Brad Ogbonna

"Life Is About Change": Black Women on Aging, Beauty, and the Power in Growing Older

State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.
Nov 19, 2019 @ 11:30 am

There's no denying that many women are afraid of getting older — or at least looking it.

In our State of Skin study, we asked over 1,800 women of all races and ethnicities about their feelings on aging and beauty. About half shared that anti-aging products are a necessity for them, with most beginning to use them around age 35. And who can blame them when most beauty advertisements feature young faces, while women over 50 are generally ignored

Yet, among Black women — whom our research found to be the least likely to use anti-aging products — looking and getting older is embraced, not feared. And that notion is deeply rooted within our ancestry. 

"In many traditional West African societies, like the Akans of Ghana, elderhood was a great status," says Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of the District of Columbia, who specializes in traditional African cultural rituals. "When someone became a grandmother, they had more power and choice. That meant appearing older as a woman could speak to your influence — the older you looked, the more you were respected." 

These same ideals are still recognized today. 

"Women like Cicely Tyson and Angela Bassett are known in Black communities for aging gracefully," the professor says. "And it's not necessarily about getting work done or having regular chemical peels. But more so about celebrating life as the years go on. We get excited to see Black women age, given the social structures that try to extinguish us. We know that just living to an older age is an act of resistance. Aging shows what you’ve been through, what you’ve survived, and what you’ve accomplished." 

Women like Denise Harris, Dionne Scott, Karen Cummings, Haydee Rosario, Pat Tracey, and Hyacinth Kennedy, photographed above, couldn't agree more. At 50-years-old and over, they're each more comfortable in their beautiful brown skin than ever before. And there's nothing they're looking forward to more than the future, which includes all the glorious physical changes that will come with living more life. Below, they share what aging looks and feels like — and means — to each of them.

 

Brad Ogbonna

DENISE HARRIS, 50 — BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

No one [laughs]. I didn’t start caring about it probably until my 40s. And that was only because I started to see a few wrinkles, and I was like, “Wait, what?” I worked in publishing at the time, so I went to a beauty editor I knew and I asked what I was supposed to do. She turned to me and said, “First of all, if you’re in your 40s and this is the first time you’re worrying about using an eye cream, just shut up.” Before that, my skin wasn’t perfect, but it was OK, so I didn’t think too much about it. 

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

I think around 40 I started to worry, but not because of how I looked. For me, I kept on thinking I needed to be at a certain place in life, I needed to be doing a certain thing — that’s what freaked me out. But I eventually squashed that. In terms of beauty, once I saw the wrinkles, I was fine with what was going on, it was just a change. I just had to figure out what products worked for me. 

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

I do use a serum that says anti-aging. But I’m not using it because I think I need to stay young. I just know I like what’s in it and I like the results.

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

I think was intimidated by skincare products at first, because I like to just get up and go. There were just so many steps, and it confused me. But now I’ve found a magical combination for my routine and I kind of like it. I first wash my face with Indie Lee’s Brightening Cleanser, then I use Dickinson's Witch Hazel as a toner. I also have an ointment that I put on any discoloration, and I have that anti-aging serum. And honestly, this is bad, but I just started using SPF every day. 

What do you think makes Black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

The melanin in our skin. I mean, come on, it’s the truth. It makes us radiant and it makes us beautiful. 

What’s your favorite feature? 

I love my eyelashes. And maybe this is because I am a personal trainer, but just any part of my body. I feel like my body serves me well. I like trying to keep it in tact. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

Smiling is number one. And trying to stick to this beauty routine and drink water. Also, just giving thanks and praise every chance I get, because I’m grateful for my life.

 

Brad Ogbonna

DIONNE SCOTT, 50 — MONROE, LOUISIANA 

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

My mother most definitely taught me that you should always leave the house with earrings and lipstick — she always cared about the way she looked. But when it came to skincare, I think I learned that on my own and through friends, seeing what worked for them. I’ve tried all kinds of things. I used Neutrogena in my teens when I had acne all over the sides of my cheeks. But nothing I used ever made it totally go away. Then as a young adult, I started paying more attention to my skin, I would use Proactiv and get facials here and there.

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

Oh yeah. The first time I was scared of getting older was when I was about to turn 30, which in hindsight of course is ridiculous — 30 is incredibly young. Then I think when I turned 40, I started to notice a difference in my body, in my skin. Everything just looked more dull. Before 40, I could just chug some water and the next day, everything would be bright. Even if I got a pimple or something, they used to heal. After 40, they would leave marks all over my skin. I also had to pay more attention to working out. 

When did you start to embrace aging? 

