Culture

Stuck on Young: Dissecting Our Obsession with Youth & Beauty

Stuck on Young: Dissecting Our Obsession with Youth & Beauty #theeverygirl

It was the eve of my birthday. I was supposed to be celebrating, but instead I was on my bed, dreading the idea of getting older. My best friend was with me for support trying to convince me I was not old, and I was overreacting. I wasn’t listening, and when the clock turned 12 midnight, I let out a high-pitched agonizing scream that reverberated across the room. You would’ve thought I was being tortured. But I wasn’t. I was in my college dorm. I was 19.

Even then, on some level, I knew I was being completely ridiculous. But I couldn’t shake off my perception of what it meant to be older. I’m not sure I had the words to adequately articulate what I was responding to at that time, but I member feeling like I was losing my childhood, my youth and moving closer to the unknown abyss of the aged *insert creepy horror movie music here.* I had internalized the culture’s obsession with youth and beauty so wholeheartedly that I wanted to be stuck in a youth time capsule, yet still live a full, healthy, long life. It was magical thinking at its best, and I didn’t know how to resolve this quandary other than to scream it out.

Many, many (ahem) years later I still struggle with getting older, but I’m much better at it now thanks to a little psychological training, some divine wisdom, and learning from others’ experiences with aging. It’s not surprising that a lot of young women already feel old and living are under the impression that no one will care about them as they get older.

Let’s face it, our culture doesn’t do a great job at valuing the elderly. Look at any number of glossy images in magazines, newspapers, television, or online. Older people are noticeably absent from them (translation: they don’t exist). Or when we do see them, they’re often presented in unfavorable ways. How difficult is it to conjure up images of the elderly, sickly gentleman in a nursing home with a walker who is dependent upon others for his day-to-day needs? Or the elderly woman with missing teeth and poor coordination who forgets things easily, and feels lonely? They don’t exactly make you jump for joy at the prospect of getting older. While it’s true that there are many elderly people who fit these descriptions, poor health and frankly, a poor life isn’t exclusive to the elderly, and there are many older people who lead full, productive lives. Let look closer at this phenomenon so we can avoid falling into the same fear-of-aging trap I did.

 

The Contradiction

“No matter how old I get, you’ll always be older than me,” said my lovely teenage niece. It’s as if my age relative to hers was some sort of salvation that prevented her from having to face her own anxieties about aging. Because when she was with me she’d always be “young (er).” And to be young is everything. It’s the epitome of beauty, vitality, and the most exciting time of our lives.

[We think] to be young is everything. That it's the epitome of beauty, vitality, and the most exciting time of our lives. 

It’s when we dream big dreams and fantasize about the great life ahead. Only we don’t want to move too far ahead, because then we’d no longer be young, fantasizing about the great life ahead. It’s kind of like Christmas. Everyone’s excited about the day leading up to it, but once it arrives the excitement is over and many people feel depressed. It seems that the hope and excitement of what is to come is so much better than when it comes. This may be why we romanticize the beginning of life but rarely the end, and there are few glorified images of what the end looks like. All the fairy tales end with “happily ever after” but it isn’t very descriptive and doesn’t leave an indelible mark in our minds.

So we try to stop the aging process, a process that’s been happening since birth. Only it’s biologically impossible to do. So instead, we disassociate ourselves from all things old. There’s a reason why the beauty industry, which entices us with the hope of eternal youth, is a booming business. I love beauty products as much as the next person, but it can be problematic when we are consuming products as a way to cope with the fear of aging.

Fear is never beautiful, and we can become so preoccupied with staying young that we spend much of our time and energy running away from a normal developmental process, and ironically miss our youth. That’s the problem with fear. It strips us of our lives.

That’s the problem with fear. It strips us of our lives... Live your life in such a way that your older self will thank you.

All too many of us have looked back and wondered where the time went, where life went because we spent it in fear. While the challenges inherent in growing older can feel isolating, it’s something we must all deal with. Either we get older or we die young, and I’d say the former is a better alternative. So one way to cope with this dilemma is to choose to live the best life at the age you are right now. Five, ten, even twenty-years from now you can either look back with regret that you did not live your life more fully, or you can look back and say “I was LIVING.” What do you want your older self to say about you now? Live your life in such a way that your older self will thank you.

 

The Myth of “Them”

As children we tend to glorify adulthood. Oh, to have the freedom to be able to stay up late, eat as much candy as you like, and wear anything you want. There’s the idea that when you become a grown-up, you know what you’re doing, you have the answers, and you have this life thing all worked out. But these idealizations are not limited to childhood. As an adult, before I became a parent, I can recall having very rigid views of what it meant to be a mother. It felt so distinct and un-me, yet I thought I would morph into this whole other being when I was ready to have children. We often think there is a discontinuity between our identity and the roles we expect to take on until we are actually in those roles. Then we come to the shocking revelation that we are still us.

Thankfully I’ve matured a lot since I was 19, but many parts of me then are still me, and my 19-year-old self would certainly recognize my idiosyncrasies. And yes, I’m a mother now but I didn’t miraculously turn into the overly understanding person I imagined. I still get frustrated when my child asks for the same thing umpteen times, God bless him. And if all of that is true, then I am my 65-year-old self, just younger and less experienced. Nevertheless, our culture certainly does its share to promote the perception that older people are a distinct population completely different from us, a population whose life is basically over. While biologically speaking, older people may be closer to the end of the lifespan than the rest of us, it doesn’t mean they have nothing left to enjoy about their lives. And to discount them as obsolete members of society is dehumanizing, and intensifies our fears of being one of them.

As our fear grows, our sympathy declines, and we look at aging as something to avoid, dismiss, and even obliterate. Thus, we are inclined to feel less valued with each age and cannot enjoy the process of growing. Let’s not buy into the concept of “them,” so we can more fully appreciate ourselves now and in the future.

 

A Balanced Perspective of Beauty

Youth is beautiful. But no one age group has the monopoly on beauty. I’ve come across some very beautiful older women. And clearly it wasn’t their youth that made them beautiful. It was them, their features, and the way they carried themselves.

I’m all for enhancing and preserving our looks for as long as we can, but our physical appearance has been changing since the day we were born, and while we can slow down the aging process, we cannot stop it. Holding onto our youth is much like a baby holding on to her bottle. She’s bound to get disappointed. So

It becomes problematic when we place so much value on something that’s ever changing.

Age is not all we are and beauty is much more than looks. A person in their 20’s may feel unattractive while someone in their 40’s may feel quite the opposite. The difference between the two perspectives may not be a discrepancy in their looks but in their self-image. Unlike the aging process, our self-image and self-perception are things we can change. We can enhance the way we see ourselves by living fully and creating meaningful experiences. And in doing so, we make ourselves look better. Yes, being young is a valuable asset but remaining stuck is not. Misery starts to wear and tear on us, and we start to age ourselves with unhappiness, and a life of wishing, wanting, and regretting. Life is full of gains and losses, and as we get older we lose our youth but become more of who we are, and our perspective on life, age, and beauty broadens.

I certainly don’t have this age dilemma all worked out, but I know that as we develop a more balanced perspective of growing older, one that allows us to be more open to the changes life brings, then we can be free to be. And that’s always beautiful.

Credits

Sarah Seung-McFarland #theeverygirl

Sarah Seung-McFarland

Licensed Psychologist; Counseling Psychology, Ph.D.