Ageless beauty, touched by time

A 96-year-old grandmother from London is turning heads in Britain these days, creating a buzz by modeling in an unusual international advertising campaign. As a new "face" for Dove soap, Irene Sinclair hopes to spread the message that beauty takes many forms and knows no age limits.

Ms. Sinclair, who has never modeled before, wears her wrinkles proudly. Her only concession to makeup is lip gloss. The ad, which appears on billboards, in Tube stations in London, and in coffee shops, poses an intriguing question: "Will society ever accept that old can be beautiful?" Alongside Sinclair are the words "Wrinkled?" and "Wonderful?" - encouraging passersby to decide for themselves.

The ads, featuring Sinclair and five other women, represent an attempt to widen the definition of beauty and help women feel good about themselves. As a Dove spokesman says, "It's a campaign to debunk beauty stereotypes. A woman does not have to be 5 feet, 10 inches and perfectly proportioned in a magazine-cover image."

In an international study of 3,200 women in 10 countries, the soapmaker found that only 13 percent are very satisfied with their body weight and shape. That's not surprising in a global society that narrowly defines beauty by the images portrayed in advertising, entertainment, and fashion.

The campaign isn't the first attempt to broaden definitions of beauty to include those who are not young and flawless. In 1988, Frances Lear launched Lear's, a magazine for women over 40. Her brave idea was to use models who mirrored the ages of her readers.

The first issue featured a beautiful model on the cover, her crow's feet and laugh lines untouched by airbrushing. The headline proclaimed, "At Last! A Magazine for the Woman Who Wasn't Born Yesterday."

Alas, that philosophy was soon modified. The "wasn't-born-yesterday" slogan quietly disappeared, as did close-ups of wrinkles on the cover. For a while the tag line became "For the time of your life." That gave way to the enigmatic "For the woman who was born today." The final issue rolled off the presses in 1994. Back to the magazine world of impossibly tall, impossibly thin, and ever-young models.

Those who aren't won over by Dove's campaign for "real beauty" may be among the potential readers of New Beauty, a magazine just launched in the United States. Publishers call it the "premier comprehensive guide to cosmetic enhancement," including the latest advances in plastic surgery, dermatology, and cosmetic dentistry. They say it will "redefine the traditional beauty magazine."

Nearly 8.7 million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2003, a 32 percent increase from the year before, the magazine reports.

William Thomas, a physician and author of "What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World," likes to consider a different scenario. "Imagine, if just for a moment, that we lived in a world that embraced the arrival of a face with character," he suggests. "Such a society would swoon over wrinkled artists, actors, and models.... It really would be a different world."

Ridiculous? "Far more ridiculous is a society that panics people into painful injections and disfiguring surgery as a result of the benign lines that appear on their faces," Dr. Thomas says. "Wrinkles themselves do us no harm. The suffering they bring, the suffering that drives people into the arms of the cosmetics and medical industries, is the product of an overt bigotry toward old age and aging. The pain wrinkles inflict is entirely of our own making."

At a time when extreme makeovers on television keep stretching even their own definitions of extreme, the desire for physical perfection marches on.

Yet many women are ready for release from the tyranny of beauty imposed by images paraded before them. Three-quarters of those in the Dove survey wish the media portrayed female beauty as being more than physical attractiveness.

When a billboard featuring Sinclair's image went up in New York's Times Square in September, a company website (www.campaignforrealbeauty.com) invited people to express their opinions. As of Jan. 11, the tally was running 4 to 1 in favor of Sinclair's looks, with 92,928 for (Wonderful) and 20,191 against (Wrinkled).

It will take a lot of Irenes around the world to change ideals of beauty, and to gain widespread acceptance for Thomas's notion of the beauty inherent in "a face with character."

But Sinclair is a start. She's proof that the answers to the question posed on her ad don't need to be either/or, but can be both. "Wrinkled?" Yes. "Wonderful?" For sure.

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