No Virginia, There is no Fountain of Youth

My oldest daughter recently turned 19 and is about to conclude her freshman year of college. I have many feelings associated with this milestone – excitement for her experiences, pride in what she has accomplished, sadness at how quickly the years have passed. And of course, there’s that recognition that if she’s now an adult, I’m beyond adulthood. Yes, I’m, by the standards I set myself as a 19-year old, OLD.  They say that 50 is the new 30. I’ll let you know how I really feel about that later this year, but in the meantime, let me just say that nothing makes you feel older in some ways than having a college freshman. You think it was just yesterday that you were living in the dorms, going to frat parties and rushing from class to class on a campus where it seemed the possibilities for your life were endless. But then you realize, ummm…that was actually a really long time ago.

Complicating the normal feelings that come with the aging process is our society’s continual worship of all things youthful and the ongoing pursuit of a magic elixir that will deliver us from old age.  While the concept of a fountain of youth is not new, it’s only in modern society – and primarily in the United States – where one finds such an obsession with staying young. This pursuit of continual youth is what sociologists would call a “First-World Problem”, given it can only occur among wealthy communities, where the worries of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head have been removed.

I think about this often in my little suburban world where it seems that Botox injections and breast implants are as commonplace as the common cold and where moms frequently wear the same outfits as their teenage daughters. What does it say about our society when people – mostly women, but increasingly (in Hollywood anyway), men – will spend thousands of dollars and put themselves through multiple, elective surgeries to chase eternal youth?

A few years ago, on a summer trip to Sweden to visit my husband’s family, we went to a local, community pool so my now-nineteen year old could get in a swim workout.  In the locker rooms, my two girls’ eyes were wide as saucers. They could not understand how every Swedish woman in the locker room – regardless of height, weight and most of all age – could walk around stark naked so comfortably and without the slightest trace of self-consciousness.  Having been raised in the modest (some might say repressed) US of A, I could not fully explain it either, except to tell my girls that 1) Swedes are much less hung up on nudity than we are (as one example, Swedish television is much more concerned with keeping violence off the screen than nudity and sex), and 2) Swedes, and the rest of the world, from my experience, are much more accepting of differences in body shapes and sizes as well as the aging process, and are much less focused on youth and beauty than we are in this country. Interestingly and despite all of this, Sweden seems to have a very high proportion of beautiful people, who age remarkably well.

The point is, my girls were used to seeing people all around them who fear the aging process and who will do anything to try to keep it at bay.  They are used to having the airbrushed images of fashion magazines and the nipped and tucked celebrities of television, movies and theater all around them.  And even in their own neighborhoods, they are used to seeing moms who fight the process daily with creams, treatments and injections, gym trips and diets, clothing from the junior department and yes, surgical procedures. Given these role models, it made me wonder, what messages were my girls hearing about what should be the very natural, and let’s face it –inevitable — process of aging?

I want to be clear that I am certainly not immune to vanity.  It’s hard to look in the mirror and see skin that suddenly sags where once it was firm and lines appearing on a forehead that was once smooth, not to mention those joints that creak and pop when I get out of bed in the morning. There’s definitely a reason I still wear bangs and buy more expensive bras. And I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself through healthy eating and exercise nor do I think it’s wrong to want to look attractive by wearing nice clothing, taking care of your skin, getting your hair done and using a little make-up.  But it seems to me, you have to draw the line somewhere because no one – no matter what they do – is immune to growing old. And by showing that we view the aging process as “bad” we’re sending a clear message to our kids to fight it– no matter how costly, how time-consuming, how risky or how ridiculous they may look. I say this also on the eve of my younger daughter going in for surgery and as I worry over the risks of anesthesia and the inevitable pain, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would put themselves through this by choice.

I was saddened to read the other day that one of my favorite actresses, Susan Sarandon, admitted to having plastic surgery.  . I realize in Hollywood, it must be hard to compete for great, female roles and the pressure to look young is intense. But I’d hoped that she’d hold out and continue sending the message that aging is ok, that her acting talents are more important than her image and that young girls should have strong, capable women who don’t run from life’s inevitable course as their role models.  I realize Susan is no Joan Rivers – yet.  But I think of plastic surgery as akin to remodeling a house. When you redo one room, the others look tired and run-down by comparison. So you do one more. But you can’t stop there, because the rest of the house doesn’t look as good as those brand-spanking new parts, right?  Next thing you know, you’ve re-done everything. Where does it stop? When you’re spending loads of time and money, and undergoing surgery that can put you at risk, just to prevent yourself from looking older or aging, you have to ask why and what message you’re sending. And if you’re a Mom, you have to wonder what you’re communicating to your kids about your priorities in life and how they should view themselves as they age.

The irony in all of this is that neither Susan Sarandon nor Joan Rivers has succeeded in hiding their age or stopping the aging process – and neither can you or I. The other day I was in the grocery store and saw what I thought was an attractive twenty-something ahead of me, pushing a grocery cart. She had long, flowing blond hair, a tall, lithe body and she was wearing leopard-print leggings, a close fitted tee, a short denim jacket and sky-high heels.  She stopped to grab a box of cereal off the shelf and I almost dropped my own groceries. This was no twenty-something; the woman had to be in her sixties which, despite the collagen lips, very obviously, face-lifted skin and fake breasts, to boot, was quite obvious. I suddenly realized the hair was fake (extensions), the body was courtesy of lipo plus lots of gym time and she’d clearly raided a middle schooler’s closet for her wardrobe. She looked ridiculous. An aging woman chasing dreams of being 19 again.

At the end of the day, you can get new breasts, lift your eyes, pump collagen into your lips and smooth out your wrinkles with Botox. You can wear your teenage daughter’s trendy clothes. But no one will think you’re 19, you still won’t be 19, and you never will be again.  I think that the sooner we can all face that fact and quit fighting it, the less “old” we’ll feel next to those actual 19 year-olds. And perhaps we’ll finally deserve the adage that with age, comes wisdom.

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