It is no secret we live in a youth-besotted culture. We are made to believe that the appearance of age is so repulsive that even 30-year-olds worry they are past their physical prime.
Recently, I’ve been noticing (with only a handful of exceptions) how extraordinarily young and beautiful are the women reporters and anchors on the cable news channels - how unmarked by time and unlined their skin is. A cynic could easily wonder how it came to be that only young women of the highest Hollywood beauty standards are smart enough to parse and report the news.
Apparently, no ordinary-looking or older women are accomplished TV reporters. And, apparently, it takes news men - who are mostly older than the women - much longer to learn their jobs.
Film producer Harvey Weinstein is alleging that 71-year-old actor Judi Dench, in New York to promote her film, Mrs. Henderson Presents, for which she was nominated for an Oscar this week, was denied appearances on NBC's Today show and on ABC's Good Morning America and The View because she's too old.
“'They said that she didn’t fit their demographics,' the outspoken movie mogul tells [New York] magazine. 'I told that to my mother, who was pretty…offended,' he is quoted as saying. 'I mean, what do they think, 25-year-old people can’t watch 70-year-old people? The insanity of youth. It also assumes none of us like our families.'”
- - The Journal Gazette, 2 February 2006
Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Tuesdays With Morrie, famously told Ted Koppel in a television interview that his then-deteriorating body was “only the carton I came in.” True enough, but it implies that we must make a gigantic effort to see the person inside what is universally believed to be the repulsive package.
From the moment of youthful realization that appearance matters - a lot, I was a creature of my culture. For more than 45 years, I painted on my daily disguise in an attempt to fool the world into believing I met the prevailing standard of beauty. I starved a body that naturally wants to be a little chubby. And I never questioned my behavior. Without quite articulating the idea to myself, I believed that if I were a little more thin and a little more beautiful, all good would flow to me.
I don’t remember how that changed, but a few years ago I tired of the daily preening. I allowed my hair to grow into its natural gray color and I mostly stopped wearing makeup. Even before that, I’d given up counting every forkful that went into my mouth and some additional pounds attached themselves permanently to my body.
At first, it felt like a mantle of age descended on me over night - that one day I'd been acceptably youthful and the next I was old. I wondered, when I caught a reflection of myself in a store window, who that old lady was, just as I wondered, the first time my hands showed up in a photograph, when those age spots and wrinkles had taken over. There was some shame attached to this transformation, as though I was less deserving than I had been before.
In a culture dominated by youth junkies, it takes a long time to accept one's membership in the oldest generation. It’s hard learning that you have become invisible to many people. Hard to be rejected by recruiters and hiring managers who think you don’t know from their polite condescension that they believe you’re too old and ugly and therefore too stupid to contribute to the bottom line of their business. Hard to accept that no matter how much you rail against ageism on your little blog, it won’t change much in your lifetime.
But if you set aside those realities for a moment and be quiet with yourself, a remarkable surprise becomes evident. Large chunks of my time and mind once devoted to concern for appearance had become, while I wasn’t looking, free to grow and explore in directions I never imagined during the decades that I conformed to the cultural imperative to appear young forever.
I have always lived more in my mind than in my body and now, having liberated myself from the need to disguise my body to meet the expectations of others, there is a soaring joy in intellectual pursuits. The pleasures of the mind have never been so fulfilling as they are now; perhaps they have been laying dormant waiting for me to grow up and notice them.
Ten years or so ago, there was an excellent television series titled Connections in which British host James Burke showed how, for example, an ordinary lead pencil is related to the moon landing. He made several seemingly disparate connections in every program and I was as jealous of Burke’s mind as I was awed by his explanations.
Nowadays, I make such connections which, if not as learned as Burke’s, are more thrilling for having made them myself. My judgment has grown two-, maybe threefold. I am more frequently certain of what is right and what is wrong which leads to better personal decisions - and I surely needed that.
Today, I am more patient and understanding with individuals, while much less so with those who wield power - government, corporate or cultural - who would limit and control our lives. And as though a veil has been lifted from my mind, I can see through pretense and lies in a twinkling. I have never before been so engaged, so eager to learn and, at last, so unconcerned with physical appearance - mine or others.
The young are welcome to their youth, which has its own pleasures. I wouldn't trade my newfound comfort to return to those years because now, even in a culture that wants me to disappear from view, to not remind them that they too will be (and look) old one day, being old feels like I've won a prize. The gains so outweigh the losses and are so personally empowering and exciting that I almost wish it could have happened sooner - except each of us comes to understanding and acceptance in our own time.