Tyranny of the Mirror: a Reflection on Aging

This photo was up on the HuffPost50 Facebook page last week (see below.) It is a picture of Dyan Cannon, the well-known actress, at age 77. Cannon looks great at this age, but she looked great at every age. Yet, there was another message here, it seems, the message that this is what 77 can look like, that if we play our cards right and spend more time and more money on our looks, we too might never look old. It is a message designed to make us feel better about aging, but I fear it achieves just the reverse.

Snow White, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, aging

In the name of making us feel good about aging, to show that time’s erosion can be fought at every turn, are we are just making ourselves feel worse about an unstoppable process? Was an earlier generation, far less desperate to cling onto any and every sign of youth, far more comfortable with what nature had to dish out?

We often lament the pressure placed on young women to focus on their looks, the pressure to appear slim, beautiful and perfect and to appear to achieved this effortlessly. We worry about the eating disorders that are created and the self images that are destroyed by this relentless pressure. And then, as grown women, we turn around and place much of the same pressure on ourselves. Shame on us, we should know better.

We are eager to stand up and condemn the pressure placed on our daughters to be and look perfect, we want to protect them from this message which we feel damages them in so many ways. And then, we place almost the same pressures upon ourselves to be forever young, to repel the forces of aging, and to glean our sense of self from our faces rather than our lives.

Trying to look perfect is impossible, a recipe for a damaged self-image and feelings of failure, but what is the emotional cost of trying to look forever young? Haven’t we set ourselves an impossible task (preserving our youth) that will inevitably lead to failure and distract us from the real goals of our lives?

In much the same way that models convey to young women that they should maintain the slender bodies of their childhood, this image of Dyan Cannon tells middle age women they can maintain the hair and face of their much younger selves. A woman who does not bow to this pressure is derided as “having let herself go” as if she were too sloppy or too lazy to to hold onto something that simply cannot be gripped.

Dyan Cannon

But who are we doing this for? Why are we working so hard to preserve the veneer of youth?

We didn’t love our mothers or grandmothers any less because they got old. And the good men who spent their lives with them cherished them unvarnished. Surely our children are not focused on our looks. We have a place in their hearts that is impervious to hair color or other artifice. Do we do this for our girlfriends? This might be getting close to the painful truth. But deep in our hearts we know any friendship worth it’s value is based on love, respect and shared experiences.

Maybe we do this for ourselves, for the face in the mirror. In midlife there are days when looking in the mirror feels like life has suddenly played a very cruel trick. The picture in our mind’s eye does not always match the image staring back at us. We may try to recapture that mental picture, but surely we know the truth about our very selves. Any adulteration we know to be just that, an intervention by hair stylists, esthetician or physician.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not standing in judgement, you need only look at the very brown roots of my hair to know that I too am fighting the fight. One glance into my medicine cabinet will tell you all you need to know about how much money I have wasted on products I hoped would hold back the sands of time. I am just asking why? Who do we do this for? And isn’t it every bit as insidious, in fact, a mere extension of the pressure we put on women all their lives to be beautiful and perfect?

Is this all our fault? No of course not. We would have to be cave dwellers to not hear the message every day that looking younger will make us better, that aging has somehow damaged us. We are told that if we look old we will be marginalized and become invisible and that our lives will not be as full or happy. The message is pervasive, accepted and insidious. The problem with the message is that it is not true.

As we grow older we are happier, richer, more confident and content. We have more time, experience and education. Yet in the face of all that is better in our lives, we chose to ignore what we know and focus on grey roots, lined skin and a few extra pounds.

Looking younger will not make us happier, more productive, more loving/ed, or accomplished. However the pursuit of this illusive youth will suck our time (think monthly maintenance) make us anxious and, as we will always fall short, give us a feeling of failure.

The women I see who do not feel marginalized, set aside like yesterday’s newspapers, are the ones that have grabbed professional challenges in their lives. They have close, vibrant friendships and families for whom they care deeply. They have loving relationships that do not depend on an outdated picture their partner holds of their appearance, but rather a current life full of shared interests. Chasing the face and figures of our youth is not entirely harmless as it can distort our current lives by setting a goal we can never reach. There is nothing the gym or a doctor can do to return something that is truly gone forever, but it is our choice to focus what time has given us, rather than what it has taken away.

At what point in the eight plus decades that most of us will live on this earth do we get to let go of the power of the image in the mirror? How old do we have to be before we accept our looks/age and do not waste our mental energy wanting to be thinner/prettier/younger and our physical energy trying to make this possible. At what age to we arrive at self acceptance? At what point do we liberate ourselves from the self-imposed tyranny of the mirror?

Perhaps our models for aging should not be people who look 20 years younger than they are. They either have great genes or great bank accounts and neither can be readily acquired.

Our models for aging, those upon whom we bestow our respect and envy, should be those who have deep abiding friendships, close family ties and work or interests that keep them engaged and giving of themselves. This is much harder to sum up in a single photo but the truth always is.

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