Thursday, September 3, 2009

Aging, beauty and the folly of chasing perfection

When I smile, I get this little pocket under each eye. It's a little puffy bag made more noticeable, I think, because my eyes are very small. I didn't notice this particular little facial quirk until I was in my early 30s. But if you notice, in the photo of me at about four years old with my mother and sister (left), I have the same little puffy bags under my eyes. That's just my face. Like all faces, it is perfectly imperfect. It is little quirks, gained either through heredity or time, that make each of us who we are. I wish someone would convince the women and men we meet in the recent HBO documentary, Youth Knows No Pain, of this. They are all obsessed with erasing any perceived imperfection from their faces and bodies to keep themselves "young." From the HBO Web site, linked above:

From elective cosmetic surgeries to toxic injections to expensive creams, America's anti-aging business is a $60 billion a year enterprise that caters to and fuels the fear of growing old. As the daughter of a plastic surgeon, Mitch McCabe has long been intrigued by the extreme measures people take to maintain the appearance of youth.

McCabe spent two years traveling the country to visit doctors, experts and anti-aging enthusiasts, interviewing hundreds of men and women ranging in age from 18 to 93 for YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN. In the process, her own opposition to "beating the clock" began to weaken. Interwoven with the stories of others are McCabe's reflections on her own life and on her father, whose life was cut tragically short in a car accident. A Vietnam War trauma surgeon turned small-town plastic surgeon who specialized in reconstructive surgery, he began practicing cosmetic surgery as the demand grew.


At a time when plastic surgery and injectable substances have become socially accepted options for fighting age, YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN shows how the fear of getting older shapes attitudes in a youth-obsessed culture and supports a lucrative market that holds out the promise of miracle cures.

I knew when I read Latoya Peterson's analysis of the documentary earlier this week on Jezebel, that it was a must watch.

Youth Knows No Pain was engrossing, depressing, and thought-provoking, made even more poignant by the candid self-examination of its creator. After chronicling her memories of her father and her longtime fascination with mortality, she ends the film with an astonishing admission: after all that she's seen during filming the documentary, McCabe decided to take the plunge and start on injectables like Botox herself.

"What about spirituality? Inner peace?...Well, that didn't work." After struggling to make sense of why women subject themselves to beauty treatments instead of aging gracefully, she succumbs to the promises of younger looking skin and a small chance at cheating time.

McCabe's documentary ends with her undergoing different bizarre treatments. Watching her take a needle through the mouth in order to puff up some flesh in her cheek, I kept coming back to her opening admission: It may be insane, but it's the truth. Read more...

I am not as frightened of the physical effects of aging as those profiled in McCabe's film (all of whom would have had that under-eye puffiness injected with something long ago), but I am not immune to the pressures of our youth-obsessed culture. I find myself thinking about it more as I approach 40. I have a few strands of gray hair, which, yes, I keep covered. I worry about my extra pounds making me look older. I am relieved to have good genes and I do cling a bit to the adage "black don't crack." (Got my fingers crossed that is one true stereotype.) With my sartorial choices, I try to ride the line between stylish, fresh and fashionable, and mutton-dressed-as-lamb. It's "insane but true." Still, while I understand the underpinnings of the fear that drives people to get constant nips and tucks, I was shocked and fascinated by the determination with which the people profiled sought to obliterate any and all signs of the passage of time on their visages. I could not relate to that.

I have never equated age with unattractiveness or irrelevance, even, I think, when I was younger. In Youth Knows No Pain, the protagonists' view of aging seems completely disconnected from reality, particularly today's reality. The Baby Boomer generation has led the way in redefining how people view middle and old age. How could all those young revolutionaries who fought for civil rights and women's rights and embraced free love, easy drugs and the pill, who danced at Woodstock, ever be unattractive and irrelevant? People beyond middle age are more active and involved than ever before. Today, age 70 looks like Tina Turner (performing LAST YEAR in the photo at right) not Whistler's Mother. Expiration date? Please!

I could have no better example of this than my own mom, who in her mid-60s is gorgeous, fashionable and more athletic than I am (see a recent pic below). More importantly, she continues to evolve in her career and seeks to learn and explore new things. (I suspect I got my inquisitiveness and drive to try new adventures from her.) When I look at my mother and her friends, what I see is far from unattractive and irrelevant. I wonder if perhaps this view is, in part, cultural. A study published in the journal Human Organization years ago found:

Asked to describe women as they age, two thirds of the black teens said they get more beautiful, and many cited their mothers as examples. White girls responded that their mothers may have been beautiful - back in their youth. Says anthropologist Mimi Nicher, one of the study's coauthors, "In white culture, the
window of beauty is so small."
Youth Knows No Pain really does not put its subjects' quest for youthful beauty into a cultural context. Its protagonists are overwhelmingly white and middle to upper-middle class. That is fine. The film was as much about the filmmaker's journey as it was about the subjects. It is not surprising that McCabe chose to examine people most like herself. Still, I would be interested in how aging, beauty and relevance play out across black, Hispanic, Asian and Native cultures.

The documentary's subjects are also mostly female and heterosexual. Much of their quest for youth and beauty seems about remaining relevant under the male gaze. Latoya points out:

However, it is interesting to note that the men seem more invested in critiquing the looks of others. While the women show a lot of competitiveness over beauty and aging (there's a great scene where McCabe asks the doctor if she has less wrinkles than one of his other, slightly obnoxious clients (cough, Mary Rambin, cough), and then cheers when he agrees), the men see no problem with informing women exactly what is wrong with them. Gary Baldassarre, one of the patients profiled, is documenting his own journey to regain his hair through a really graphic hair transplant operation. Yet, he sees no issue armchair analyzing women on television...

