One of my favorite movies is Sexy Beast a wry comedy thriller with one of the scariest performances ever. Ben Kingsley is Don Logan, a ferocious mad dog criminal, totally unhinged, wild, and brilliant.
In one of his best scenes, Logan spits and yells obscenities in a long, crazed tirade against Gal, Dee Dee, Jackie, and Aitch. But he gets one thing right – aging:
I don't give two fucks what Jackie big tits thinks about me coming back to. She can think what she fucking likes I got enough fucking information on her. It alright if she's got a pretty face, that could all change...age changes that. I looking forward to seeing her when she's 70. See if she still coming the cunt with a face like a wrinkled prune. No fucking way. Aitch will be gone by then.
When I began to go grey in my early 40s my mother kept suggesting that I have my hair colored. “It makes you look old”, she said; but what she really meant was that it made her look old. Everything she did to look years younger was neutered by a son walking around looking like sixty.
Sexual attractiveness is hardwired. We are no different from peacocks, howler monkeys, or Gouldian finches. We want to look feminine and young enough to reproduce, or virile enough to protect, defend, and provide. Most animals die before they lose their reproductive ability. The Gouldian finch never gets old enough to lose his plumage or hop about with sketchy-looking feathers and a dull beak. He primps, prances, mates, brings back a few bugs for his offspring, and is eaten by a hawk.
Human beings are different. Well past our pull-date we still want to look as sexually attractive and alluring as ever. This makes good sense in a society where half of marriages end in divorce, and men regularly leave their older wives. In fact, more men would be jettisoning old, moldy cargo if they just had the money. Women, therefore, have a very big stake in hedging their bets. Keeping fit at the gym, getting facials and body toning, and keeping a beauty chest full of creams, lotions, and powders is far more than simple vanity. It makes good economic sense. A woman who ‘lets herself go’, lets her greying hair straggle, wears sensible shoes and comfortable pants, and pays no attention to the incursion of lines, lumps, and sags has lost competitive advantage in a tough marketplace.
Moreover, we live in a youth culture. Although the American population is aging as Baby Boomers hit later life, no one is going quietly. Membership at sports clubs and gyms is booming. Senior citizens are running, biking, swimming, dancing, and cavorting like young gazelles. Not only do they think that all this activity will retard the advances of age, it will keep them feeling and looking young. Most men will notice and admire a woman who looks good no matter what her age. If a woman pays attention, her allure can outlast her fertility. Helen Mirren is 68.
Men are not immune. They spend over $5bn on grooming products every year. My sports club, once an old-fashioned redoubt of sweat and gym clothes, has become an after-shower beauty parlor. The array of creams, after-shaves, moisturizers, and toners is impressive. The gym smells better than ever and the personal products industry is booming.
Most men and women know when to give it up. When all the dollars and hours spent trying to look young are not worth it. There is always that one, depressing, but conclusive moment when we know it is time to hang it up. Until then, however, most of us spare no expense to look young; and those with money have plastic surgery. A few nips and tucks never hurt anybody. What is the difference between a thousand-dollar cosmetic, styling, and fashion overhaul and a few discrete cuts under the chin, behind the ears; or a dab of silicone here and there? All are part of a continuum. Those who snicker at face lifts are ignoring the cosmetic efforts which have preceded them.
Suzanne Moore, writing in the Guardian (5.16.14) is dismayed at women’s complaisance. Where has feminism gone, she asks?
The bloated faces of so many of our current stars do not speak to me of empowerment: instead, I see powerlessness and women masking age with an odd veneer
As a feminist, I have always argued that everyone has a fundamental right to do what they want with their bodies, a right not yet granted in much of the world. Logically, this right should cover everything from abortion to vaginoplasty, because the language of rights is essentially about individual autonomy.
But – and it's a big, implanted but – the context in which these individual decisions are made disturbs me as much as these freaky faces… Since my youth, the ideals of beauty have become both narrower and globalized. The conventions are marketable. Cosmetic surgery is more affordable and déclassé. Skin-lightening cream is everywhere.
In other words, laudable feminist ideals have been coopted by the consumer society which has become global and unstoppable. Countries in Asia which have been only lightly touched by American political feminism, such as India, China, and Japan, are snapping up anti-aging cosmetics and plastic surgery like there was no tomorrow. Youthful beauty is the norm in that part of the world, and in a viral, connected world, that ideal circles back here and reinvigorates the image.
There is another reason why there is no going back to the hippy days of the Sixties, an age without makeup, hair styling, lipstick, or perfume; when everything was earthy, plain, and unpretentious. Virtual reality. A fantasy world of imagined landscapes, unblemished, lithe bodies; and a lifetime of adventure and romance will always trump the real thing. The more virtuality replaces reality, the less we will care about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t. What a thing looks like will become more important than what it is.
America is already a semi-virtual world. In cyberspace our avatars can be as alluring as Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson. The lumpy dork clicking the mouse is magically transformed into Prince Charming. For all the focus on ‘organic’, most of us want the inorganic, the imagined, the photo-shopped, and the fantastical. No one wants a home that organically fits within the landscape, respects historical values and the ecology of the local environment. We want to look good – bella figura, homes that resemble Versailles, travel to lands of glitz and show.
Whenever I am asked by foreigners where they should visit on their first visit to the United States, I always say Las Vegas. What could be more American in its showy virtuality?
So, until that fateful glimpse in the mirror of a face like a wrinkled prune, we will continue to try to look good. We have been programmed to do so, and we cannot simply do a little DIY genetic fiddling and give it up early. Plastic surgery, cosmetics, and virtual reality are all responses to the paradox of long life and limited reproductive utility; and I say, “Why not?”