Rebecca Elia's Blog

All about Feminine Health, Healing, and Greece

Monday, February 1, 2010

Timeless Beauty

Once again, I am thankful to Twitter for connecting me with like-minded people. More and more women are exploring our society’s refusal to accept death and aging, and, lately, they’ve been tweeting about it. Elissa Stein, author of FLOW is working on her next book project, Wrinkle, and her recent Huffington Post piece, The Age of Invisibility, was about our mistreatment of the elderly. Through twitter, I also learned of photojournalist Robbie Kaye’s documentation of her Beauty of Wisdom interviews with women in their seventies and older, conducted at their beauty shop appointments.

It’s time to address this peculiar societal dysfunction.

In the not so distant past, the anorexic teenager was our society’s single representation of beauty. The Twiggy template lived on, decades beyond her actual owner. Dove’s relatively recent campaign was one of the first to use normal-looking normal-sized women models. Their famous Evolution video revealed the false representation of the final icon of a female model that appeared on a billboard. By the time the initial picture was adjusted, it was so far removed from the original that it was difficult to connect the two. Our sense of beauty, both outer and inner, has become unbelievably warped.

It took my traveling to Greece to become aware of just how culture-specific beauty is. I was relieved when I discovered that the Greeks were blind to the dark hair on my body that was deemed socially-unacceptable in the U.S. I was thrilled that women who we would consider overweight showed no hesitation in wearing tight clothes in public or bikinis on the beach.

But there was another difference, and this one had more to do with inner beauty. In Greece, the elderly were cared for, honored, and respected by their families. Often, these elderly women provided the structure and foundation for the family. Many of my Greek friends were raised by their yiayias (grandmothers). Because the Greeks are a very social people, I had more conversations with elderly women there than I did with one of my own grandmothers. I could not return to my apartment without talking with a yiayia who lived in my neighborhood. She would pull out a seat cushion and rush to make Greek coffee when she saw me approaching her marble steps. In fact, I had to add an extra thirty to sixty minutes to my trip home if I didn’t return during her afternoon nap.

These grandmothers not only shared their life wisdom with me but provided me with such a strong sense of family and stability that it eased the 6,000+ mile distance from my real family. Looking at the world through their eyes provided me with an immediate sense of what is truly important. Linear time disappeared. Relationships and relating became crucial. It was clear that what we do is not as essential as how we do it, and that those we love are more important than anything else in this world. The emphasis on artificial physical beauty disappeared in a land where nothing could be more gorgeous than the dramatic scenery, weathered by the same natural elements that wrinkled the lovely faces of the elderly.

I became aware of another striking difference. These Greek women lived each day in the present moment, just as children do. In fact, they lived their entire lives in this way. This was a country in which the natural cycles of life were recognized and death was accepted along with life. The Greeks understood that in order for anything new to be created, the old must dissolve. They remembered what we have forgotten, that unrestricted growth is unsustainable and undesirable.

Both of my biological grandmothers died long ago. Now, more than ever, I absorb my mother’s memories of her mother and her mother’s generation. Not wanting to miss any of their wisdom, I grab hold before it disappears forever. By forgetting her, I lose. By forgetting them, we all lose.

Ours is a young nation. How can we expect to mature without the wisdom of our elders? Without this wisdom, we continue to destroy our earth and ourselves. The longer we hold onto this notion of unrestricted growth, the more this destruction continues. When will we, as a nation, begin to face our fears about aging and death and, instead, honor the hard-earned wisdom of our elders? When will we see their true beauty? Until we do, we will remain blind to our own.

You can read Robbie's letter to her Beauty of Wisdom women on the Feminine Revelations site.


  1. Twiggy recently starred in an Olay campaign in England. Hired because of her age, her photos were so heavily airbrushed she looked like she was 30 years younger. Because of that campaign a law was passed against airbrushing in ads, as it was truly false advertising.

    The message for us to ignore where we are in life in order to pretend we're something we're not is overwhelming, omnipresent, unavoidable. I'm with you Rebecca—hopefully the more people speak out, the more we can chip away at the negative picture that's painted of a natural, normal part of life.

  2. Great Blog! This entry is especially excellent and I always wished our society was more respectful of older women! They have so much to offer us, if we could slow down enough to hear them. Keep up the excellent blog!


  3. i was raised by my grandmother, who lived with us until i was 18 (and died when i was 32) mannerisms, my language (i actually say things like 'piffle' and 'goodness'), my view of the world.

    she was a little irish lady who told me when i was very, very young, "never go into the sun. see what it does to the earth? it'll do it to your skin" so, i never partook of sun worshiping. i still thank her for that.

    my paternal grandmother was sicilian... i spent every summer with her until i was 15. i can still repeat her tales of her father and his shipwreck, their trek from the old country, playing a piano in the silent movies theaters (my other grandmother was an early film editor back in the day--no wonder i landed in theater/film)

    they taught me it's okay to age, to be yourself, to stand up for what you believe. they showered me with love and affection and discipline.

    i hope i can do as much to my week old grandson (such a strange word!)

    i now live with and care for an elderly friend of the family whom i've known since i was a teen. to sit here with her day after day, lifting, changing, feeding, on occasion chatting, always laughing... this has enriched my life to a huge degree.

    wow, i was wordy.

  4. It is such a joy to read all of your comments. Thank you!

    Lori: I'm so glad that you're enjoying my blog. Thank you!

    Quin: What a gift to have had these women and their gifts in your life.

    Elissa: Amen! It is my hope, as well, that as more of us shine the light on this subject, we will heal our relationship with aging and with our wise women (and men!).

  5. Rebecca mou, what a beautiful article and so true...

    I never really knew my maternal grandmothers, one died before I was born and the other when I was three... My mum passed away when my daughter was 5 so she has a few memories. Mum was a great story teller and although she lived with us and we spent a lot of time together, I still regret that I didn't listen more closely to her stories and write some of the details down...imagine that she was dictating recipes and poems from her hospital bed...thank God her illness didn't affect her mind and that it was sharp as a razor till almost the very yes, enjoy every moment and make sure you ask all the questions you want now...there are many questions I still want to ask but sadly noone can answer them in the right way... :(

  6. I greatly enjoyed your post on Timeless Beauty. It contains a lot of wisdom. Mediterranean societies place a lot of value on the elderly.

    I lived in Greece for many years. Greeks might be blind to dark body hair, but Greek women don't like showing their grey hair much, and no matter how old they are, they colour it. Not so much in very rural places, but elsewhere, it's the norm.