We hold these truths to be self-evident:
• That any person over the age of (say) 65 has the inalienable right to grow older in the unchallenged manner of his or her choosing.
• That nobody should be socially or culturally dissed for correcting grey hair or a balding head or dilapidating skin by whatever means available.
• That no company or advertiser should wantonly overclaim the virtues of cosmetic products or processes targeted at the over-65s. Age-defying? Maybe – but just keep it real.
• That being old is not a synonym for being a victim or a dupe. Millions in their Third Age do not really need to be led out of their misery, a misery defined and propagated by invariably well-meaning but over-sensitive and self-perpetuating lobbies.
Earlier in this century, the American businesswoman Anne Kreamer writes what will become a famous, much referenced neo-bible called Going Gray : how to embrace your authentic self with grace and style. The book is entirely devoted to the history and aftermath of the author’s decision – taken in her forties – to stop colouring her hair. The book has an epic, an epochal intent – to inspire a new generation of older women to deny the faux-modernity of cosmetic enhancement in order to activate a more appropriate and more genuine definition of beauty. “Hair is the silent shorthand sign we use”, she unhappily concludes, “to communicate to others who we want them to think we are”. The message : do not mimic youth and do not deny the years. Why participate in the culturally and commercially driven delusion that time is not passing? You will just be wasting money if you do. Besides, women are not dolls who need to get their thinning hair petted and patted for fun. The rest of you… grow old like, well, men. Sing, sing if you are glad to be grey. Be bold, be bald.
Today indeed, the politics of hair microcosms the politics of ageing. Everybody heading through middle-age has, it seems, some biting personal choices to make, choices plotted along a brightly lit line over the cranium. Is it right to exult in the advancing reality of monochrome hair and also… crispy skin, sagging bits, patches of bald and (what are optimistically called) love-handles …? Is this the best expression of 21st century age-heroism? Is this the attitude, a grey coming-out, which we all should applaud?
Meanwhile, every Sunday Supplement will these days carry a feature reporting that some sprightly septuagenarian celebrity has newly condemned the phrase “anti-aging” or “age-reversing” when used to support the sale of beauty creams. The feature may well add that certain cosmetic brands have indeed decided to abandon such language, replacing it with verbal applause for the indefatigability of real inner beauty. Nobody – so the line will run – should be told that she “looks good for her age”; it’s both insulting and life-denying. There is indeed a whole movement – with its own scholarship, literature and spokeswomen – which abominates all attempts at artificially prolonged youth.
In a loud riff off Anne Kreamer’s theme and some ten years after Going Gray, the writer Sophie Fontanel devotes an entire novel (with dozens of illustratively sequential photos of her own head) to the drama of a middle-age woman’s decision to let nature alone manage her hair. The heroine of Une Apparition (2017) – clearly Ms. Fontanel herself – chronicles on social media the psychological and practical processes by which she takes the colour out of her hair and by extension (not really the right word) the artifice out of her life. The story – an anabasis of the follicles, one might call it – traces the reactions she generates. One very stark and perhaps strangely unselfconscious concern in the story relates to the possible response of male friends or even male strangers. Will they still find her desirable? Or will her decision ruin her chances in the marketplace of love and intimacy? One seriously anti-revisionist friend of the author is more than hesitant about the big decision and gives it to her hard:
“Men are too f—–g thick to want women with white hair”. [The Rinkli translation]
Of course, Sophie is about to prove her so wrong. But so many of the women and men she encounters on the journey applaud her daring but tell her that she is really colluding with the ageing process to the point of de-sexing her life. Her adventure is seen as picaresque, a whimsy really but also a betrayal of what might be called the Garnier sisterhood and its tradition of necessarily un-variegated grooming behaviour. Implicitly, Sophie perceives the need for a new silvered feminism, one which declares that the older woman must stop resting her destiny on the stolidly adolescent tastes of men.
The market does not lie.
But listen. It will soon be all very normal for septuagenarians to improve their looks by selecting from the full range of invasive and non-invasive cosmetic treatments. Already in the ever-swelling cosmetic intervention market that is the USA, around 12% of cosmetic procedures (surgical + non surgical) are being procured by the over-65s. (For the 51-64s, the figure is about 30%). One quarter of all laser skin-resurfacing and of all eyelid rejuvenating surgery is carried out on the over-65s. (Tellingly, the equivalent figures for the 51-64s are 42% and 47% respectively – this is precisely how so many people are getting ready for their Third Age and beyond).
Here is surely the rub.
There is no cultural papacy around to direct the process of ageing with clear rules of conduct and choice. Ageing is naturally occurring libertarianism.
From the palette of options facing us, we all have to make our own way. Such is the scale of the demographic change now upon us, such is the swelling population of that Third Age, such is the health and wealth which now characterises what was once the human Twilight Zone … that serious lifestyle diversity is spreading out from the future towards us. Those who tut today at the anticipatory tuck procured by the nervous quinquagenarian beauty will soon tut no more. The sixty year old who marries the thirty year old – in a second marriage for both parties – will not be booed in the pages of liberal newspapers. Those who fear ridicule for doing something outlandish in their later, meant-to-be-sober-and-respectable years will know that ridicule is weakening as a tool of social conformity among Third Agers.
