I often contemplate what it means to be female and middle aged these days. I recently saw a documentary that featured an American actress of great skill and immense beauty, who had disappeared quietly from the acting scene in the mid ‘90s whilst at the height of her career. So there she suddenly was, looking every inch her natural 59 years, but totally in her skin, untouched by the modern plague of scalpels, fillers and injections. It was beautiful to see and inspiring that for a change, a woman had allowed herself the grace to age naturally.
It got me thinking about why it is we want to lie about our age, by lying about how we look and the self-mutilation some are prepared to sanction let alone fund, to maintain that lie. Well the obvious answer is because our society tends to judge on immediate appearance in a split second. Society last century turned its back on wisdom in favour of youth and so today’s prevailing consciousness carries an aim to beat the system and linger in youth, long past its sell-by date.
Why so? Is it possible that we have an inherent lack of self-confidence in our appearance or a need for recognition, approval and acceptance by this thing called society that we let judge us on the basis of how young or old we look? Perhaps, but a peek under the bonnet might also suggest that it starts with us not accepting who we truly are, our inner beauty, our natural essence and the unique value these bring to everyone we meet, regardless of our age and appearance.
I met up with an ex-colleague a while ago and I had that immediate knowing that something in her facial configuration had changed. I acted as though I hadn’t noticed, but I clocked it straight away – that new look, ‘the New Middle Aged’, where there’s something somehow glacial, stretched and other-worldly about the skin. It’s become the big elephant in the room, the unspoken, the false ‘you look really well’, when the truth is, everybody knows that work has been done. So surely that in itself is the big tell-tale sign that you’re ageing? More importantly, does it not give the game away about the fact that you’re not comfortable with yourself, you’re hiding your truth rather than embracing the incredibly powerful wisdom and knowingness that you’ve amassed along the way?
So is having cosmetic surgery really just the most ironic double-whammy own goal?
The cosmetic surgery industry was worth £750m in the UK in 2005, £2.3bn in 2010 and is forecast to reach £3.6bn by 2015 (BBC News Online, 3rd Feb 2014 / British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).
There were 50,122 cosmetic procedures in 2013 – a rise of 17% on the previous year.
Everything from eyelid surgery, face and neck lifts, liposuction, tummy tucks, fat transfer operations, brow lifts, breast augmentation, breast reduction and nose jobs – a booming sector by any standards. Where these procedures are undertaken out of a need to keep looking young, it is at the true expense to society of the real value of what we bring with age – wisdom, reflection, experience, knowingness as well as support, counsel and a showing of the way. Instead, we seem to have turned our backs on this, preferring to adopt the current ‘beauty’ consciousness of attempting to put off an inexorable, unstoppable, inevitable and wonderful process, by looking to the outside world to tell us how we should appear; just how many wrinkles are acceptable, the optimal age to start the lifting process – the list goes on. This trend is no longer merely just for the realm of the woman, of course, it’s now fully accepted that men too are under body image pressure, suffering their own version of appearance expectations.
I’m reminded that life is full of fads and fashions and that back in Elizabethan times women wore lead and mercury-based make-up on their faces. The mercury corroded their flesh and many died of lead poisoning. All this in pursuit of the then must-have pale white complexion with red cheeks and lips that reflected nobility status. We scoff at that stupidity now from our lofty superiority centuries later but is it just possible in a few hundred years from now the lack of self-love in sanctioning our own facial and body ‘disfigurement’ in the name of vanity will be scorned by our descendants in much the same way?
Of course, everyone has an absolute right to free will and choice, but what’s behind our drive to want to change ourselves to try to retain our youth? What is so bad, horrific, and intolerable, about a few wisdom wrinkles and senior sags? What is so desperate within us that we are prepared to sanction a socially acceptable form of self-harm? Is it our fear of death and dying that makes us so fixated on holding on to the now? Or is it the need to fit in with a norm determined by a society that is hell bent on looking young, to be accepted and approved of by society’s standards? It’s worth us remembering that society is us, you and me, a collective of individual voices. So it means that we must be endorsing this trend, seeing it as an acceptable way, sanctioning it by our silence, if you will.
Because I don’t think I’m at all unique in not braving-up and asking my ex-colleague, ‘What on earth did you do to your face?’ or even the gentler version, ‘So, you’ve had some work done, then?’
Can you imagine saying that?
It would be just like the little child in the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ who, more confident in his sense of truth than any of the adult bystanders, couldn’t help but blurt out what he saw in truth – that the emperor passing on parade wasn’t wearing any clothes, although everyone was going along with the deception that he was. The relief of the crowd in the story when the truth is out and they don’t have to pretend anymore is palpable. We too have our own version of the Emperor’s new clothes in our current society; cowardly airbrushing the truth when the biggest elephant in the room is that someone isn’t accepting their true beauty. We all know it’s not natural to cut ourselves up in this way. If it were, we’d all have come out of the womb with a built-in toolkit Edward Scissorhands would be proud of.
How far will we let this go before we stop and let ourselves just be, to age with grace and enjoy the process?
There is much to be learnt from this phase of life that benefits all if we let it. When we accept ourselves for who we truly are and for where we are in our life cycle – women and men – we begin to understand and appreciate not only our unique inner beauty but also our true value to society, to humanity. Isn’t it time we started to truly love and respect ourselves based on that beauty rather than being hostage to an external, fabricated version?
by Cathy Hackett, UK
BBC News Online, ‘Plastic surgery ‘booming’ in the UK’, 3rd Feb 2014, James Gallagher
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