Aging, Beauty and the Folly of Chasing Perfection

By Tami Winfrey Harris

Originally posted at What Tami Said. Updated for Adios Barbie.

When I smile, I get this little pocket under each eye. It’s a little puffy bag made more noticeable, I think, because my eyes are very small. I didn’t notice this particular little facial quirk until I was in my early 30s. But if you notice, in the photo of me at about four years old with my mother and sister (left), I have the same little puffy bags under my eyes. That’s just my face. Like all faces, it is perfectly imperfect. It is little quirks, gained either through heredity or time, that make each of us who we are. I wish someone would convince the women and men we meet in the 2009 HBO documentary, Youth Knows No Pain, of this. They are all obsessed with erasing any perceived imperfection from their faces and bodies to keep themselves “young.” From the HBO Web site, linked above:

From elective cosmetic surgeries to toxic injections to expensive creams, America’s anti-aging business is a $60 billion a year enterprise that caters to and fuels the fear of growing old. As the daughter of a plastic surgeon, Mitch McCabe has long been intrigued by the extreme measures people take to maintain the appearance of youth.

McCabe spent two years traveling the country to visit doctors, experts and anti-aging enthusiasts, interviewing hundreds of men and women ranging in age from 18 to 93 for YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN. In the process, her own opposition to “beating the clock” began to weaken. Interwoven with the stories of others are McCabe’s reflections on her own life and on her father, whose life was cut tragically short in a car accident. A Vietnam War trauma surgeon turned small-town plastic surgeon who specialized in reconstructive surgery, he began practicing cosmetic surgery as the demand grew.

At a time when plastic surgery and injectable substances have become socially accepted options for fighting age, YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN shows how the fear of getting older shapes attitudes in a youth-obsessed culture and supports a lucrative market that holds out the promise of miracle cures.

I knew when I read Latoya Peterson’s analysis of the documentary on Jezebel, that it was a must watch.

Youth Knows No Pain was engrossing, depressing, and thought-provoking, made even more poignant by the candid self-examination of its creator. After chronicling her memories of her father and her longtime fascination with mortality, she ends the film with an astonishing admission: after all that she’s seen during filming the documentary, McCabe decided to take the plunge and start on injectables like Botox herself.

“What about spirituality? Inner peace?…Well, that didn’t work.” After struggling to make sense of why women subject themselves to beauty treatments instead of aging gracefully, she succumbs to the promises of younger looking skin and a small chance at cheating time.

McCabe’s documentary ends with her undergoing different bizarre treatments. Watching her take a needle through the mouth in order to puff up some flesh in her cheek, I kept coming back to her opening admission: It may be insane, but it’s the truth. Read more…

I am not as frightened of the physical effects of aging as those profiled in McCabe’s film (all of whom would have had that under-eye puffiness injected with something long ago), but I am not immune to the pressures of our youth-obsessed culture. I find myself thinking about it more as I approach 40. I have a few strands of gray hair, which, yes, I keep covered. I worry about my extra pounds making me look older. I am relieved to have good genes and I do cling a bit to the adage “black don’t crack.” (Got my fingers crossed that is one true stereotype.) With my sartorial choices, I try to ride the line between stylish, fresh and fashionable, and mutton-dressed-as-lamb. It’s “insane but true.” Still, while I understand the underpinnings of the fear that drives people to get constant nips and tucks, I was shocked and fascinated by the determination with which the people profiled sought to obliterate any and all signs of the passage of time on their visages. I could not relate to that.

Tina Turner performing at age 70

I have never equated age with unattractiveness or irrelevance, even, I think, when I was younger. In Youth Knows No Pain, the protagonists’ view of aging seems completely disconnected from reality, particularly today’s reality. The Baby Boomer generation has led the way in redefining how people view middle and old age. How could all those young revolutionaries who fought for civil rights and women’s rights and embraced free love, easy drugs and the pill, who danced at Woodstock, ever be unattractive and irrelevant? People beyond middle age are more active and involved than ever before. Today, age 70 looks like Tina Turner (performing in 2008 in the photo at right) not Whistler’s Mother. Expiration date? Please!

