The 2011 awards season is a rash of celebrity interviews, penetrating questions and actor-endorsed guides to looking younger. Surgical procedures and cosmetic enhancements have become more commonplace on and off the red carpet. How does this affect the way we see ourselves? Do our choices to disguise our ageing bodies affect other people? Lie back on the couch and listen closely to what NM’s News Therapist makes of it all.
A couple of months ago I was watching Truly, Madly, Deeply with my daughter. We both love Alan Rickman and we both like to cry. The movie was as tender and weepy as I remember, but I was struck dumb by how extraordinarily yellow peoples’ teeth looked to me. I couldn’t believe how much my own vision had changed. What really hit home about this was that I felt as if I had lost part of my choice about how I see the world. I couldn’t go back to my old way of seeing teeth. I don’t have to whiten my own teeth, but I can’t choose not to see them as yellowed ever again.
From my early teens until my late 20s I never shaved. Anything. Looking back I think that this was in part possible because I was not alone. I had my friend Karen, and we were pretty proud of our hairy legs. There were plenty of other women who didn’t shave, and a hairy armpit was not a national decency emergency. It’s hard to make this kind of hairy stand alone. There is so much ridicule and outright discrimination based on appearance, that most of us need visible buddies if we are to resist aesthetic conformity. Eventually both of us, like many other women in this age of hairlessness, took up the razor and the wax pot, tired of carrying the flag on our own.
If you think hair arrangement is a simple choice, I challenge you to a reading or a re-reading of The Joy of Sex. It’s been so long since such an abundance of natural pubic hair has been on display, that it looks more like The Jungle Book than a sex manual. Again, of course I have a choice here about surrendering to topiary, but I’m quickly losing the battle over the choice of what I see.
We don’t acknowledge the roles we play in each other’s lives in terms of the perception and acceptance of our bodies. This is particularly true in recent media discussions of plastic surgery. The same questions are always asked of female celebrities: Would you? Do you? What do you think about it? But rarely do we get beyond the idea that this is a personal choice. Like wearing black, or taking up yoga.
Invariably somewhere in these ubiquitous discussions about surgery, there is an offhand reference to the idea that it may be good for someone’s self-esteem. I find this particularly galling; self-esteem is such a fundamental measure of our feelings of self worth. The actual formation and tending of self-esteem has nothing to do with the alteration of our appearance. Self-esteem is formed instead, by the accomplishment of difficult but not impossible goals (walking, speaking, driving, study, making friends), with the help of a loving witness who lets us know that we are capable and that our experiences are valid and respected. This is about authentic experience and not about feeling better about ourselves because we look like we’re supposed to look.
Interestingly, what also comes up in articles with a focus on plastic surgery is the idea that "I do it for myself" — as if somehow doing it to please someone else isn’t ok, but doing it to deceive yourself is just fine. I’m pretty sure I don’t dye my hair for anyone else. Unlike all the years when it was pink, or blue or green, now it’s a pretty sedate colour, not exactly overt self-expression. I am in one of the few professions where older is generally better, and I don’t think I’d miss out on much if I went grey. So who am I trying to kid? Myself. I’m pretty sure that I’m protecting myself from the truth that I’m getting older. I’m trying to keep seeing myself as I was, because soon no one else will.
Somewhere in this minefield of so-called self-improvement, we seem to have lost our ability for risk assessment and abandoned our responsibility to each other for the way our world looks. Every surgical procedure carries risks. Anaesthetic alone is a significant risk. But we are also risking the loss of our connection to the body as it is in the wild. Each move I make towards banishing the emerging crone that is part of getting older, I risk losing my authentic experience of myself — and also robbing you of some of yours. The backs of my hands are beginning to look decidedly mummified. Like my long-gone hairy legs, I don’t want to be the only one sporting witchy paws.
Not one of us wants to get old. This is partly an understandable fear of death, but it’s also a fear of becoming socially excluded and losing our connection to who we are and were, as those around us become increasingly blind to us as people.
A few years ago my dad, an incredibly young looking 65-year-old central European Dorian Gray, went out in the middle of the afternoon to replace the natty leather slippers he always wears at home. He was back an unconvincing 15 minutes later. When my mother asked why he was home so soon, he said "the place was full of old people!" Having sported white hair for the past 10 years, she was amused. "You’re 65 years old, you’re out in the afternoon buying slippers. Who do you think you are?"
Perception is its own kind of truth. You can tell me the truth, that you’ve had fat injected into the back of your hands, lifted your breasts or frozen your forehead with poison, but that doesn’t mean that I can keep in my mind’s eye that what I see before me is not really you. I can tell you I’m really half grey, kind of Cruella De Ville without the dramatic contrast, but it’s only a story. When my grandmother finally stopped dyeing her hair in her 90s, she instantly looked like a little old woman. Who knew? She’d probably been a little old woman for a long time.
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