It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Paulina Porizkova has received praise and criticism for baring her body on Instagram at the age of 57. Despite mixed opinions and even accusations of being vain and narcissistic from onlookers, the supermodel is doing what feels best for her as she ages, which she says is being vulnerable and visible.
The two words come up a lot in her conversation with Yahoo Life, where she discusses the lessons that she's learned throughout her time in the spotlight. While she had long been valued for her youth, her beauty and her body, Porizkova says she was nothing more than a "clothes hanger" during what was considered her heyday.
"From the perspective of an older woman, I look back at myself as young and I think what was there to celebrate? I didn't have half my intelligence, I didn't have half my understanding, I didn't have my patience, I didn't have the character. Truly when they say that I was in my prime, the only thing about me that was prime was that my face did not have any wrinkles, I didn't have any on my body, that I was a smooth canvas," she explains. "All the good stuff comes as you grow up. So why do we celebrate youth to the extent that we do? I'm still looking for that answer. Like why do we worship youth? Why do women my age want to look 20 years younger?"
While Porizkova continues to spend time acknowledging the privilege that she experienced through her beauty — something that she writes about in her latest book of essays, No Filter – she's also working to grapple with the isolation and unknowns that come with being told that you've aged out of that beauty.
"As a young woman, I thought I was the most interesting person in the room. And because of my celebrity and the way I look, people would let me get away with it," she says. Now, she feels she can't even post to Instagram unscathed. "There's shame attached to aging, so when you post a picture of you looking your age, you are already ashamed. … There's a fair amount of trepidation, you feel really vulnerable posting yourself to where people can shame you, and you get shamed on social media. There will always be a few that throw in, you know, like, 'Oh, you should retire, old hag. Why are you posting ugly pictures?' Like, 'Who wants to see this s***?'"
The difference in those experiences is "humbling," she says. Most importantly, it's allowed her to reflect on the perspective that she's gained as she better understands her youth and her body to have been a commodity. By recognizing the value that was placed on her appearance for so long, she can better determine what it is that she values today. Turns out, it has little to do with how she looks.
"I've come to a point of at least internal self-acceptance, I don't know about the external because it keeps changing on me. But the internal, I've come to accept that I'm a person who is anxious, I'm a person who will have bouts of depression, I'm a person who can be really kind and empathetic and also really judgmental, and b****y. I've kind of come to accept that I'm all of those things and that makes me able to have a better relationship to my body. I know who I am," she explains. "I also think, wow, my body has gotten me this far and it still works, mostly. If it wasn't for arthritis, my body would be doing great and I'm grateful to it."
Porizkova reflects on having a wildly different outlook in the past and placing emphasis on what she looked like rather than how she felt. In her book, she recalls a morning where she experienced an overwhelming amount of dread after waking up with a pimple on her face before heading to a modeling gig. "That Paulina that had an anxiety attack about having a pimple, goddamn, I certainly would not want to go back to be her, I'll tell you that. That was no fun," she says. "Most people my age would never want to go back into a younger body for even three months. Isn't that amazing? I have zero interest in that."
And while she seems to now be looking at it from a healthy and healed place, Porizkova says her perspective is simply a result of life experience. "I don't really think gratitude is for the youth, you know, hope is for youth and then gratitude is for us, middle-aged people. Because we already know what's ahead, we know how hard life can be," she says. "When you're young, you wake up and you take your beautiful smooth skin for granted and your perky high boobs, and whatever comes with it. And sometimes you might be a little plump or you might have acne, I mean, like, you know, things that are not socially considered beautiful, but then there's the hope that it'll go away, right? That it'll get fixed. By my age it's like, I mean, you can still fix things, but do you want to? Will my dimpled fat thighs actually prevent me from having a good life? No. I know that. So I don't really have to focus on that as being like a problem."
It's a difference in priorities, she explains. "When you're younger, your priority's kind of to do everything and yes, you do think that, 'Oh my God, if only my nose was shorter, I would be loved and I would get all the dates I wanted,'" she says, "When you're in your fifties, you know that that's not true. Your nose has brought you here and making it different is not really going to do anything. That's the way it is. So that's the beauty of being older."
What's more difficult about the place that she's in now, however, is that while the process of aging doesn't stop, the visibility of women above a certain age dwindles. Nevertheless, it hasn't stopped her from posting photos poolside in a bikini or sharing intimate scenes from her bedroom on her own Instagram page, where she's amassed an audience of over 893,000 followers. It's not that she feels her most beautiful and confident in every post, but rather that women over 50 deserve to be seen, even at their most vulnerable.
"Sometimes I post because I have something to say but sometimes I post because it's what I want to see. I've posted some pictures that to me are really vulnerable, where I've looked older, you could see every wrinkle and every pore and I found it sort of unflattering to myself, but I could see that other people really liked it. Other women my age were really into that," she says. "I would like for my peers to let me see them at home in their sweatpants and a greasy face. I would like to see them with no makeup, no filters and close up. I want to see what they look like. That service is not super provided on Instagram, so I’ll provide what I'm looking for."
Porizkova has been consistent in her efforts and has made an impact on other women who she says have gained "the courage to embrace their age" by following her lead. But being the one to put herself out into the world to talk about beauty and bodies and aging isn't easy, especially as she begins to feel a sense of responsibility.
"It petrifies me a little bit because now I'm like, 'Whoa, I've accidentally made myself an aging advocate.' I don't even know how I feel about aging, I don't know about all the facets of it. Now it's like when I do a post about a laser that I've had, I will have plenty of women that step up and go, 'Well, then you can't be a pro-aging advocate. You just cheated,'" she says. "It's a little bit like caving in to youth-ify yourself with available stuff. And I feel like that when I do a laser too, I kind of feel like I'm caving in a little bit. Caving, I can't maintain, I'm gonna have to give a little bit here. That's kind of like an ongoing battle."
She uses other people as her blueprint when she can, noting how much she admires the natural beauty of women close in age, like Naomi Watts. "She's so beautiful. And she's so clearly real and I can read all her emotions on her face and I love the way she looks, like I'm transfixed. And then that makes me feel a little better about me because I think, well maybe somebody feels that way about me," she says.
The issue lies in how rarely those women are represented in mainstream media and having honest conversations about the nuances of getting and looking older.
"I don't find enough representation of myself, a woman my age who looks her age and who talks about the good and the bad of it," Porizkova says. "So I'm doing it."
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