Age, Beauty, and Writing Older Characters

“Age before beauty.” — unknown source

You’ve probably heard that saying a hundred times. If you’re on the “age” spectrum of the phrase, perhaps, some younger person has uttered the statement as they allowed you to go ahead in line at grocery store. On the other hand, if you consider yourself a representative of youthful beauty, you may have spoken the phrase while holding a door open for someone your senior even if that age gap is a narrow one. In fact, maybe you’ve said “age before beauty” in jest to someone your same age in an effort to offer a friendly, verbal jab.

No one knows the exact source of the saying although it was first recorded in an American newspaper in 1850. So, even the Victorians were apt to say “age before beauty” although it’s unclear if it was originally to be said with humor or simply as a sign of respect.

The most notable use of “age before beauty” reportedly related to an encounter between Clare Booth Luce, playwright and diplomat, and author Dorothy Parker. When both women came to a doorway at the same time, Luce stepped aside. She then nodded to Parker, who was ten years older, to go first and said “Age before beauty.” Without hesitation, the ever-witty Parker replied with probably one of her few Bible-based retorts, “Pearls before swine,” and headed through the door.

As I thought about this story and the phrase itself, I came to wonder why “age” and “beauty” are so often distinguished from each other in our culture. Doesn’t age hold its own special beauty? And, what is the “special beauty” inherent in those who have reached what some might consider “old age”? Finally, I wondered how a writer might bring out beauty in their older characters.

Perhaps, that “special beauty” may actually be found with each wrinkle, each gray hair, each bowed back because those features reflect the stories inherent throughout a long life. I read an anonymous quote from the website that offered an insight into this “special beauty.” It read, “Nothing is more beautiful than a smile that has struggled through years and tears.”

Thus, I suggest writers embrace the flaws and challenges of their elderly characters – their “struggles through years and tears” as the quote relates because those challenges can hone the mundane into the beautiful. Isn’t it the irritant that forms the pearl?  Doesn’t pressure make diamonds from coal? Shouldn’t older characters be written with the sensibility that beauty isn’t something lost with age but is actually a quality gained over the years?

I had that challenge when first introducing readers to the title character of my middle reader novel, Sarah Finn. “Miss Sarah” is first seen through the eyes of the book’s main character, eleven-year-old Cathryn. But, all the girl sees initially are the outward signs of age in the woman she describes as “probably the oldest person I’ve ever met.” But, as Cathryn looks more intently at the elderly woman, she begins to see beyond the superficial as this excerpt from the novel indicates.

“But, as I kept staring I saw the sparkle in her dark brown eyes like the reflection of stars on Church Creek during youth group camp-outs. And, the wrinkles that framed her eyes and mouth made me think she was a person who had smiled a lot over her many years. I hadn’t noticed until now how her hair looked like a halo formed of strands of white and silver.

I was a bit surprised to realize the word that came to me as I continued looking at this old woman was “beautiful.” But, this beauty didn’t come from having the looks of a movie star or a fashion model. It seemed to come from something else – from somewhere else. It was the kind of special beauty Momma said came from the inside of a person and not the outside. I never really knew what that meant until that moment.” 

excerpt from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor

Cathryn’s new-found opinion and the memory of her mother’s words about inner beauty brought to my mind this quote from the actress Audrey Hepburn.

“The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode, but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives the passion that she shows.The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.”

So, the next time you hear the phrase “age before beauty,” you may wish to remember the words of Audrey Hepburn, as well as young Cathryn, and correct the speaker.

“Age IS beauty.”

by PortiaLily Taylor

Photo by Edu Carvalho on

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