Once upon a time, beauty was beauty and aging was aging. There was no concept of ‘anti-aging.’ Beauty and aging didn’t have goodness or badness attached to them, and one was not contingent on the other. Human beings have always been attracted to beautiful things, as we can see through their efforts to create beauty in even the most mundane of necessities. Thousands of years ago, humans painted beautiful images of animals on the walls of caves that they were trying to attract to their land for a successful hunt. Today, humans create decadent spa-like bathrooms to add beauty to even the most basic of body functions.
While humans have always been attracted to beauty, the same cannot be said about age. Today, age is often equated to anything but beauty, and popular culture works very hard to teach women that aging leads to ugliness, sickness, or worthlessness. It teaches that women should do everything in their power to slow down the aging process, and even promises that there are ways to reverse it. “Anti-aging” beauty products which used to be targeted to women with “mature” or “aging” skin are now targeted to younger women. Cosmetic procedures such as plastic surgery and injectables have become as popular, if not more popular than facials and massages for women of all ages; not just the baby boomer population they were initially targeted to. Why? Because of this incredible fear associated with aging and all the negative connotations now attached to it.
It wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when growing old was an aspiration. Of course hundreds of years ago, people didn’t live as long as they do today—so growing old was a good thing because it meant you didn’t die an early death—but there’s more to it than that. With age comes wisdom. Experience. Understanding. Perspective. As the physical body evolves, the mind and spirit also evolve, and each passing year comes with more of those gifts than the last. In historically matricentric and tribal societies, the elders were (and still are–much of the world still has this view) the wise ones, and they were revered and cared for. That reverence and care was not contingent on perceived beauty.
I’m going to be 40 next in just weeks—considered a baby by baby boomers and a wise woman by millennials—and what I find really interesting is how the compliment of “you’re so beautiful…for your age” has begun to affect me. I didn’t think I’d even have to think about it at 40. I’m all about caring for my body, I love my skincare regimen, and I practice and preach self-care and self-love—and I thought I had all that down for myself. But honestly, “compliments” like that whether geared towards me or someone else are beginning to irk me—not because I feel insulted, but more because I’m sad that this how our society has become trained to think about beauty and aging. That as age waxes, beauty wanes, and that there’s more value in both youth and beauty.
We see it all the time in magazines, on TV shows, when aging celebrities who were really active in their twenties and thirties resurface 10 or 20 years later in some kind of “where are they now” piece. More often than not, the comment feed reads something like: “She used to be so beautiful—she has not aged well…” or “she still looks great at her age.” Often the determining factor of whether or not said celebrity has aged well is the amount of lines and wrinkles on her face when she smiles. If she has them, she usually “has not aged well,” and if she doesn’t have them, then she “looks great for her age.” At that point the discussion shifts to whether she’s had work done, what she’s had done, if it’s been good work or bad work, and what other work she should have.
Why does a compliment of beauty have to turn backhanded with the addition of “for your age?”
Why are beauty and aging now viewed as this or that?
The other thing that’s really begun to trigger me is the term “anti-aging.” It’s a term I see all the time, because of the work I do and the circles I’m in. It may have begun as a simple marketing term, but I feel it’s evolved into something more damaging; because in the market, anti-aging is sold as a good thing.
It’s an ironic term, because there’s no such thing as anti-aging. We don’t get younger. It doesn’t matter how many antioxidants we apply, what we inject into our skin, or what other extreme measures we take—they’re not going to make us younger. While certain treatments and procedures might mimic certain qualities of younger skin for a time—smoothness, plumpness, etc—it’s only temporary, and it’s not real. Years are not being erased, but what might be erased is evidence of happiness (smile lines), or deep thinking and imagination (forehead lines).
I’ve seen many holistically minded social media groups and bloggers attempt to rename the term “anti-aging” to something more positive like “graceful aging,” “healthy aging,” and “joyful aging,” but none of these terms are as sticky as anti-aging. Perhaps it’s because of society’s preference of focusing on negative rather than positive—but it’s also possible that it’s because people just don’t believe it.
I don’t claim to have a shiny new and super sticky term to replace anti-aging, but what I’m working on in my own mental retraining is to focus on gratitude, and also to detach beauty from aging. I will continue with the skincare, self-care, and beauty rituals that make me happy, choose to see beauty for the sake of beauty, and focus on aging both gracefully and gratefully.
Aging is something that happens to all of us, though achieving advanced age isn’t guaranteed. Achieving advanced age with a mind and body that’s still healthy and strong enough to enjoy a beautiful quality of life is certainly not guaranteed.
One thing that’s common in those who have achieved it, whether they’re from a small village in India, gypsy family in Eastern Europe, or in a big city in the United States, is a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for each and every experience they’ve had the privilege of experiencing because they embraced the inevitable that is aging. It’s a privilege and an aspiration, and I believe that’s where our focus should be.
What are your thoughts on beauty and aging? What do you think of the term ‘anti-aging?’
What would you replace it with? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton and Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality by Carol P. Christ
Image credit: Gambian Woman by Ferdinand Reus (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Other images purchased from istockphoto.com.
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