I was about an hour into a live radio show, talking about my new book, Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change, when Lenny, a fellow from the Bronx, called in: "Hey, what about us guys? We feel pressure too!" He went on to say, "Do you have any idea what it's like watching middle-aged men in the movies make it with those gorgeous nymphets?" Harrison Ford, Robert Redford and Al Pacino came to mind, bedding women half their age. He asked me to consider those non-stop ads for Viagra, Levitra and Cialis, where smooth characters whisk their women off into the night with Astaire-like grace and Brando-like animalism. Always in the mood and ready to go at a moment's notice. Lenny continued, "We guys don't talk about it, but stuff like that makes us feel bad. How can we measure up?" I told him I understood. Women have been feeling that way for years.
Because of feelings like Lenny's I have been encouraged to write a version of Face It for men. I'm not yet clear if their issue is about looks, virility or both, but I know Boomer males are struggling with their aging bodies too. Just like their female counterparts, they are living longer and expect, as Bob Dylan wrote, to be 'forever young.' While midlife women are easing into yoga and Pilates, men are on softball fields and basketball courts trying to revive memories of the 'good old days.' They still want to play hard, sweat, and grab a beer. It's not until their aching backs or torn Achilles take them out of the game that they are reminded they have reached midlife. Even then, after weeks of Advil and physical therapy, they're back out there, living up to the words of another songwriter, John Mayer: "I'm only good at being young."
Men tell me they are surprised by the powerful, visceral reactions they have when they first notice their diminishing flexibility, strength and endurance. They reluctantly admit that they are also reacting to the changes they see in the mirror. Is it manly to be paying this much attention to aging looks? If accomplishments and financial success are valued over a youthful body and face, they are not sure what to make of the queasiness that comes with the physical changes they see. Sure, gray hair and crow's feet may not signify men's 'uh-oh' moments as they do for many contemporary women, but their aging appearance is troubling them more than they ever thought it would. And our youth obsessed culture isn't making it any easier.
The media has bombarded women with unrealistic expectations since Charlie hired the Angels. Anti-aging products promoted by models half the average Boomer's age, have been relentless. And although most of these are aimed toward women, more ads are grabbing male attention; 'Just for Men' to hide that gray, 'Bowflex' to avoid that flab, and 'Centrum' to help keep up with the grandkids. But it wasn't until this ED (erectile dysfunction) craze that men have gotten a taste of what women have been confronting for a very long time. In fact, the popularity of ED medications is a cultural phenomenon that is probably most similar to women's use of cosmetic surgery. And the latter may be creeping into the former. The statistics have yet to be compared, but we do know that cosmetic procedures for men are on the rise (closing in on another worrisome statistic -- the increase in cosmetic surgery for women below age 30). Are men beginning to feel as women have, that returning to a youthful state, both in terms of their virility and visual appearance, is necessary to defy being diminished in value? As Lenny said, the pressure is on.
If young men today grow up with aging dads who strive for unrealistic versions of masculinity, will they face the kind of 'oh-oh' moments women do as their looks change? Will it happen the first time their erection doesn't last four hours? Or when their mates wonder when those washboard abs turned to sponge. We know women's 'uh-oh' moments start on the surface -- the first gray hair or new wrinkle or two or three. Sometimes they are evoked by a comment from a loved one, who tells them they look tired or suggests a trial of Botox. These moments set off complicated feelings that run deeply into the core of women's identity, raising the questions about how to remain vital in a youth obsessed culture.
Whether men are talking about it or not, they too are beginning to experience complicated feelings about their changing looks that are worth exploring further. What I do know is that these changes impact a man's sense of virility, strength and productivity, characteristics historically associated with the role men have played for generations. These are the kinds of physical changes that naturally come with age, but most contemporary men are not prepared to deal with them. The parallels between men and women are clear. The differences are becoming less clear. We are all living in a culture that is increasingly equating youth with attractiveness and sex appeal, one that has virtually programmed us to have a crisis over an aging appearance. Let's 'Face It'; it's time to redefine what it means to be a healthy and attractive man or woman at any age.
© 2010 Vivian Diller Ph.D., author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. Dr. Diller was a professional dancer before she became a professional model, represented by Wilhelmina, appearing in Glamour, Seventeen, national print ads, and TV commercials. After completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models, and dancers, and served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book, FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. "Today" co-host Hoda Kotb called it "a smart book for smart women."
For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.