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Letting Ourselves Get Old?

Must we be apologetic about looking—or being—older?

A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker shows two women in exercise clothes walking side by side. One says to the other, “I’m thinking of letting myself get old.” As a gerontologist and a woman in my 50’s, the cartoon strikes close to home. It makes me laugh and it makes me think. Are we really in a position to control our own aging? Are we at the point where aging is a choice? The cartoon is funny partly because it is so audacious that some middle-aged women with enough money, time and determination actually believe that it’s possible to prevent their own aging. But it’s also funny because so many age-concealing, “age-defying” options are now open to those with sufficient money and time that we might feel apologetic about looking, feeling, or even just being, “old.”

A heightened concern with appearance in our present-day society falls at the intersection of gender and age, with weight or size thrown into the mix. We are increasingly aware of the ubiquitous use of Photoshop to alter women’s images in magazines, on billboards, and on the Internet. The alterations are not only to make models and celebrities appear thinner, cellulite- and blemish-free, but often, to smooth wrinkles, laugh lines, and other signs of aging. And, of course, our awareness does not stop the practice. We know that these women in the photos don’t really look that way, yet we accept that the alterations must be made. The same attitude applies to many cosmetic anti-aging practices. We know that very few 60- to 70-year-old women have solid blonde or brown hair, yet we accept that they dye it to look younger.

I’ve recently moved to the San Diego area where it is not at all uncommon to see women over 55 or 60, many of whom still fit into a size 2 or 4, with long tresses flowing without a trace of gray and faces that are flawlessly smooth and sleek, plumped in all the right places. Certainly, some of this is attributable to good genes, attention to fitness routines, fresh air and sunshine. But sizable numbers of moneyed women in Southern California and in many other metropolitan areas have had work done. Just today, my new dermatologist’s office sent a mass email that asked, “Old age creeping up on you?” and offered me various wrinkle reducers and fillers at sale prices.

Personally, I’m a few years past the point when my hair, face, and body started to show distinct signs of aging. And my distinct signs might be somewhat different from yours, since how we age is partly programmed by our genetics. My programming is apparently set to “rounder” rather than “angular,” and I’ve struggled with weight gain, much as my own mother did at mid-life. In a way, the fact that I’ve never had a perfect figure makes it a little easier to accept my 50-something body. But as Nora Ephron states in the title of her sweet and funny book about aging, “I hate my neck!” It’s more wrinkled than any other part of me. And I’m definitely getting jowly. So I have personal experience with the anxiety about looking older and the impulse to want to look healthy and attractive—and more than a passing acquaintance with the “anti-sagging” skin care section of the drug store.

An interview with actress and activist Jane Fonda in The New York Times Magazine a year or so ago mentioned that she finally succumbed to the temptation to have some facial plastic surgery. She said that she didn’t want to look so “tired” all the time and the surgery livened up her face. Despite being in great shape and living up to her status as an icon of physical fitness, she, like many of us, could not integrate some aspect of her aging appearance into her identity. Why do we feel that looking young is the only (or best, or safest) way to be oneself?

The two women in the cartoon are struggling, as many of us are, with familiar feelings and decisions about aging—the procedures and products, but above all, the attitudes towards ourselves. What do we have to lose—and what might we have to gain—if we let ourselves get old?

More from Kathryn Betts Adams Ph.D., M.S.W.
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