Reclaiming My Beauty at 49

After years of dieting and dying her hair, magazine world veteran Jennifer Barnett accepts herself, as is—and looks forward to 50.

As a teen in the 80s I was super influenced by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which came out once a year. What’s worse is that my mother bought it and read it with me, making running commentary about the models’ bodies and what a shame it was that we didn’t look like that, which prompted us to begin whichever mother/daughter fad diet was most fashionable at the moment. As I ate my half-grapefruit each morning while looking at Kathy Ireland taped to the fridge for “inspiration,” I compared my body to hers and felt like a failure when I didn't measure up. It deeply affected my self-esteem.

It's so much worse for teens today with Instagram, but even as a middle-aged lady I’m not immune. Having a camera on my phone, and being on Zoom means I’m constantly confronted with how my face slides off my head a little more every day, and that there are cosmetic procedures I can have that will turn back the hands of time and afford me the pleasures of youth that are no longer offered to me—small things like not being invisible, but also big things like getting hired for a job. As much as I want to settle into my green velvet couch with a cup of tea, a good book and my saggy neck, I’m reminded I could be in an infinity pool in Malibu with a new ass. All it takes is money and risking death and disfigurement.

Now, I feel fine taking up space. Something has switched in my brain. I’ve started to accept my body for what it is and vowed to take better care of it.

The good news is that with age comes wisdom, and I’m grateful I have it. At 49 I’m the happiest I’ve been in my body. The process was gradual for me, like I was slowly awakening from a long and fitful dream. I credit a combination of therapy, leaving the fashion magazine world where I worked for years, and the rise of body positive writers like Roxane Gay and Virginia Sole-Smith—role models who help illuminate how large bodies are treated in the world, and provide a new narrative as to what being healthy means. Now, I feel fine taking up space. Something has switched in my brain. I’ve started to accept my body for what it is and vowed to take better care of it.

I no longer own a scale. I stopped exercising to lose weight and now do it to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, with goals like maintaining my ability to walk up stairs and ride my bike, vital skills for living in Amsterdam. I stopped the cycle of food deprivation followed by binge eating. Since adopting these practices my weight has stayed steady, and I’ve learned to love and show gratitude for my body just as it is. I am even fine naked in the gym locker room surrounded by genetically gifted Dutch women, and if you can do that, you can do anything.

I stopped dying my hair three years ago after moving to Amsterdam, and it’s the most incredible gift I could have ever given myself. After years of dying, which was expensive and always ended up turning my dark hair orange and brittle, it’s now grown in with a blend of black and gray cascading waves with silver strands that frame my face similar to the highlights I paid a fortune for. Ironically, I turned to Instagram to follow Grombre during the growing-out phase to see other women’s stories of going gray and empathize with all the emotions women have tied up in their hair. Letting my hair go gray has given me back my beauty—this incredible hair that wanted to be there all along was born. I’ve perfected styling in an artful rat’s nest that I refer to as the Bride of Frankenstein meets Bridgette Bardot. It’s glamorous, and sexy.

I stopped dying my hair three years ago after moving to Amsterdam, and it’s the most incredible gift I could have ever given myself.

I’m planning my 50th birthday party at a castle in Amsterdam—you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a castle in Europe so it’s not as extravagant as it sounds, but I am here to tell you it is going to be a celebration the likes of which you have never seen (unless you are Oprah Winfrey, who I imagine has fabulous birthday parties).

(My birthday is in January but the party will be in June, on the summer solstice so that I can have it outside—of course, pending the state of the world with regard to Covid.)

I’m heading into my 50’s like a locomotive—a stylish one like the Orient Express. I’m ready, and you are all invited to join me.

All aboard.


Jennifer Barnett is the former managing editor of the Atlantic, Teen Vogue, Redbook and Elle. She lives in Amsterdam with her family and writes personal essays which you can read on Medium. 

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