Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Color and the Middle-Aged Woman

We all know that color has the ability to enhance our mood, influence our decision-making, and help us achieve what we want and need.
  • Hospitals and police stations use color to soothe, control and direct those who work there and those who have to visit these (usually) high-drama sites
  • Grocery stores and restaurants use color to make you hungry (meaning buy more NOW!) and to make you leave quickly (for high turnover)
  • Leaders use color to influence our feelings about them, because spectators, listeners and critics respond first to color and the way it makes us feel rather than the specifics of a message
  • Sports teams choose team colors to influence athletes on their teams (and oppositions!) and spectators
Why, then, do middle-aged women refuse to use color as a conscious choice to make us visible, raise our self-esteem, enhance our attractiveness and demonstrate our power on a variety of levels? Or simply to make us feel better about what we see when we look in the mirror?

Last week I was at a professional event -- a casual professional event -- and the theme was "putting your best foot forward." Now, all of the membership at the event were women (it's a women's organization), and most of us were middle-aged (meaning between 40 and 60). It was on a Sunday afternoon in a salon/spa and about 25 women attended, including the salon personnel.

Three women got hair consultations from the salon where we met, we all listened to an image consultant talk about color, and we chatted and snacked.

Here's what I noticed:
  • Almost every woman there wore pants and a t-shirt variation
  • Only one woman was in bright color throughout, although about half of the women used some bright color in an accessory
  • Most women wore neutrals like denim, khaki, black or beige or grayed colors like loden, teal, gray (!) or faded navy without any color pop
  • Most of us had little or no color in her makeup, meaning everything was neutral or black (like eyeliner) and many looked as if they'd spent less than five minutes on their makeup
  • Very few of the women in the room looked as if they had pulled together a complete look from head to toe, meaning clothing, shoes, accessories, makeup, hair and bag; instead, we looked as if we simply pulled individual pieces together without much thought or more than two pieces (shirt + pants) in our mind
  • Despite being mid-afternoon, most of us looked tired and slightly faded; it was a rainy afternoon, and we should have brought a colorful raincoat, unbrella, boot or shoe, or scarf to combat the weather's effect.
Overall, the meeting didn't feel professional. I didn't feel as if I was meeting women brought together by a shared profession (although that's why we were all there) to network, make connections and learn something; I felt more like I was at a group meeting grounded in personal choice, like a church or neighborhood gathering.

There were two problems in our overall style on Sunday: the first was the clothing/accessory choices and the second was COLOR.

Here's my problem with middle-aged women dressing in neutral colors and grayed colors: we are already one of the most invisible portions of the population by virtue of our age.

Oh, yeah: didn't you notice how invisible you've become? I've been noticing it for a few years now. And it's not just me.

I've also noticed the invisibility from two directions. It comes from within me and it comes from others/society.
  • Middle-aged women are in a confusing position: we're no longer supposed to be sexy, we're too old to be new mothers (or fertile) while old enough to be established mothers (Mom-jeans) and when we dress to truly advertise our intellectual/economic/experiential power it makes others really, really nervous (yeah, Hillary!)
  • Middle-aged women aren't sexy in the way young women are, but magazines/celebrities/media tells us to use the same old techniques and recycle the same old looks given us when we were sixteen, like long flowing hair, glowing firm skin and perky figure parts... which most of us don't have in abundance
  • Middle-aged women know they're being compared to twenty-year old women, and feel bad about it (see sexy, fertile, perky above)
  • Middle-aged women are still dressing to compete for the attention of men, to fit in with cheerleaders and models, and to look "young." Still?
  • Middle-aged women feel guilty about caring about their appearance, spending money and time on something so "frivolous," and unprofessional by focusing on "surface" when they are serious thinkers, leaders and collaborators... even though we've earned the time and right to care about what heel height, what skirt height, and what color makes us look and feel best
And yeah, I'm tired of stovepipe/skinny jeans, sleeveless dresses, satin tops, short skirts, stilleto heels and everything else that suits a "perfect" twenty-year-old figure of 118 pounds but shows my age in every possible way, in fabric and style and fit... ugh. Makes me look and feel bad, makes me desperate to find something (anything!) else to wear, makes me want to kick something. Hard.

What I've noticed is that most middle-aged women go to bland or invisible rather than go Tammy Faye Bakker or Demi Moore or Grandma Moses (see above to choose your perfect "middle-aged" look). So...

#1: choose color. In your outfit and your face and your hair, dudettes!
  • Even if your choice is on the muted side, say wines and violets and spice, or pastel shades like mint or buttercup or sky... get out and find yourself some color.
  • If you like neutrals like beige and navy, team them with accessories or a single piece (a top) in color like clear red, green apple, bright white or carnation pink.
  • If you like pastels, bump up the intensity a notch: instead of faded colors, go for pastels with a bright bump.
  • Neutral clothes? How about using color on your lips, cheeks, eyeliner or hair? or accessories, like bags and shoes?
#2: learn which colors complement each other, accent each other, and fight each other...

#3: figure out which colors work for you emotionally, starting with the primary/secondary Purple/Blue/Green/Yellow/Orange/Red spectrum and then working through clear, jewel-toned, muted, pastel

#4: realize that NEUTRAL means how you feel as well as how others feel about you... neutral and don't blame anyone else for making you feel invisible, overlooked and bland. Camel can be chic, black can be chic, navy can be chic... it can also be the wallpaper behind you.

Next week: examples!


  1. Very thought-provoking premise. Looking forward to seeing your examples!

  2. Melissa, thanks! I think I have to go back and talk about black, since we all wear so much of it. A neutral, but not something everyone should wear... or perhaps we all shouldn't wear so much of it. I am so guilty of that!

  3. I agree with everything. One of my secret weapons is to use hats... and black used to be one of my best colors, but at age 61, BLACK is probably my worst color.


    Tina Boomerina

  4. Tina, I love hats, too. I am re-thinking black, Right now I am in love with shades of blue.


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