On Cat Rim Glasses and Elderly Women’s Hair: Embracing Aging Beauty

I have an impolite matter of curiosity. I frequently wondered why older women seem to cut off their hair and sport extremely short styles. As a child, when I would ask people my question, I would face gentle rebuke, often with a condescending “You’ll understand when you grow up.” Here’s an update: I grew up, and I still don’t get it.

The question came to mind recently when I began contemplating how much I love cat rimmed glasses. Sometimes, cat rims are associated with genuine nerd kitsch; at other times, they signify the new nerd archetype, often in the guise of a stereotypical loud feminist. There are even the critics who don’t understand the aesthetic at all and label the style as a fashion mistake period. When I wear my cat rim glasses, I don’t see myself fitting into any of these understandings.

My initial admiration for cat rims came from my grandmother. Her cat rims seemed like the only marker of pure individuality or perhaps edginess that she ever carried. By the time I knew her, she was already an aged matron; some might have called her a crone. She had been wearing stretchy department store slacks, grandmotherly polo tops, plastic beads, and homey cardigans in primary colors for twenty years at least. Like other elderly women, her hair was styled short and puffy. Her cat rims, in contrast, didn’t come from a department store, didn’t speak of ease, and weren’t easy to understand; they weren’t practical and basic as her approach to life was. In her defense, her complexity was in her extensive kindness practice; I have as yet to meet any one close to having her heart. I understand that exteriority does not speak to interiority.

Despite her basic style, she had multiple pairs of distinct cat rim glasses, authentic vintage ones, sharp edged and extending past her temples. They were nothing you could pick up at the drugstore. She had her optometrists use the old frames instead of getting new ones in a different shape. She kept her glasses from tumbling down into her cavernous bag or slipping down her napping face to certain peril with eye glass chains, but she wasn’t wearing the plastic beaded ones that look like it was made by Girl Scouts. Her eye glass chains were metal; the chains could have been worn around the neck. These eye glass chains looked like jewelry. As a small child, her eyeglass choices and accompanying eye glass chains were the most unique accessories I had seen, and I liked that I was seeing an old woman make an unusual fashion choice.

Even though my grandmother was willing to make an edgy fashion choice, she still followed social convention when it came to her hair. Looking back on family photos, her hair got shorter and shorter as she aged. I always thought that old women, including my grandmother, would look better with longer hair. Eventually I got an answer from an older woman about this. Her answer was that some women’s hair thins out as they age. Shorter hair makes it look fuller. After a simple online search, I also learned that some women believe shorter hair lifts their face and that it is easier to care for, which is a boon for women who experience the fatigue that come with the years and/or ailment. I understand the easier to care for thing, but I think many older women are misguided. There is no way to fight time. The shorter hair cut doesn’t make anyone look younger; in fact, I suspect it actually ages women since it is associated with the later part of life. That’s not to say that all people who choose a short bob, or perhaps a cut that is shorter still, are ugly or are enacting a hair sin. A short bob can be really nice, and some people have the perfect face for a pixie. My observation is more to the point that there are a lot of elderly women out there who would look nice with longer hair but don’t grow their hair long because they think they are supposed to have short hair. They buy into social stereotyping.

That being said, I really don’t harbor judgment on other human beings about what they do to their own hair. It’s none of my business, and everyone has different preferences. People should do what they want with their hair since they are the ones who have to live with the hair Nature gave them. I subjectively may or may not appreciate the style, but that really doesn’t matter to anyone other than me. Beyond the subjective, I would argue there is a base level of objective truth to aesthetics, one that people are sometimes disconnected to due to disdain, nihilism, or ignorance. The truth may very well be that many women who cut their hair so short are doing so from a misguided place since it often does not look better despite what they might think. Instead of looking like they have more hair, it looks like they have less (since it is short, of course) and nothing but surgery or Botox will have the power to life the face. On the other hand, cutting one’s hair short for ease of care makes sense, especially because older people often have to deal with the unpleasant realities of an aging body. They may have had cancer and are recovering from treatments that makes the hair fall out, or perhaps they suffer from some other sort of debilitating ailment that makes every extra movement painful, including each pull of a comb down a long strand of hair. In such extreme circumstances, aesthetics would naturally be the last of their worries.

