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Are Women More Youthful Than Their Mothers At The Same Age?

Maybe, but maybe not.

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illustration of daughter looking at her mom in the mirror by sonia pulido
Sonia Pulido
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I am now the same age as my mother was when I began to think of her as “old.”

In summer, she started refusing to go in the ocean because it would ruin her hair (that perfectly coiffed bouffant dyed the perfect shade of Krug champagne). Imagine risking the wrath of her hairdresser? The same one she had been going to every Thursday afternoon at 2:30. This was years before anyone used the term “colorist.” The apocalypse could come and my mother would be sitting under a gleaming stainless-steel hair dryer in pink plastic rollers getting her nails painted Cherries-The-Snow.

She wore an unflattering black swimsuit with a skirt and — often — a rubber bathing cap with floppy yellow daisies. She was ashamed of her varicose veins. She had a puffy tummy and bra overhang. She wore something called a hairnet to bed, her face slathered in Pond’s cold cream. She tried to fill out my concave chest by gifting me a pair of foam rubber falsies.

Any mild criticism would elicit the same response: “I’m not going to be around here much longer.” Aside from recipients of a major organ, who else besides your mother is literally a part of you? But why was her impending demise so dramatically looming in the days ahead, when in reality she was in robust health (despite a love affair with Canadian Club) and lived to the ripe age of 96?

Scientists at Great Britain’s University of Kent came up with a compelling study, revealing that respondents believed that “middle age” begins at 35 and “old age” starts at 58. Not surprisingly, people in their 80s were more generous. They regarded the final year of youth as 42, and the onset of old age as 67.

As they say, 80 is the new 60.

Why are women my age more youthful than our mothers were? When my son disagrees with me I do not automatically snap back, “I’m not going to be around here much longer.”

Now that 76-year old Lauren Hutton last year sashayed down the catwalk for Valentino and was named global brand ambassador for antiaging cream StriVectin, the answer is obvious: We are younger than our mothers were. Or so we think.

I, for one, do not own a shower cap or use lilac-scented drawer liners. I do not own a mink coat, hankies or a girdle, although Spanx are often useful. I don’t wear Chanel No. 5 or brag about my senior discount on Amtrak. I don’t wear elastic waist slacks — although I suppose yoga pants are my generation’s version.

Then I put the question to my social media feed.

“Drugs, sex and rock and roll” was the first comment.

“Because our mothers had to deal with US”

“Odd that you ask that,” replied a male friend. “I’ve been wondering lately why men my age seem so much younger than our fathers.”

Certainly, women of our generation experienced more freedom than our mothers. The pill made sexual freedom possible. We put off having babies. We embraced the ad slogan: “What to Wear on Friday When You Won’t Be Home Until Sunday.” In 1973, the first “feminist” perfume came out: Charlie. The theme song was bouncy: “Kinda young, kinda now, Charlie! Kinda free, kinda wow! Charlie!” So was Shelley Hack, dancing to it in a gold satin jumpsuit. (Just the thing to wear on a Friday when … well, you get it.)

And then, we became mothers ourselves. This was the moment my own mother and I called a truce. I suddenly got it. She once volunteered to babysit for my infant son, and then didn’t tell me until 10 years later that he had cried all night.

As a grandmother, she glowed. Did she begin to look younger? Or was my perception beginning to change? Had I been blind to her completely natural antiaging process? What previously was “old” now seemed experienced, balanced, sane, confident, entirely female, honest and supportive. It was like opening a picture frame of a familiar photo and finding another one placed behind it.

I remember the day I took my mother shopping near my home. I knew the boutique owner, and when she spied my mother — 30 years my senior — she complimented her on her beauty. Then she handed us two lovely cashmere shawls to try on. Mine was black; my mother’s white. We modeled them both in front of the gilt framed mirror, twirling the loose fabric over our shoulders. Smiling, the owner said, “You two look just like sisters!”

“I know,” I laughed. “And she’s the younger one.”