By Sarah Berry – Daily Life
Plucking, bleaching, shaving, injecting, dousing ourselves in chemicals, pouring hot wax on our skin. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a form of medieval torture if, of course, we didn’t choose it of our own volition. Each year, Australian women spend $7.1 billion a year on beauty and much of it with the objective of looking more youthful.
It is not surprising when a negative image of age is often instilled in us from our early years: the majority of Disney’s older characters, particularly the females, have historically been portrayed as ugly, haggard, frail, evil or disfigured.
Ashton Applewhite is an ageing activist and the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.
“The messages start young,” she says. “Disney cartoons and the way they depict older people, particularly older women is horrendous. We are brainwashed really early on.”
This means there can be no judgement over what we put ourselves through in the name of beauty.
“Let me say one thing overarching, especially to women because we get this double whammy of ageism and sexism and this noxious idea that age and beauty can’t co-exist,” says Applewhite, who is currently touring Australia.
“Whatever you need to do is totally fine. Botox, plastic surgery, dye your hair to cover the grey, liposuction, whatever. It’s tough out there and we each need to do what we each need to do to get through this in our own way.”
Besides, she adds, many women tell her they like to do it and feel more beautiful as a result.
But, as long as we associate beauty and being sexy or worthy with such a narrow construct as anti-ageing, we all lose.
“If you look at your friends who are sexually active, who are out in the world in that way, they are not the thinnest, they are not the youngest, they are not the prettiest,” Applewhite says.
“They are the ones who know their lovers are lucky. They are the ones who have beaten back this horrible, noxious, toxic message that to show signs of ageing, to not have a body that conforms to what we see on billboards, to not be thin and white and blonde is to somehow be less desirable. Confidence is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Injecting poison into your face, she insists, is “not a great plan A”:
“If you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it, but in the broader sense, as long as we do these things, we reinforce age shame; the idea that these natural transitions are shameful; the idea that our bodies are betraying us simply because they are changing; the idea that wrinkles are ugly.”
Remembering that norms of beauty change with time and fashion can help us to combat the pressure to be ageless.
“These values are socially constructed, which means we make them up and we can unmake them. We have the power,” Applewhite says.
Realising that ageing does not look like the image we have been sold, an image Applewhite argues is sold on our dissatisfaction, is another.
In her 2017 TED talk, Applewhite questioned the validity of our fears about growing old, including that we will all end up “drooling in some grim institutional hallway”.
These were questions she started to ask herself, twelve years ago, while in her mid-50s because she too was “afraid of getting old”.
Contrary to her fears, she discovered that only four per cent of older Americans (and about 5 per cent of Australians) are living in aged care, while rates of dementia are declining and happiness levels tend to increase as we age.
Ageing, she has come to realise, isn’t scary or ugly or weak. It is not mutually exclusive with sex or beauty, energy or joy. Instead, she has found it liberating to unchain herself from the myths about ageing.
“It’s embarrassing to be called out as older until you quit being embarrassed about it. It’s a lot more fun on the other side,” Applewhite says. “I feel so much better about my own future. The news is good, partly because the prevailing message is so toxic.”
While our attitudes towards beauty are but one part of a larger social problem that frames older people as “greedy, needy” burdens on the youth, the change starts with us.
“The very first thing to do, and it’s the hardest part, is to look at our own attitudes towards age and ageing,” Applewhite suggests
“Ageing is a journey upon which each of us embarks from the day we are born. It is how we move through life – it is not dying – ageing is living. Why should we be ashamed of getting older?”
Sarah Berry is a lifestyle and health writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.