In the end though, the norm of elderly women cutting off their hair is a negative thing if it is done so because of social pressure. Modern society, despite feminism, has a tendency to place more value on youthful or fertile feminine archetypes. After a women’s reproductive years have turned to dust, elderly women may still be loved and respected. They may still work or spend time with family, but the mainstream message is that they aren’t beautiful and have lost their worth. Younger people are busy establishing themselves in the world and finding themselves while middle aged people are working hard to make sure that they can remedy problems, take care of others, find meaning, reach their potential, and/or enjoy themselves. Elderly people often aren’t given a lot of attention. They’re from another time anyway, and as such, often hold unpopular or unfamiliar opinions and are seen by many as needing help and thus a burden. They are thus appreciated from a distance or at the very least deprioritized in the public sphere of culture as evidence in the media, which is the number one influence on cultural expression and belief today. The point is that because society venerates youthful beauty, some of these women may view themselves, in their aging beauty, as little better than walking corpses and in cutting their hair, they cut away the last of their beauty and the last of their signifiers as part of the world of the living. Their haircuts may suggest their own subconscious vision of themselves as lacking social currency. After all, in the long course of human history, short, cropped hair was a style often adopted, by choice or by force, by those in servitude, penitence, abstinence, or mourning.

The counter argument for long hair is that beauty shouldn’t necessarily be the dominant marker of worth and that older women peaked during the ascent of feminist values; therefore, their short hair shouldn’t be viewed as a signifier of negation. They may see short hair as powerful and value power over aesthetics. Some people may argue that shorter hair generates more serious consideration and a deeper sense of autonomy. In the corporate world, shorter, more masculine looking hair is often seen as holding more authority and practicality. Some aging women may adopt short hair for this reason, to semiotically generate the respect that is sometimes not given to those well in their years. Women who cut their hair short for this reason may not care about beauty at all, and of course, they don’t have to. When age is advanced, however, a hair cut doesn’t have the power to generate more respect or authority. Once again, I state that people should do what they want. However, regardless of what feminism may hold true or untrue, beauty is an important part of the feminine psyche, and older women still hold beauty though aged. It may actually be true that older women don’t realize the extent to which they can maintain a relationship with beauty because of the social norm of keeping aged beauty out of the spot light.

One day at a local grocery store, I encountered an incredibly aged woman in line. I had never seen an elderly woman quite like her albeit I had been keeping my eyes open for them. She was probably in her 70s, but she could have been older. She wore a blouse and skirt that seemed like originals from the 1940s. I had seen similar garb in old black and white films. She wore hosiery and kitten heels. Her hair was white and of middle length. It was plainly but beautifully styled. There was a hint of vintage curl to it. She caught me looking at her, and I smiled. She smiled back. The reason why I wanted to find an older lady who still interacts with her own beauty, however faded it may be, is because I aspire to become a beautiful older lady. I hope to never cut off all my hair and trade in my dresses for senior citizen “active wear” from the department store. If I live to be 109, and yes this is a bit of an exaggeration, I hope to still do a little something with my hair and care about my appearance. That might be wishful thinking because most centenarians have vision issues and other impairments that come with age, but I can have my dreams. Beauty doesn’t have to die before the body.

Beauty doesn’t define me or anyone else in terms of ultimate value; nevertheless, I view beauty as a feminine birth right. Some people see me wearing cat rims and think I’m chained to outdated fashion sense. They recommend contact lenses or a surgery, thinking they’re helping a misguided soul. Meanwhile, I see myself as expressing my feline sensibilities and my appreciation for vintage. The goal is to maintain my rebellion against the cookie cutter fashion of the times. This approach to life extends to what I imagine in my future. I hope to never join the short puffy hair club. Twenty or thirty years from now, I will still tend to my beauty on a daily basis: not because I have to but because I want to. I don’t want feminism or modern society’s disdain for traditional gender norms or the aging process to dictate my engagement with beauty.

While I wouldn’t want to push my beliefs on others, I would like to open up the suggestion that even if women are elderly or aging that in no way means they have to give up their feminine expression or their connection with beauty, whatever that might mean. Reaching a certain age doesn’t mean you have to cut off all your hair. It probably won’t help you in the way that you think it will. Beauty is individual and so is the expression of it. My ultimate hope is that society can appreciate the expression of beauty in older women rather than act as if there is no beauty to be found. If that expression is odd or unusual, for example vintage dress or longer white hair, that beauty can still be appreciated for what it is, after all.

Works Consulted

Bartlett, Robert. “Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. Vol. 4. (1994).43–60.

Bromberger, Christian. “Hair: From the West to the Middle East through the Mediterranean (The 2007 AFS Mediterranean Studies Section Address).” The Journal of American Folklore. 121.482. (2008). pp. 379–399.

Roy, Helen. “Maiden, Mother, Matriarch.” The American Mind. 15 April 2021. Web. Accessed 06 August 2021. <americanmind.org/salvo/maiden-mother-matriarch/>

Syme, Rachel. “Why Older Woman Often Opt for Short Hair…” Fashion. 08 May 2015. Web. Accessed 06 August 2021. <fashionmagazine.com/beauty-grooming/older-women-short-hair/>

Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 38, no. 3, 1987, pp. 381–413.

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