I’m getting to that age now, that age where my skin starts to noticeably change. Partly it’s age, partly years of sleep deprivation and yo yo dieting. The wrinkles that I get from sleeping solely on one side have started to take longer to flatten out in the morning, and my forehead betrays my tendency to worry.
So it was with interest that I recently watched an episode of the BBC “documentary” series Horizon which was about aging and the research behind anti aging. The episode appeared to be sponsored by Unilever, with umpteen experts from Unilever’s research institute. The presenter of this episode was Dr Rozine Ali, a surgeon. While it was great to see an intelligent, professional woman on our screens, it was a shame that she was delivering this misogynistic clap trap, but then aging and anti aging is a woman’s game isn’t it? I’ll have more to say about that later.
Dr Ali explored (with the help of the Unilever experts) different ways in which scientists are looking to reduce the speed and signs of aging. The primary causes of aging were found to be UVA rays from the sun, free radicals from the oxygen around us, and high glucose which attaches to collagen and makes it more brittle. Solutions included a chemical found in coral and other sea creatures which protect them from the sun’s rays near the surface of the water, which may in the future be able to be extracted or synthesised to protect us from harmful UVA rays; a pill with all of our dietary needs to help combat free radicals (it’s that or eat half a kilo of broccoli a day to get the equivalent from food; and advances in glycobiology which looks at the affects of glucose, which might one day come up with an age reversal treatment.
What struck me most about this documentary was that at no point did it ever question why we should care about aging, and have billions of pounds being spent on research into it. You could argue that with increasing life spans anti aging is important. What is the point of increased life spans and better medical interventions just increasing the years spent with decreasing mobility and mental faculties? I completely agree, but this documentary wasn’t about an aging body, it was about an aging skin. I welcome research into how to make our bodies healthier for longer, how to keep our joints working and keep our brains active, so that we can be independent and valuable members of society for longer. But I resent this emphasis on removing all visible signs of getting old, and the more we do it the more we feed into the myth that younger is better. The less we see of real aging the more we revile it and see it as odd. If the media ever celebrates old age, it is only those who look young for their age or who are indulging in youthful activities, staving off old age with botox and belly dancing instead of bridge and biscuits.
Why do we want to avoid looking old so much? There are many reasons, so interrelated that it is hard to tease them apart. The most obvious one is the influence of the media and the beauty industry. With so much of our culture based on visual media, and with the development of HD screens, our screen idols are under increasing pressure to keep the signs of aging at bay. This filters down into those of us in the humdrum world of real life, who forget that the likes of Michelle Pfifer and and Heidi Klum are part of the privileged elite blessed with beauty outside of the ordinary realm, and that we can’t possibly emulate them without excellent genes and a entourage at our disposal.
But that doesn’t explain why we find an aging body so aesthetically displeasing. The beauty industry is a convenient scape goat. Cosmetic companies make their bread and butter from convincing us that we are haggard old slatterns who should hate our bodies. It’s in their interest to point out that not only do we look old, but looking old is Bad. The US anti-aging skin are market is worth $2.3 billion, so they are certainly doing a very good job of it. But as much as I would like to demonise the beauty industry, I don’t think they are the only culprits. Ultimately it is down to our feelings about the elderly and our fear of growing old. In capitalist societies people are valued for their productivity. People who are unproductive are cast into the shadows, placed into homes where they are subject to abuse, or left to die in hospital corridors. Our feelings about the elderly are tied up in our own fears about becoming unproductive, and ultimately our fear of death. East Asian cultures that tend to value calmness and serenity as emotional states, have less negative feelings towards aging, and view their elderly as keepers of tradition and sources of wisdom. Interestingly this corresponds with use of anti aging skin care products. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, 46% of total skincare product launches in the UK carried an anti-aging claim from 2009-2011 with France and the US at 47%. China and Japan followed with much lower numbers-27% and 19%, respectively.
With a world of information just a Google search away, the elderly will become even less valuable, losing their status as the guardians of information, waiting to be passed down through generations. You don’t need to ask your grandparents about your family history any longer, it’s all available on various ancestry websites. And I expect you barely speak to your grandparents any more unless they’ve figured out how to use text or Skype.
Funny how the current trend for vintage can be found in every craft and lifestyle magazine or blog, but few pay homage to the people from whom the 40’s tea dress or Bakelite homewards came. Pin your hair into victory rolls, but don’t dare betray a sign that you remember VE day.
The casual use of cosmetic surgery nowadays is moving the goal posts for everyone. People are congratulated for not looking their age; the chance occurrence of being born with youthful genes conferring them honorary membership of the Bright Young Things, but in every other advert in women’s magazines is the reminder that it can all be taken away should their youthful façade begin to crumble. And this is predominately a women’s issue. There is no female equivalent to the Silver Fox. And while men’s use of cosmetic surgery to combat the aging process is increasing, there isn’t same pressure to defy nature that there is for women.
Anyway, this fractured ramble is essentially a plea to people to stop worrying about visible signs of aging. If we can all stick two fingers up at the beauty industry’s demonisation of old age, we can all just look the way nature intended and stop wasting our money on creams with ridiculous additives like pentapeptides and retinol-A and spend it on better things like yarn, and biscuits, or enormous stag cushions.