In my late 40s, really. I am a late bloomer and I had my children later in life. I had my first child in my early 40s, and my wife carried the second one. I really think children put things into perspective. It made me look at things like: “I’m alive. I’m here to take care of my kids.” I also know a lot more now, I’m wiser. I think prior to that I had been so concerned with what other people think. Then towards my late 40s, I started to honor myself. I started to appreciate what I brought to the table, and stopped trying to change it. 

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

I think at the end of the day, it has to do with your genes, but yes. I mean, whatever you want to do to make yourself feel good about the way you look I think is fine. So if someone wants to use anti-aging products, then go right ahead. I certainly use creams and whatever. 

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

I grew up in the '70s, and my dad was in the military so we moved around a lot. I lived all over: Germany, Pennsylvania, Texas. Everywhere I went, all the things that I saw in terms of beauty were white women. Blonde was the ideal beauty. As a Black woman, I’d try to like something a little different than that. But I’d still get caught up in the whole thing of “good hair,” straighter nose, all that. And in my experiences, that’s what men were attracted to. But when I came to New York as an adult, I started to see different people, I started to appreciate other types of beauty. Even with my freckles, I didn’t always think that was a beautiful thing. But I eventually just started to love what I have. I can’t put my finger on why, I think it’s just a part of getting older, but now I think the features that I have are great. 

RELATED: Phoebe Robinson on the Evolution of Black Beauty Standards: "Straight, Relaxed Hair Is No Longer the Only Kind of Black Beauty — Which Is Awesome"

What do you think makes black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

A Black woman’s way of being is so rich and original. As we age, we just become so much more refined. We better ourselves, despite the fact that we’re living in a world where we aren’t the most appreciated. I mean, we experience racism and sexism and a lot of us are carrying our families on our shoulders. But we also have been leading the charge, we're influential. We struggle, but it’s incredible that we are also so prolific at the same time.

What’s your favorite feature? 

My decolletage; I think it’s sexy. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

Positivity. I always try to see the silver lining, which is not to say that you can’t be sad or mad. But life is a journey. 

 

Brad Ogbonna

KAREN CUMMINGS, 51 — QUEENS, NEW YORK

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

My grandmother, she was from Trinidad. There weren’t a lot of products back in those days, but she was actually the one who stressed about removing your makeup at the end of the day. She used to have Ponds Cold Cream, and she would make sure I used it. She also gave me Noxzema, I think when I turned 15, to clean my skin. And she told me to drink lots of water, which I still do. I feel like she glowed because she drank gallons and gallons of water. 

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

I think just society makes it seem like after a certain age, you are no longer attractive. I was divorced when I was 30, I was a single mother, and you start to wonder if you are still attractive. But personally, for me, that was temporary. I love how I look, I feel like I’ve kind of grown into it. So I really don’t care about too many other people and their opinions. I’m the one that has to look back in the mirror.

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

Absolutely, if you’re talking about using the appropriate retinol or cream. For me, a couple of years ago, I started working out a lot, getting into my own health more and started thinking about what I was putting into and doing to my body. And part of that was discovering the Clairsonic. It's a little expensive, but it really changed the texture of my skin. Then I started looking at products. I love Perricone MD, Tatcha, Josie Maran — especially the tinted moisturizer with SPF. For me, I think those things just enhance how you age. 

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

I’m sure at 16, when I was going through breakouts, people told me to buy products that addressed those issues topically. But I don’t think anyone ever told me to address what was going on in my body. Other than that, I get facials now, I go in saunas, I get massages, all those things kind of help me feel good. That’s not something I really knew about when I was 16. Before, I always felt like I needed to be made up and covered up, and now I put on a little moisturizer, maybe a little concealer — it depends on how I feel — and then I go out. It doesn’t bother me to go and do errands on the weekends without much on my face. I just feel like I’ve become more comfortable in my skin as I’ve gotten older.

What do you think makes Black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

Besides the melanin that we have naturally? I think we have such internal beauty that just shines. For us, I think it’s part of our culture, part of our sass, part of who we are. I have never felt like I’ve wanted to be anything but a Black woman. 

What’s your favorite feature? 

I love my eyes. I look a lot like my dad and I think that’s my favorite feature. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

Exercise — that’s how I start my day. I am up at 4:30 in the morning every day. It’s my anchor, it centers my day, it makes me relaxed and chill. I love to sweat and I feel like that enhances your beauty. 

 

Brad Ogbonna

HAYDEE ROSARIO, 63 — SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

My neighbor Juanna, and also my mother and my aunt. Juanna taught me how to pluck my eyebrows. My mom taught me how to use lipsticks, and my aunt taught me about eyeshadows. In terms of skincare, I’m from the Caribbean, so we didn’t use a lot of the products that people use in America. We would mostly use oils like jojoba and aloe vera on our face and bodies — very natural products.  

