By Christine Lennon
Updated: Apr 15, 2019 @ 10:33 am
Alexander Neumann/Shotview

However impossible it may be to ignore Connie Britton’s hair (that cascade of strawberry-blond waves, universally celebrated since the television début of Friday Night Lights in 2006), you should try for a moment to divert your gaze and check out — discreetly, of course — her legs. Long and lean, too strong to be spindly but lithe as can be, Britton’s gams challenge all the assumptions about how women over 50 should look and dress.

“After this photo shoot I got together with a friend, and she asked about my day,” says Britton, 52, over lunch in Los Feliz, an L.A. neighborhood near her home. Wearing a simple black T-shirt with long sleeves and the slimmest black jeans, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she’s doing her best not to stop traffic.

“I said, ‘Well, I was doing this InStyle shoot for, like, the Beauty Issue. It was for my legs.” Here, she pantomimes a little sheepish modesty. “Then my friend said, ‘Oh, they didn’t get your boobs this time?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, just my legs today.’ And then she said, ‘Did they get your ass?’ And I said, ‘No! My ass is terrible!’ And then she said, ‘I know your ass is terrible. I’m just trying to keep you humble!’ And she’s right. I have a terrible ass.”

This is Britton’s charming, self-deprecating way of saying she knows herself. And dressing to flaunt her legs, the product of many hours of hiking the trails around L.A. and more than a few years of teaching aerobics around New York in the ’90s, is the aesthetic expression of that.

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When Britton talks about her life, it’s like sitting in on a master class in self-acceptance. Her journey started when she was a newly married 20-something Dartmouth graduate in New York who went to casting calls between leg lifts and side steps; she got her first break when she was cast in a tiny independent movie called The Brothers McMullen. Nearly 30 years later, she has a long list of credits, including some key roles on game-changing television shows, and she’s become politically outspoken (her current favorite presidential candidate is New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, her longtime friend and former college roommate). Britton’s perspective and voice, equally well-versed in miniskirts and feminist psychology, are as wise and insightful as they come.

“As women in our 40s and 50s, or at any age, we should embrace the aspects of ourselves that we feel good about,” she says. “That should never change.”

To say that Britton flatly rejects all traditional expectations of how “mature” women should operate in the world isn’t entirely true. “When we get older, we have these ideas that we’re not supposed to wear a short skirt. You cut your hair and don’t wear a short skirt. What’s the idea behind that?” she asks. “Maybe, fundamentally, it’s just that you want to be more efficient or make it easier to move around, or you don’t want people to see your knees anymore. By now you’ve got kids, and your kids are gonna pull that hair, so you might as well keep it short. All of these things are very old-school ideas that we don’t allow ourselves to question. Let’s ask ourselves, ‘Why? Why did we think those things?’”

Alexander Neumann/Shotview

The single mother’s inquisitive nature — she adopted her son, Yoby, from Ethiopia in 2011 — benefits her beyond her style choices. It’s also how she decides which roles to take and how to play them. As Tami Taylor, the beloved coach’s wife in a small Texas town in Friday Night Lights, she helped her audience redefine their ideas of what an equitable marriage looks like. As Rayna Jaymes, a 40-something country-music star on Nashville, Britton rejected a story line that would have pitted her against a 20-something rival, fearful that her own character’s appeal would wane. When she portrayed Debra Newell, the target of a violent con man in the Bravo series Dirty John, she did it with compassion, recognizing her character as a woman who’s caught up in the notion that she’s more valuable when she has a man in her life.

“I have to!” she claims. “There is no joy in doing it any other way. I’m not really a judgmental person, but when it comes to my characters, I always access what’s in the interior. In the United States we’ve seen a real population of women who are not ready to break down those barriers and break out of the roles that have been handed down for generations. We see it with women trying to accept a female political candidate. And then we have all these conversations about #MeToo and Time’s Up, and that’s all really new. We’re pushing inside of and against boundaries. It’s exciting, but I think it’s intimidating for a lot of people too. It’s hard to question the things that make us feel secure and make us think we’re safe. To go into an area we don’t recognize requires some courage.”

Now Britton is taking a short break from acting to move into a new house with her son, continue her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme, and flex her muscles as a producer (she’s developing new ideas for female-driven projects). And, of course, she is stumping for Gillibrand.

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“I’m so proud [of Kirsten]. I have known [her] since childhood, practically. We dormed together when we studied abroad in China, of all places. It was a time of growth for both of us. To be able to look back to who she was, so many of the qualities I see in her now were obvious then. Even then she was a great leader and such an empathic and insightful person. She was also fearless and courageous. I want everyone to know her as well as I know her.”

For Britton to have a progressive voice and maintain the hair that once had its own fan-driven Twitter account requires an impressive balance of levity, wit, and intelligence. And there’s something about how Britton sees herself and strives to treat herself with as much kindness as she extends to others: That’s her real secret to aging well.

“Listen, I don’t mean to imply that accepting what happens when we age is the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s not,” she says. “It’s a constant process of reacquainting ourselves with our bodies that we think we know. We need to do it with love and compassion and acceptance. If I can reacquaint myself with this body and do the best I can,” she says, smiling, “then that’s it.”

Photographed by: Alexander Neumann. Styling: Jessica de Ruiter. Hair: Creighton Bowman for Tomlinson Management Group. Makeup: Elaine Offers for Exclusive Artists Management. Manicure: Ashlie Johnson for The Wall Group. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.  

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download on April 19.