on aging gracefully

Audrey Hepburn by Steven Meisel, 1991
Audrey Hepburn by Steven Meisel, 1991

The other day I read a moving article on self-chosen death among the elderly. It was based on research revealing the essence of a so-called complete life: the inability to do the things you’re used to do, and thus to make connection to life. As a result, people alienate from the world as well as from themselves. And as a result, some people choose to end their life because of it.

It made me wonder: is our connection to life determined by the things we do? And if so, what does that say about our sense of identity?

One man in the story told about the suffering of aging, illustrated by his growing inability to paint: ‘It’s like someone took my identity and self-respect. If I cannot do this anymore, an existential part of me dies.’ In the same way, he told about his declining ability to write, which used to be ‘clever and lucide’, but became more and more vague and mediocre.

It was presented like logical reasoning: if you cannot paint well anymore, your life could just as well end. But, that’s what I wonder, why were painting and clever writing existential parts of this man? Was that because both were means to express himself, to make connection to other people – or were they means to get admired? Or both? Could it be that our identity is partly based on the admiration we get from others – or at least presumably?

If so, could it explain why women fear the aging part of life so much? Already when they’ve not even entered the realm of the elderly, but when they approach their forties and are showing the first signs of physical decline, they start to worry. Among women, the age of forty is that crucial point in life when the ass starts to loose its tightness, just as the tits, the thighs, the skin. When once thick and shiny hair starts to become thinner, just as that of men, only on their head it’s supposed to be interesting and on a women’s head it’s – well, not supposed to be thin. You only have to read the women magazines to know that there is a whole industry of cosmetics and surgery ready to stop this natural process and to make it possible for women to hold on to their youth. Moreover, it’s presented in imperative sentences to women: of course you don’t let time take over. Hell no. You will age gracefully, that’s what it’s called.

That industry is blossoming, thriving on the insecurity of women. That insecurity is so huge and universal that it almost seems existential. When time comes and takes our feminine assets, the aspects of our appearance which used to attract men, it seems we start to feel less of a woman. That would of course be a horrifying explanation, because it would mean that our appearance is an existential part of our identity.

Marlene DietrichTragic proof of this theory is Marlene Dietrich, who spent the last eleven years of her life mostly hidden in her apartment at 12, Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Only a few people were allowed to see her. The rest of the world was left with the remembrance of her image: that of a beautiful woman who was a star on stage until her last public appearance in 1979. A woman who looked like she was thirty when she was far in her seventies. A woman who referred to herself in third person and reputedly said to her manager, while she was looking in the mirror: ‘Look at her, isn’t she frightening?’ That was after she applied her self-invented methods to recall youth, which consisted of tightening her facial skin by pulling her hair back into tight braids, securing them with tape and covering them with a blond wig, and by sculpting her sagging contours in an ultra-tight elastic corset that she would wear beneath her gowns. Ironically, it were those image-saving methods that forced her to retreat from the stage in the end, when she repeatedly fell because of her rigid foundations.

On the terms of Marlene Dietrich, retreating from the stage meant retreating from public life. From life, we could just as well say. In fact, she even published an autobiography in 1979, the same year she enclosed herself, entitled: Nehmt nur mein Leben. Take my life, it was all yours to begin with.

Of course, not all women are like Marlene Dietrich. And not all women mind that their ass turns into a plumpudding and their facial skin becomes loose. But truth is, whether they mind or not, people do notice. Or rather: people stop noticing. Men don’t turn their head anymore in the street. There are less flirts, less winks, less compliments and it feels. It hurts. It hurts when women look in the mirror. They look different, wrinkled, older. And chances are that they start to wonder. Am I still attractive? The underlying fear, denied or not, is the same as that of this man suffering from his inability to paint and write: do I still count?

It may seem as a superficial question when it comes to attractiveness. That’s maybe why we never ask it. But numerous are the women that have passed their beauty peak and are being traded for younger ones by their husband. Or maybe they’re not actually traded for them, but they feel as if. They feel the danger. They fear. They see their men looking at younger women and unconsciously check themselves in mirrors and windows. Do I still count?

Audrey HepburnBut here’s a thought. Those men might not be attracted by the ass or tits of the younger ones, but just as much by their positivity, their lightness, the way they are comfortable in their skin. Because those younger women are not yet weighed down by the fear of their older sisters, the insecurity, fed by magazines and an industry aiming at doing just one thing: make them feel like they’re less of a woman if they don’t put all their money in the preservation of their tits and ass and skin. Those men might not even notice the physical decline, and if they do, they might not even think that their women are any less of a woman. One thing is sure though: if those women pay much attention to it, they will too.

A friend of mine, just turned thirty, confessed to me that he preferred making love to older women, because they weren’t so obsessively perfect. They were natural and seemed to know their body, and feeling comfortable with all the flaws coming with it. He must have picked just those women who actually age gracefully, which to me seems the definition of aging with a smile, a knowingness, a healthy self-awareness based on the insight that it’s good to take care of your body, but that we have way more to offer. To men, to people, to ourselves. To life.

Audrey Hepburn on aging

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