One of the most disturbing moments I have experienced in recent weeks caught me off guard while I was flipping through TV channels one afternoon. I paused for a moment to watch The Talk because I heard them announce that their guests that day were stars of the popular 80s drama Knots Landing. As I later learned, all three women who walked out onto the stage are in their seventies. But you wouldn’t be able to place them in that age group from looking at them. In fact, two of them were trying so hard to appear as youthful 30-somethings that they failed to even seem human at moments. Faces were stretched, real eyebrows were replaced with penciled-on ones, lips were almost unrecognizable. It seemed that an intense denial of their age had led them through a series of questionable plastic surgery and cosmetic choices. What had compelled them to prefer these warped, unnatural-looking bodies to older-looking (but probably still beautiful) aged ones?
The choices these women have made are not only influenced by Hollywood’s take on beauty or media’s portrayal of youth and glamour. They are the result of a culture which often struggles to cope with death and aging. I have been thinking a lot about the perception death and ageing recently (in part because I spent much of December interviewing people who were planning their own funerals). Watching this moment on The Talk seemed to showcase the devastating effects that our culture’s approach to death and ageing can have on us.
From a number of sources, we subtly learn that we can continue to experience youth and postpone death. Books like The Zone Diet or Younger Next Year offer scientific research claiming that they can keep us “fit and sexy—until 80 and beyond.” These books focus less on youthful appearance and more on our ability to ward off death and disease through diet and exercise, if we only try hard enough. It is in our control, we are told. Do the right things and you can stay young. The fountain of youth may be a myth, but science and medicine can provide a substitute.
In addition, there are structural factors that influence our expectations of death and aging. We don’t live with our elderly. Our parents and grandparents often opt for retirement communities over living with children (although this may be changing thanks to the recession). Consequently, many of us are ignorant of the ageing process and the experience of death. We don’t know what it means to live with death as an inevitable reality. We don’t know what a real 70-year old body looks like. Or if we do, we fear it. As a result, the changes we see in ourselves can be scary and unexpected.
If I’m honest, I must admit that I too fall prey to the illusions and ignorance surrounding ageing and death that our culture circulates. I have recently been obsessing about a very subtle wrinkle on my face. Although this is probably more than normal for someone my age, I’ve been desperately looking for a way to rid myself of it. Is this the start of a path that will lead me to endless surgical alterations and cosmetic treatment? Somehow, watching these women on The Talk seemed to snap me out of it. The reality is that we age. At the end of that aging is an inevitable end. As one of my interviewees told me recently, “ain’t none of us gettin’ out of here alive.” To end this state of denial means more than ridding ourselves of beauty magazines. It would require a cultural overhaul that may be beyond our reach–placing value in and acceptance around these later stages of life.