Issues of sexuality, gender, and spirituality have come out of the closet since the Sixties. Because of midwives and hospices, even birth and death are out as well. Aging remains one of our culture’s last taboos. Judging from how the old are represented (or rather, not represented) by the media, it’s fair to say we live in a society that would like to pretend that old people don’t exist. Since people typically spend less as they age, advertisers focus their attention on the young, unless they’re selling denture adhesives or incontinence pads. A recent study showed that only three percent of the images seen in a day of television contains images of older people, and when you notice how these elders are depicted-as silly, stubborn, vindictive, or worst of all, cute – you begin to appreciate the not-so-subtle antipathy of a market-driven culture toward the elderly.
We cannot underestimate the media’s influence on how we view ourselves as aging individuals. Men get trouble enough from the current obsession with staying young and beautiful, but women suffer even more from this craze. This is because men have traditionally had access to something almost as good as youth: power. Women have been deprived of this access until very recently. A man could be wrinkled and gray, but if he held high social or financial status, his physical losses were offset. Not so for women. Where an older man can be euphemized as “distinguished,” a woman is more often called “faded” or “over the hill,” and suffers enormous pressure to hide her age, often with painful results. Women now live a full third of their lives after menopause, and yet if you believe our popular culture, a woman who isn’t young, shapely, and still capable of bearing children is all but invisible. I have women friends who’ve gone to great lengths to keep up a youthful front with the help of plastic surgery, and while the results may be superficially satisfying, the impulse to re-carve what nature has created often masks a profound despair. It is as if we are urged to fight, over and over again, a losing battle against time, pitting ourselves against natural law. How ghastly this is, and how inhumane, toward both ourselves and the cycle of life. It reminds me of someone rushing around the fields in the autumn painting the marvelous gold and red leaves with green paint. It’s a lot of wasted time and energy.
Take the spots I have on my hands. Though I haven’t been harmed by them at all, I am harmed by the message I see on TV. “They call these aging spots,” an older woman says in a Porcelana ad, “but I call them ugly!” When I see that ad, I become uneasy about a natural process my body is going through. But when I flip that message around in my mind – “They call these ugly, I call them aging spots!” – the illusion is dispelled, and suddenly it’s just autumn leaves.