And where anyway is the respectability in being unfulfilled, unhappy?
The times have long since changed.
Naomi Wolf’s blockbusting analysis of how notions of beauty are defined and standards of beauty imposed in a setting of brute male power was published in 1991 (sic); it argued that great distress and lifelong confusion in the lives of women everywhere are the result as they to force their bodies to conform to a crude and inflexible stereotype of personal attractiveness. It was, back then, a blisteringly powerful call-to-arms. There was neither a university campus nor an advertising agency in the land where The Beauty Myth was not thoroughly dissected and discussed. As a proposition, it soared in the political and cultural consciousness of its era. There was truly a sense that a new dawn had broken, that a particularly virulent anti-female aggressiveness was at last being named for what it was, that a liberation was under way.
And yet, as we review modern narratives about the nature of beauty and attraction, it is hard not to conclude that that thrust has long since turned to a mere jab. Enhanced longevity has also changed the key of the song. Beauty and beautification and success in courtship are to be pursued as doggedly as ever as birthrights – and, in a sense, deathrights – for all ages. (We mention here in passing that it is generally true that 90% of all cosmetic procedures, head to foot and surgical to non-surgical, are sought by women).
Ageing : the ultimate identity politics
We note how rare it is for British seventy-somethings to agree that they are or are still “good-looking”. There may be some providential human reserve at work here; beauties from any decade may not like to brag. But maybe so many here think that “good looking” is representative of a language that does not apply to themselves any more, not inaccurate but just not the right way of putting things.
For the research also reveals that around 85% of septuan women affirm that “whenever I go out, I try to make sure that I look my best”. (The equivalent figure for seventysomething men is ca 70%).
Ageing, the conclusion has to be, is being given the permission to be seriously performative.
The cultural ground has been much softened. It is now, after all, nearly half of all seventy year-olds in the UK who say that they do try to stick to regular exercise/fitness regime. We can assume some bias of exaggeration here but the figures speak to the same story. Even as such responses go up or down a little over the years ahead, it is already clear from them that the Third Age is not meant to be any longer a serene process of accepted decline. One speaks here of not just a cultural phenomenon nor even of the strident personal ambition of the lucky and the strong. At work is a survivalism, a mass exit from an early end-game, a consequent demand for attention and respect and space.
Consider this. In the year when England won the World Cup in 1966 around 112,000 women under the age of twenty took their marriage vows in England/Wales; by the opening of this decade through which we all pass and in spite of the very substantial population increase which has occurred since those days, the figure had fallen to less than 3,000. In a way, it’s just downright odd to be too conformist or conservative now. We are all allowed to experiment with partners before settling – if indeed settling is in our thoughts at all. It is in this landscape that we must set the whole business of ageing and the choices we all as individuals can make, perhaps have to make. In 1966, of all those women getting married in their sixties only 7% of them had been previously divorced; as this decade began, the same figure was 66%. Though sexagenarian marriages are not yet super-common, the straws are coming off the wind to form bricks.
Growing old as recently as, say, the 1980s was like drinking coffee back then. In the morning caff, you could ask for black or white, with sugar or without – and that was your lot. Growing old today can be a permutation of anything from a de-caffeinated macchiato to an organic gingerbread latte with extra hazelnuts, all served in a recyclable paper cup or a pretty ceramic mug or in a stainless steel vacuum travel accessory.
Though the times are indeed more free and opportunities less tight, it is possible to read all of our stories here and sense something of a revivified and redirected misogyny in the air, in the making. As we review the politics of hair-management and cosmetic interventions of all kinds, it becomes unmissable that this is a debate principally about older women; indeed, men are often just not in the picture at all (often only as either admiring or disapproving commentators).
At one end of the female choice-spectrum a loud and occasionally aggressive voice declares that it is beautiful to let yourself go grey; at the other (I accept that this is a rather blunt caricature) a mellower voice insists that it is your right to defend your looks in all their residual youthfulness with any devices, conventional or modern, that are to hand. But with either choice (and at all points in-between) there is – our point – measurable pressure on women to correspond to certain external, culturally endorsed definitions of beauty. In the debate about ageing and the multitudes facing it, nobody is saying that female appearance is not a controversy any longer. Just the opposite.
How to be a beautiful and happy female seventy-five year-old will be the social construction project of our global century.
You wait. You will see. There will be both liberation and trouble along the way. But if help and hope spring from an ever lengthening menu of anti-ageing options, then so be it. If anti-ageing technology improves, then let’s welcome it.
Ageing does not necessarily stink as much as it used to do but it can certainly smell differently. We, the greys, are all going to have a fresh set of options in the theatre of intimacy just as we face the infiltration of a new set of fears amid an old and possibly still dismal set of surrounding attitudes. None of us can legitimately hope or expect not to be surprised any more. It is going to take bravery and, yes, ruthlessness, to have an emotionally rich Third Age.
Yes too, for some the last thirty years of life might take the form of a huge bowl of cherries, each plump with routine and stability. But not everyone will want to eat cherries every day and not everyone will, demographically speaking, get the chance even if they want it. The older heart, the lonely hunter, can have many life-chances – for as long as it keeps being ready to shed yesterday’s skin.