I could have no better example of this than my own mom, who in her mid-60s is gorgeous, fashionable and more athletic than I am (see a recent pic below). More importantly, she continues to evolve in her career and seeks to learn and explore new things. (I suspect I got my inquisitiveness and drive to try new adventures from her.) When I look at my mother and her friends, what I see is far from unattractive and irrelevant. I wonder if perhaps this view is, in part, cultural. A study published in the journal Human Organization years ago found:

Asked to describe women as they age, two thirds of the black teens said they get more beautiful, and many cited their mothers as examples. White girls responded that their mothers may have been beautiful – back in their youth. Says anthropologist Mimi Nicher, one of the study’s coauthors, “In white culture, the
window of beauty is so small.” Read more…

Youth Knows No Pain really does not put its subjects’ quest for youthful beauty into a cultural context. Its protagonists are overwhelmingly white and middle to upper-middle class. That is fine. The film was as much about the filmmaker’s journey as it was about the subjects. It is not surprising that McCabe chose to examine people most like herself. Still, I would be interested in how aging, beauty and relevance play out across black, Hispanic, Asian and Native cultures.

The documentary’s subjects are also mostly female and heterosexual. Much of their quest for youth and beauty seems about remaining relevant under the male gaze. Latoya points out:

However, it is interesting to note that the men seem more invested in critiquing the looks of others. While the women show a lot of competitiveness over beauty and aging (there’s a great scene where McCabe asks the doctor if she has less wrinkles than one of his other, slightly obnoxious clients (cough, Mary Rambin, cough), and then cheers when he agrees), the men see no problem with informing women exactly what is wrong with them. Gary Baldassarre, one of the patients profiled, is documenting his own journey to regain his hair through a really graphic hair transplant operation. Yet, he sees no issue armchair analyzing women on television…

The men profiled in Youth Knows No Pain, while uncomfortable in their own skin, seem particularly aggressive in critiquing women’s looks. It would be interesting, then, to know how lesbian women view aging. Within that community, does there exist the same pressure to retain a physical appearance of youth? Does freedom from the pressure to attract the opposite sex by appearing young and quasi-fertile offer a healthier view of marching time?

One last observation–throughout Youth Knows No Pain, I found myself wondering if all this tinkering with physicality is really about attaining youth or the sort of glossy faux “perfection” regularly fed to us by fashion mags, Hollywood and porn. We are so used to seeing fake-baked, airbrushed, hairless faces and bodies that are pneumatic in all the “right” places, that we expect natural and youthful to look like something quite different than they really do. Consider the hubbub caused last month when Glamour showcased 20-year-old model Lizzie Miller’s naked and beautiful body–poochy stomach and all. How long had it been since any of us had seen a “real” body in a magazine–a body that has a few wrinkles here, cellulite there, a weird lump there, a beauty mark there, as all bodies do? And when I say all bodies, I mean ALL bodies–young ones and thin ones, too. Perfection doesn’t exist, even in the very young. Some of the women that McCabe profiled were under 25–with young bodies and faces. Still, they were not satisfied, seeking to “fix” every imagined imperfection on their smooth faces. This seems to be about more than a longing for youth. This trend, if it is a trend, may be the start of some collective body dysmorphic disorder.

Interestingly, none of the many procedures documented by McCabe ever served to make their recipients looks any younger (or more perfect). At the end of the film, after more than $30,000 of “fixing,” Sherry, a particularly devoted fan of plastic surgery and other enhancements, doesn’t look any younger than the 53-years-old she is at the start of the documentary. She simply looks like a 50-something woman with a big, fake rack, a tucked tummy and Restalyne-filled lips.

Watching Youth Knows No Pain is frustrating and uncomfortable because it lays bare the sordid results of our twisted beauty culture; it demonstrates how purveyors of anti-aging snake oil have adopted the language of empowerment to slyly entice women and make them feel insecure (This is all about YOU feeling good! Of course, you have those deep, aging grooves around your mouth. Most women I talk to want to get those taken care of. But, hey, if YOU are okay with it, that’s all that matters. I want YOU to feel good.); but also because of the tremendous delusion on display. No matter how many dollars are spent and how much Botox injected, it is never enough to help the beauty seekers reach the unattainable.

For fellow “True Blood” watchers (you know I can tie anything back to that show), youthful perfection is like the maenad’s Dionysus–“the god who (never) comes.” Some of us worship it and crave it and do anything for it, but it never shows up, because it doesn’t exist. Bodies are simply perfectly imperfect. There is always a little bump, line or puffy, little bag somewhere.

One thought on “Aging, Beauty and the Folly of Chasing Perfection

  1. This is a very well written article. I wish more and more women would just learn to accept what they were born with. I think some small things are ok to tweak, like hair color and other things that are more about self expression and less about seeking perfection. I learned how to do this young. I love my body and my face and I will age gracefully. is that a little narcissistic? Maybe, but that is ok. I think being a little into yourself is better than hating your appearance and spending thousands trying to by someone I’m not.

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