Virginia Woolf on Beauty and Aging

Issue No. 3: Words from the Wise

From its media to its myths, Western culture declares that youth is synonymous with beauty. An aging woman’s duty is to resist the natural effects of time’s passage or to be invisible. Women who are applauded for aging “gracefully” are often those who have retained youthful qualities: indeed, for a woman, to age “correctly” is to not age at all. Women over forty have been largely denied favorable, empowering, and complex narratives in our culture, and they have certainly not been allowed to celebrate their beauty.

It is radical, then, for Virginia Woolf to write in To the Lighthouse (1927) that her protagonist Mrs. Ramsay— who is fifty years old with eight children—“without looking young... looked radiant”. Mrs. Ramsay is an icon of reticent wisdom, humble grace, and enrapturing beauty. When she enters a room, “she [puts] a spell on” everyone; the young disagreeable Mr. Tansley finds her to be “the most beautiful person he had ever seen”. When Mrs. Ramsay looks in the mirror and sees “her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better,” but ultimately “would never for a single second” regret the decisions of her life: “she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness”.

Woolf’s declaration of beauty in old age is revolutionary. In the twenty-first century, popular and consumer culture are obsessed with “anti-aging. Women are obligated to resist the normal, inevitable effects of being alive. We need more narratives like that of Mrs. Ramsay—narratives of “old ladies” who, in the words of Woolf, are “of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what.” We need narratives that dismantle the myth of aging as a curable disease or moral failing; narratives that prioritize older women in a culture that devalues them.

It feels necessary to close with a passage from Woolf’s diary. She writes on October 2nd, 1932: “I am with the feeling that now, aged 50.... I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence, my optimism.”