· 26 August 2022

Not appearing one's age, operations and the rejection of one's own old age.

We tend to confuse ego with pride, just as we confuse temper with a kind of predisposition to anger. So much so that we have assumed in our imagination that both ego and temper are negative aspects of our personality (or our identity) that should be kept safe. The idea of rejecting or hiding parts of ourselves that may be less pleasant in the eyes of a third party (an undefined third party, a third party that may not even be looking at us) is reinforced in the context of a society that seems to be having trouble accepting itself. Our society exalts what it considers virtues and certain acts, as if they were heroic or more symbolic and profound than they really are, while rejecting, obscuring or simply making others invisible. This rejection is not necessarily because the latter are bad, but because they seem to be at odds with the more conventional line of current values. To put it more clearly and probably more crudely: society, that sometimes somewhat tyrannical entity, has decided which attitudes, characteristics and values are cool and which are not cool at all. 

When I use the concept of "values" I am not referring to its more moral conception, but to the first definition offered by the Real Academia Española, "the degree of usefulness or aptitude of things to satisfy needs or provide wellbeing or delight". What is the value of something, what is the value of old age, is it cool to be old? That's what I was getting at. 

Although we consider ourselves to be a very modern society, one that accepts new, renewed, changing and fluid identities, our society still does not accept (or, if anything, with misgivings) some aspects of identities that were previously rejected. We have experienced a wonderful shift towards acceptance and a certain illusion of inclusion, but we have left many people by the wayside. Far more than 20% of the population. What is more: we have left ourselves behind. Specifically, our future selves. 

Somehow, on that road to modernity (constructed and defined externally, not always consensually) it would seem that we have skipped some steps, steps that receive neither our footsteps nor, of course, our attention. And here is the key example: do we feel comfortable in front of a naked old body, do we accept the defining physical features of old age, how many women over 50 star in perfume advertisements, the kind that bombard us with their sensuality at Christmas? Because here's another question: depending on the purpose, old age begins at one age or another. And when it comes to the physical, to the body, to beauty, it starts well before 65. And yes, especially in women. 

This exaltation of youth is striking, but above all the implicit rejection of old age that it entails. And I give another example by way of a question: how comfortable do you feel about your own old age? We women, in particular, constantly hear comments in the form of compliments that exalt our youth: "that haircut makes you look younger", "you look very good for your age" (this seems to me to be the insult of insults). Looking younger, after a certain threshold, is a kind of positive value. A positive value because it "contradicts" the negative value associated with simply looking one's chronological age. In the podcast "bad feminist" the author said that she was (like myself) in her "late 30s", which is equivalent to saying (she was reproducing the words of a television producer) "old years". Is it barbaric to consider a person approaching 40 to be old? Well, we'll see that we've got it more accepted than it seems.

As we grow older, it is socially assumed that we have reached a series of milestones in our lives. Curiously, and despite how "modern" we are, this has not changed; perhaps we are a little more sensitive and we restrain ourselves from voicing our doubts (or asking Marijuani, the girl on the fifth floor, when she is going to have her first baby, as she'll be too late) but there are still some expectations associated with age that we have not overcome. Moreover, not only are we required to meet this series of milestones (which we may not have been able or have not wanted to meet) but we have added one more achievement: not to look our age. This "non-appearance" hides a frontal, complete rejection of old age and individual ageing, the physical, the cellular, if we want to put it that way. If Dorian Gray (Wilde's beautiful character) would do anything to maintain his youth, many women (and more and more men) go through worse processes in order to maintain their youth or correct anything that deviates from it: chemical peelings (which is nothing more than abrading the first layers of the skin, in order to bring to light other "younger" layers); botox; blepharoplasty (removing fat from the eyelids); lifting and many other operations ending in -plasty that seem quite painful. Modifications of oneself, of our shell, in search of a stereotypical definition of beauty and of a youth (which is sometimes "younger" than it once was) that made Spaniards, at the height of the pandemic (2020), spend more than 2,600 million euros on aesthetic treatments. 

A paradoxical situation arises here: we may be able to accept the old age of others, even have a positive attitude towards this vital stage (perhaps a little paternalistic) but not be able to accept the fact that (if all goes well) we will be part of it. Like the toddler who doesn't want to take a bath and delays the moment as long as possible. Courtney Cox (the actress who played Monica in Friends) said she regretted the operations she had undergone in an attempt to maintain the appearance of eternal youth. The rejection of one's own ageing is, in reality, a form of violence against ourselves.

I pick up here on the previous reference to the ego. The ego, to greatly simplify the concept, would be the "I", or the psychic instance that allows an individual to recognise himself and his own personality. I understand that this is a complex concept that has many more nuances, but I will use this word to define that part that we are ourselves, that does not change, that constituent part of ourselves to which we add years, experiences, but which remains, even if we are wiser, or more impulsive, or older. That voice that sometimes we need to listen to and with which it is sometimes good to dialogue. If we start from the premise that we are always the same person, the same "I/ego", even if we add new experiences, new sorrows and joys, what lies behind this desire to modify the physical? 

From my perspective, this "self-rejection" has to do with the omnipresent association between youth and beauty that is constantly reinforced by the media and the culture, and that is especially inflicted on women when at a certain age it pigeonholes actresses into playing characters of little interest. So much so that at a younger age we are older than they are; let me explain: the actress who played Forrest Gump's mother was only 10 years older than the actor. Angelina Jolie was only a year older than Colin Farrel in Alexander the Great. Not so when the relationship between the protagonists is not filial but romantic; thus, we can see a very young Jennifer Lawrence falling in love with a Javier Bardem 21 years older than her. They age with more possibilities, in this sense. Vin Diesel can still be a tough guy past 50 (and wonderful I think), Tom Cruise is still a hero-gal, but Carrie-Anne Moss (the Matrix actress) was offered a role as a grandmother the day after her 40th birthday. 

Rather than highlighting the machismo (and objectification) that governs the film industry (that is, no doubt, another struggle) I did want to reflect on the idea that we have all, it seems, decided to buy into, that not only is beauty associated with that sometimes impossible youth (due to the erroneous equating that is made with perception), but that we are constantly reinforced with the idea of rejecting old age. Why do we insist on rejecting the self, on rejecting ourselves just because the "shell" changes? This is an enormously harmful rejection, because it is the rejection of one's own old age, of one's own ageing. To ourselves. And the alternative to not ageing, let us not forget, is to die. 

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal