In her upcoming memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be, Diane von Furstenberg shares her hard-won philosophy on aging, style, and inner confidence.
Aging is out of your control. How you handle it, though, is in your hands.
When I was a girl, I always wanted to be older than I was. I knelt next to my father in the car so that people would think I was a grown-up. I scratched my cheeks with my nails because I wanted to have a lived-in face like the French movie star Jeanne Moreau. I always looked older than my actual years, so much so that when Newsweek put me on the cover in 1976, the editors didn’t believe I was 29 and sent a reporter to check my birth certificate.
I started my adult life at 22, married a prince, had two children by the time I was 24, and a successful financial life by 30. Looking back, I realize I was pretty in my late 20s, but I didn’t really think so. I knew how to enhance what I had, highlighting my eyes and cheekbones, playing with my hair and my legs, and acting with confidence. I knew I was seductive, but I never thought I was beautiful.
My 30s were my best years. I was still young but felt grown-up, lived an adventurous life, raised my children, and ran a business. The 40s were harder. My children went off to boarding school and college; I sold my business. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I started to question my own style.
Things got better when I hit 50. I went back to work, creating a new studio environment and repositioning my brand. I was again the woman I wanted to be . . . engaged and engaging. I married my longtime love Barry Diller and became a grandmother. I embraced my age and my life. It was the beginning of the age of fulfillment, which continues today. Now, in my 60s, I know I have less time ahead and want to enjoy as much as possible.
I’m grateful I never thought of myself as beautiful when I was young. We all fade somewhat as time goes on. Women who rely only on their beauty can feel invisible later in life. It’s sad, for I feel in the latter part of your life you should feel fulfilled, not defeated.
Youth is wonderful; it’s exciting because it is the beginning of life. But it is essential to learn from the past and look into the future without resentment.
When I was very young, I was arrogant. I used to boast that I’d retire at 30. As I got older, I became arrogant about my age in a different way. I defied it. I would be dismissive and say, “Oh, age means nothing.”
But lately, I’m not as vocal about that. I am not entirely sure what happened to change my attitude. Perhaps it was a ski accident I had at the start of 2011 that made me more humble. One minute I’d been skiing happily with Barry in Aspen, Colorado; the next minute, an out-of-control first-time skier barreled into me.
My face was mangled and bleeding. X-rays showed my eye-orbit bones had hairline fractures, my nose was broken and my ribs were fractured. The timing of the accident couldn’t have been worse. I had a couple of big months coming up—a photo shoot that week, the acceptance of an award at a gala benefit for amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) in New York, and my fall runway show during Fashion Week.
I also had a long-standing appointment to be photographed by Chuck Close. Having your photograph taken by Chuck Close is like having an X-ray. There is nothing between you and him; no filter, no makeup, no flattering lights, and practically no space because he takes his photos close-up and head-on. I decided to keep the appointment, and the result was raw, very raw: My recovering face looked droopy and was laced with black smudges. I should have really hated the photo, but I kind of liked it because it was real.
The biggest reminder of my mortality had come earlier, though, when I was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 at the age of 47. One minute I was fine, the next I was undergoing radiation at the base of my tongue and soft palate. It started at a lunch with Ralph Lauren, who told me about a benign tumor he had had removed from his brain. “How did you find out you had the tumor?” I asked. “I kept hearing some noise in my left ear.” As he said those words I heard a noise in my left ear. The following day it was still there. Could it be my imagination?
“There is nothing wrong with your ear,” the doctor told me, but he found a swollen gland on the right side of my neck. I had a biopsy, and nothing bad came out. “It is a benign cyst; don’t worry,” I was told. I did not like the idea of having a cyst, so I scheduled a surgical procedure to have it removed the following week. As I woke up groggy from the anesthesia with my mother and my daughter, Tatiana, by my side, the doctor told us the news. When they removed the cyst, they had found squamous cell carcinoma that had already metastasized.
The following days were terrifying. An operation that would cut most of my neck away? Chemotherapy? Radiation? Everything sounded scary, but I had no choice but to accept the illness, listen to the doctors, take time for myself, and focus on my health. I had to get well, kill the bad cells forever, and never, ever let them come back. I repeated that sentence over and over to myself so often that it became a little victory song in French.
Confronting my cancer was challenging, but enriching. I became more compassionate about the suffering of others, appreciated the value of health, became more spiritual and understood both my fragility and my strength. I have remained thankful to God, the doctors, my family, my friends, and my own power. My little French song worked, and I have been cancer-free ever since.
I became much more health-conscious after my bout with cancer. I eat lightly and in moderation—fresh, organic vegetables and fruits, grains and beans, little meat—and I resist sugar as much as I’m able to, but I still love dark chocolate and an occasional glass of great red wine.
My legs are stronger than they were when I was 30 because of all the hikes I love to do. Uphill, the steeper the better. When I’m in New York, I climb up and down the five flights of stairs at the DVF headquarters, sometimes taking the steps two at a time, even in high heels. I swim just as strenuously, and I stay supple by doing yoga a couple of times a week.
I also have a facial once a week from an Englishwoman named Tracie Martyn who attaches something, I don’t know what, to her fingertips, which channels low-voltage electricity to my face and helps fight gravity. I’ve been going to Tracie for fifteen years now, and my office knows it’s the only appointment that can’t be canceled.
Most importantly, I have a massage at least once a week. I used to think massages were vain and indulgent, but I’ve learned that isn’t true. Massage bolsters the body’s defense system, aids circulation, and rids your body of toxins.
What I have learned is that when you are sick, much of healing is in the hands of doctors and science, but part of it is finding and using your own power.
I know that people look at me and wonder why I have not succumbed to the progress of technology. Why have I not frozen or filled in the lines of my forehead. Why have I not clipped the bits of surplus skin on my eyelids. I am not sure, but probably because I am afraid of freezing time, of not recognizing myself in the mirror, the image I have been so friendly with. My image is who I am, and even if I don’t always love it, I am intrigued by it, and I find the changes interesting. Even staring at the small wrinkles that curl around my lips can be interesting. They just appear, one day at a time.
In my older face, I see my life. Every wrinkle, every smile line, every age spot. There is a saying that with age, you look outside what you are inside. If you are someone who never smiles your face gets saggy. If you’re a person who smiles a lot, you will have more smile lines. Your wrinkles reflect the roads you have taken; they form the map of your life. My face reflects the wind and sun and rain and dust from the trips I’ve taken. My face carries all my memories. Why should I erase them?
In a sense I feel more beautiful than I have ever felt because my life is full, my children and grandchildren are my pride, and so is the body of my work. I have traveled the world, seen so much beauty in nature, met so many people. I cannot pretend that I am younger than I am, and truly I feel that I have lived so fully that I should be twice my age.
Copyright © 2014 by Diane von Furstenberg. From the forthcoming book The Woman I Wanted to Be, by Diane von Furstenberg, to be published on October 28 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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