I'm 42. I know it's not old. Every time I slip into believing the cultural lie that I'm getting old, I flash on my grandmother when she was in her eighties (before she passed) and see her laughing at me. Hopefully more than half of my life is yet to be lived. Why, then, do I feel old at times?
I have to attribute it to popular culture. When I see other women in their forties depicted in the media, their wrinkles and gray hairs have been eliminated. They may be playing the part of a mother of teenagers, but they certainly don't look like mothers of teenagers in real life. The message is clear: Erase signs of aging. Gray hair isn't OK. Wrinkles aren't OK. Sagging breasts aren't OK. A belly that curves and isn't perfectly flat isn't okay. Despite the fact that every woman in my exercise class looks like me, the dominant message sadly seems to override what I see in real life.
We live in an anti-aging culture which encourages us to deny the aging process for as long as possible, to literally fight back with age-defying remedies and interventions like hair dye, plastic surgery, and Botox. While I certainly understand the impulse to magically erase the wrinkle lines with a simple injection, I feel sad that we live in a culture where it's so difficult to allow ourselves to age naturally.
Just as we revere perfect love and unblemished beauty (both fantasies), we exalt youth to a godlike realm. As a result, we simply don't offer role-models of people who honor the aging process without intervention.
Our culture transmits the message that aging is to be dreaded and denied. We portray images of illness and misery of elderly people, thereby setting up the expectation that aging is something to be feared. It honestly never occurred to me until I read Healthy at 100 by John Robbins that not only could I not dread aging but could actually look forward to my later years!
Robbins looks at four different cultures around the world who have the highest number of long-living, healthy people—not just people who live past 100, but who do so with vitality, passion, and joy. My consciousness was turned on its head.
I love what Chris Freytag wrote in another MindBodyGreen article:
I think if more women talked and shared their experiences openly about getting older, fewer women would feel alone in the journey. With the support and humor of other women, maybe we can reduce the pressure in thinking we need to look like we're in our 20s when we're in our 40s or 50s. We can understand aging as something no one can avoid, and we can embrace it by holding on to our health as long as we can — instead of trying to stop the clock. Together we all can age gracefully with energy and good health for decades to come.
What does it mean to age gracefully? I'm not exactly sure. I agree with Chris that talking about it truthfully is a great start, which is why I'm writing this: I strongly believe it's a conversation that needs attention. I think often about John Robbins' fantastic book and look to the people of the cultures presented there as far away role-models.
But wouldn't it be fantastic if those role-models existed in our own culture, if we didn't have to fly away into our imaginations to conjure up a culture that recognizes that our elderly, like our children, are our greatest treasures?
Ultimately, it's the mindset that needs to change, a massive cultural shift that embraces aging and offers respect for the people who have made it to the later decades of life. We also need to address our cultural fear of death, for it's clear that the fear of aging is intimately linked to the fear of death.
We fear death in every form: as the end of life but also as change, transition, endings of any kind. When we move toward an acceptance that change and death are a part of life, we've begun to turn the cultural fear of death and on its head and made room for a positive, respectful, and life-affirming perception of aging to take root in our culture.