect, I find that the classmates we considered geeky or brains, were the ones who led the most interesting lives as adults. It seemed they had the best/interesting jobs, travelled, were well-read and at a get-together, they were the ones who folks were saying - wow, who would ever have thought?

It is nice to look at someone well-turned or pretty, yet, when you sit down for a good meal, glass of wine... stop and ask yourself and observe as to how long you stop looking at the element of pretty,beautiful, cute and find yourself drawn in more by what the person has to say and offer in the way of conversation,wisdom, intelligence.

Pretty is as pretty does - someone once said. It is a wonderful asset - yet, remind yourself that there are other assets that work equally as well or if not better.

I close with this thought and this is no disrespect to Jennifer Anniston. People say she is very beautiful - yet, for me it is her humor and a sense of warmth that I like best about her - and here, is what is most important as a reminder to me - she represents "the girl next door" and shows what working at an image truly represents. Look closely at her photos over time and you will grasp the concept I speak of. You will notice that after awhile you notice hair, clothes, shape more so than measuring pretty - beautiful or cute. Superficial - perhaps so, yet in today's world, we still have to open the envelope to learn what is inside.

Good stuff Ronni......I like that shot better than the one in your banner. I like your tech writer with or without bio. It's all good stuff.

I prefer the last banner shot to the one in this post because it is consistent with the smiling photos in the strip....and because the smile is the most beautiful of all of them!

Always nice to see you, Ronni. THE REAL YOU.

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