Living (and Dying) in Denial

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.

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5 thoughts on “Living (and Dying) in Denial

  1. Wow, that video is as terrifying as this post is good (read: very). The first thing that popped into my head was Helen Mirren, who’s edification in the Hollywood spotlight is a step in the right direction. However, she’s in the spotlight precisely because her body defies what we’ve come to expect from women “of a certain age”. So, progress? Maybe not!

  2. I wonder if there is a connection between the anti-aging industry and the shuttering away of old people? Anecdotally, living in SE Asia (and San Francisco) you see a lot more elderly people out and about. In my experience, the elderly in Asian communities are not hidden away but rather actively involved in their families and communities. But I see plenty of them trying to look younger with excited eyebrows, etc. Is that imitation of Western culture or an indication that it isn’t just an attempt to postpone the look of death/dying? What do you think?

  3. It’s interesting that you bring up the Betty White phenomenon. I love Betty White as much much as the next person (I watched reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show religiously in high school….yeah, I wasn’t very popular in high school), but the recent resurgence in her popularity always struck me as slightly off-putting. I could never put my finger on exactly why, but I suppose it might of seemed sort of patronizing, like the hip young folks plucking an old star out of obscurity for kicks. I certainly support building a culture in which the elderly are not forced into the shadows, but the Betty White approach to building that culture just seems a little gimmicky and demeaning. Then again, maybe I’m just jealous that there’s never been an online campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live.

  4. Over the weekend, a friend pointed out a retirement company’s billboard that read “The first person who will live to be 150 years old is alive today,” and it made me think of your post. I completely agree with your assertion that the drive to look young is driven in large part by a collective fear and denial of death, yet this billboard also made me think that it may be driven by a lack of norms guiding a life stage that is still relatively new. Increases in life expectancy not only exasperate our fear and denial of death, but they also impact our life course. As a result of changes in life expectancy, our various life stages are now in flux (i.e. “emerging adulthood” vs “adulthood” in your 20s), and we’ve added new life stages. As a society, I think we are still trying to figure out and understand what it means to be 70 in a society where it is quite possible that you may live another 30 years or so.

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