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

In my late 40s, I started noticing that my gray hair was coming out and that scared me at first. But I’ve been lucky with my skin, I love my melanin. Even now, I’m not worried about my skin as I get older. I believe that beauty comes from the inside. 

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

Absolutely not. I moisturize my face with creams from the pharmacy, but I enhance it with glycerin and fresh lemon juice. 

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

I think that there’s beauty in all stages. When I was a teenager, the way I looked at beauty was totally different than when I was 25, and so on, until now. But I’ve never been scared of getting older. Life is about change and I've always been very aware of it, and I embrace it.  

What do you think makes Black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

Our melanin. We are also strong and confident. The history that comes with being a Black woman, the adversities we have to go through in life, that gives Black women that power and strength as we're aging and that’s what makes us beautiful. 

What’s your favorite feature? 

My eyes and my cheek bones. I think I have beautiful eyes — the color, the shape. And my cheek bones always stand out on my face. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

I am a vegetarian, I drink a lot of water, I step out of my comfort zone. I just live life, and I don’t worry about the future. If you don’t get old, you die young.  

 

Brad Ogbonna

PAT TRACEY, 65 — PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD 

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

Coming from Trinidad back in the day, people were more simple about their skincare, there weren’t a lot of products. But my mother taught me to always, always keep yourself clean, keep your skin moisturized, don’t go to bed with makeup on — just the basic things like that. But it wasn’t a very product-heavy upbringing. 

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

When I was in my 30s, I didn’t really understand what was happening to my skin. I would see changes, like the little lines under my eyes were getting more pronounced. I wasn’t waking up as dewy as I used to, I was getting drier in the winter. Then when I reached my 40s, I was like, this isn’t so bad. I kind of like this club. By that point you’ve kind of gelled as a woman and you know who you are. Once I turned 50 I said, “All right, now I’m settling in.” Now I’m 65, so at 60, I figured this is it. If I’m not comfortable in my skin now, then when will it be? 

On being a model in her 60s...

I’ve been modeling for a total of 33 years. But in my 40s demand began to wane. It was a young woman’s game, and work began to fizzle out. By my 50s, I thought it was time to hang up my eyelashes and heels, the jig was up. Then lo and behold, in my 60s there is a demand again. I think cosmetic and fashion companies are eager to be inclusive of our demographic and work is on the upswing. 

What is most surprising is that the changes in my skin, that are natural result of the aging, are not being viewed as flaws to be hidden. Many clients now want the natural you, not the airbrushed facsimile. To present myself now "as is" feels freeing, and I’m happy and proud to boldly represent women of my generation.

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

I think some of them do work. I’m not a huge product person, but I do like using a proper under eye cream and I like to exfoliate. 

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

When I was younger, I think as a Black woman I was led to believe that ethnic beauty was not quite as beautiful. I used to think my nose was too big, and that type of thing, but not anymore. As society has grown more inclusive and accepting of other types, my view of it is, “OK this is me, I like how I look. I feel comfortable, so this is it. Like it or leave it.” 

What do you think makes Black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

Well first of all, we come in such a fabulous variety of colors and types and bone structures, and that’s fascinating in itself. And then of course you can’t beat the melanin — just can’t beat the melanin. We’re ahead of the game. 

What’s your favorite feature? 

Just my skin in general. I love the color that I am, I like being brown. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

I don’t stress, if possible. And sleep — got to get enough sleep

 

Brad Ogbonna

HYACINTH KENNEDY, 82 — KINGSTON, JAMAICA 

Who was the first person to teach you about beauty and skincare? 

My mother died at a very young age, when I was about 12. But we had a helper and she used to take care of our hair and everything. Once we reached the age to wear makeup, she would tell us that we have to clean our makeup off before we go to bed. But we used to use plants that grow outside on our skin, like aloe vera and one we used to call tuna [prickly pear cactus]. 

Have you ever felt afraid of getting older?

Not really. I always embraced it. 

Do you believe in using anti-aging products? 

No. It’s not that I don’t believe in it, but we have natural things that we can use for the skin. 

How have your views on beauty changed throughout the years? 

You have some people who wear makeup and stuff when they’re young. And when they get older, they don’t take care of themselves like when they were younger. But I still value skincare the same way. 

What do you think makes Black women uniquely beautiful, especially as we age? 

I don’t really know why, but what I notice is that the older Black women get, the more their skin becomes beautiful. And maybe that’s according to the food that they eat. 

What’s your favorite feature? 

My skin, it’s really smooth. And my face — I look good. I've felt this way my whole life. 

What’s your secret for staying beautiful?

I’m careful with the food that I eat, and I try not to worry a lot.

 

Photographs by Brad Ogbonna. Hair by Susy Oludele. Makeup by Stephen Hudson. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.