The men profiled in Youth Knows No Pain, while uncomfortable in their own skin, seem particularly aggressive in critiquing women's looks. It would be interesting, then, to know how lesbian women view aging. Within that community, does there exist the same pressure to retain a physical appearance of youth? Does freedom from the pressure to attract the opposite sex by appearing young and quasi-fertile offer a healthier view of marching time?

One last observation--throughout Youth Knows No Pain, I found myself wondering if all this tinkering with physicality is really about attaining youth or the sort of glossy faux "perfection" regularly fed to us by fashion mags, Hollywood and porn. We are so used to seeing fake-baked, airbrushed, hairless faces and bodies that are pneumatic in all the "right" places, that we expect natural and youthful to look like something quite different than they really do. Consider the hubbub caused last month when Glamour showcased 20-year-old model Lizzie Miller's naked and beautiful body--poochy stomach and all. How long had it been since any of us had seen a "real" body in a magazine--a body that has a few wrinkles here, cellulite there, a weird lump there, a beauty mark there, as all bodies do? And when I say all bodies, I mean ALL bodies--young ones and thin ones, too. Perfection doesn't exist, even in the very young. Some of the women that McCabe profiled were under 25--with young bodies and faces. Still, they were not satisfied, seeking to "fix" every imagined imperfection on their smooth faces. This seems to be about more than a longing for youth. This trend, if it is a trend, may be the start of some collective body dysmorphic disorder.

Interestingly, none of the many procedures documented by McCabe ever served to make their recipients looks any younger (or more perfect). At the end of the film, after more than $30,000 of "fixing," Sherry, a particularly devoted fan of plastic surgery and other enhancements, doesn't look any younger than the 53-years-old she is at the start of the documentary. She simply looks like a 50-something woman with a big, fake rack, a tucked tummy and Restalyne-filled lips.

Watching Youth Knows No Pain is frustrating and uncomfortable because it lays bare the sordid results of our twisted beauty culture; it demonstrates how purveyors of anti-aging snake oil have adopted the language of empowerment to slyly entice women and make them feel insecure (This is all about YOU feeling good! Of course, you have those deep, aging grooves around your mouth. Most women I talk to want to get those taken care of. But, hey, if YOU are okay with it, that's all that matters. I want YOU to feel good.); but also because of the tremendous delusion on display. No matter how many dollars are spent and how much Botox injected, it is never enough to help the beauty seekers reach the unattainable.

For fellow "True Blood" watchers (you know I can tie anything back to that show), youthful perfection is like the maenad's Dionysus--"the god who (never) comes." Some of us worship it and crave it and do anything for it, but it never shows up, because it doesn't exist. Bodies are simply perfectly imperfect. There is always a little bump, line or puffy, little bag somewhere.

Visit the HBO Web site for a scheduled airings of Youth Knows No Pain.


Anonymous said...

We owe it to someone else's achievements in health and thus feel joy, depending on the success of others as if their achievements, and this is the Buddha mind. Always hold the interests of all sentient beings of the heart, we can not leave the joy forever.

Monica Roberts said...

I definitely feel you on this post.

I was recently motivated to shed some excess weight because I was more than a little envious of my mom who still is a fashion forward size 12 and looks great.

Sassy J said...

OMG Tami! I haven't been on your site since Thursday, so today, Sunday, I'm sitting here watching "Youth Knows No Pain" and I'm going through my blog roll. Low and behold, I read the first couple of sentences of your post and think "man, this is similar to what I'm watching!" BWAHAHAHAHA!

I'll be back to comment!

livinonfaith said...

Your mother is beautiful! So are you, little "puffs" under the eyes and all. Your genuine smile lights up your eyes and your features more than any cosmetics or surgery ever could.

And that is the real lie of the beauty industry. There is no way to synthetically achieve true beauty. It's just not something you can fake. It has more to do with what lies "underneath" your face that what your face actually looks like.

All I know is that many of the people whose faces I treasure the most, the people that I will mourn the most when they are gone, probably wouldn't stand a chance in hell of being on the cover of a fashion magazine.

But they are beautiful and precious to me and I expect some of them think I'm beautiful and precious as well, despite my lines and wrinkles and none too perfect figure.

It's a pity that so many of us can't be satisfied with that.

msladydeborah said...


I am now a woman in my mid-fifties. I find that I am not aging like I thought I would. Nor is my personal concerns about maturing centered around how I look in other people's eyes. My vision of me is the most important focal point.

I find myself more interested in staying mentally and physically strong. That takes a lot of work in a youth obsessed environment.

Both of my parents are still living. I've been keeping close tabs on their health related issues. Both of them are having problems with bone loss. I find myself very concerned about this being a part of my future. Along with some of the other health issues they have. What good would it do to look younger and still have the inner problems of an aging body?

I am glad that I took time to read this post. I plan to watch the documentary tomorrow. I was wondering if it would be worth my time or not. Your insight helped me to see that I won't be too put off by the content.

teaspoon said...

I was offered a different point of view about beauty when my great-grandma started having stomach troubles and lost a lot of weight. She is Alaska Native and was raised in a village on the Aleutian chain. She told me she used to weigh 187 lbs and she was the happiest with herself at that weight. Now that she has shrunk to a near 105 lb frame, she is devastated. "Now I'm too skinny," she says.

As I have long envied women with similarly waif-ish frames, I was struck by the idea that a woman could be completely happy and at home in a nearly 200 lb body. It was a huge lesson for me in today's image-worshiping society.

Synaura said...

Aging is part of every human's life but in order to prevent such drastic changes, as early as now, one must be aware on how to take care of their health in general. Taking natural food supplement can be of great help in strengthening and revitalizing body's mechanism.


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