Dara Torres, a 41-one-year old Adonis, has raised the stakes for middle-aged Americans who feared they were too old to look or perform like recent college graduates. The good news for narcissists -that they can keep on turning heads and racking up athletic victories into their 40s-is also the bad news. No longer can anyone use as an excuse, "Well, at my age, no one can expect me to elicit catcalls." From now on, 50-something and 60-something spouses and lovers can say to their 40-something cohorts, "Well if she can do it, why can't you?"
Life was sadder but easier in the 1990s, when we still believed that biology was destiny and that gravity bested any challenger. Aging happened, and that was that. Yes, of course we knew that Americans went in for such things as "having some work done" and "visiting Los Angeles for a tune-up." Cosmetic surgery was but one weapon in the bailiwick of concerned narcissists; Dara Torres has given us another. What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. If you really, really wanted to remain a knock-out, you would (surgery or no)! If you don't look good in your 40s, it must be because you just don't want it enough.
Again, our cultural responses to middle-age in the workplace, at the gym, and on reality TV shows long reflected a feeble resignation to entropy: People age, slow down, and sag. But Dara Torres has proven in a remarkable way that we needn't throw in the towel. How many other 40-something erstwhile athletes will now shudder with a frisson of having wasted away their 30s unnecessarily? You needn't have believed that your best days were behind you, athletically or cosmetically. In late June 2008, the New York Times Magazine featured a train-stopping photo of Ms. Torres's abs, which seemed indistinguishable from ancient Greek statues of teenage male athletes. Torres has pushed back the darkness of old age and muscled in a robust new space for the sunshine of extended sexiness. Who really cares what exactly she won at the recent Olympic Trials in Omaha? She had already won the battle before she dived in the pool.
Where are you now, Shirley Babashoff (the American swimmer who led the 1976 Olympic team in Montreal)? And what about you, Paulina Porzikova and Christy Brinkley and even Mary Tyler Moore? Perhaps you bowed out much too soon and gave up too easily? Ditto for leading men of yesteryear, whose partners will likely foist on them the same cultural expectations they must now shoulder. Once one person broke the four-minute mile, lots of people started doing it.
Never in recent cultural memory has the outlook for us narcissists looked brighter. We're not getting older, we're just having birthday parties. Youth is no longer wasted on the young - we've seen to that. Thanks, Dara, for leading the way. Whether you win multiple gold medals in Beijing or not, you've already won the pot of gold at the end of the American rainbow: looking hot. Because of you, what's old is new again.