Nia Long Gets Real About the Pressure of Being Called 'Ageless' — 'I Am a Proud 51'

After more than two decades in Hollywood, the actress and SmileDirectClub partner tells PEOPLE: "What I know now is grace and patience and acceptance are much more interesting to me than perfectionism"

Nia Long
Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Nia Long has enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood for more than two decades, and she's happy to act — and look — her age.

Speaking with PEOPLE, the 51-year-old Fatal Affair actress shared how well-intentioned praise like being called "ageless" can sometimes implicitly feed into unrealistic beauty standards for celebrities.

"I so appreciate the compliment," says Long, a SmileDirectClub partner. "But I have to tell you, there's so much pressure in this industry to stay beautiful and to stay young. And I'm really not interested in leaning into this idea of perfection."

She continues, "I am a proud 51, and eventually I'm going to age in a way where it's obvious and I want it to happen beautifully and gracefully. I don't really want the pressure of feeling like I have to be beautiful and perfect because I think beauty comes at any age."

Long says she often finds herself being too hard on herself when she makes public appearances because she's "trying to live up to a version of myself that was 20 years ago."

Nia Long
P. Lehman/Future Publishing via Getty

To offset the inevitable sense of expectation that comes as part of her job, Long consciously steers clear of "anti-aging" practices when it comes to her beauty routine.

"I don't do anti-aging things, or use products because I think I look old or am trying to avoid aging," she says. "I use products to stay healthy and to keep healthy, vibrant skin. There's a difference."

Instead, Long focuses on hydration, serums, vitamins, biotin and simply wearing less makeup.

"The skin gods have definitely blessed me," she acknowledges. "I'm always grateful and thankful for my good, clean, healthy skin. But I don't take it for granted. And in order to maintain healthy skin, you have to do the work."

She continues, "But I honestly think the real beauty comes from within. And I know for myself, I am a work in progress. I mean, we can use all the creams, all the lotions, all the makeup in the world, but if you're not feeling good on the inside, the beauty just isn't radiant. It becomes sort of this superficial mask."

And after a difficult two years living amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Long is ready to safely take down her mask when possible. In fact, the joy at showing off her whole face — and seeing others' faces — is part of the reason she partnered with SmileDirectClub.

"I think now that we are all able to walk around without wearing masks, it's like such a relief to be able to see someone smile," she tells PEOPLE.

Calling the last few years "a traumatic and heartbreaking experience," she notes that "your smile is everything — your teeth, your smile, that's the first thing people notice."

Long is making a point of teaching her sons Kez Sunday, 10, and Massai Zhivago, 21 — who is currently wearing SmileDirectClub Clear Aligners — to embrace self-care, specifically because the concept of beauty is often primarily associated with women.

"I don't think you can attach gender to self care and beauty," says Long. "Beauty has always been sort of associated with women, but across the board, whether you say beautiful, handsome, masculine, feminine, I think we're in a world now where we're more of a unit, you know, and self care should be No. 1 on the list. And under that comes beauty."

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Looking back on her life in the spotlight, Long tells PEOPLE she especially wishes she could tell her younger self to "be more patient with myself and that perfectionism is actually boring."

"The business is very different now from when I was 20 years old," she says. "I don't even know that I was aware of the amount of pressure that I was putting on myself to be perfect. I don't know that I was able to articulate that as a young woman. And so what I know now is grace and patience and acceptance are much more interesting to me than perfectionism."

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