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out out, damn age spot

I’ve been thinking about anger, so a pull quote in a recent New York Times article caught my attention. “We [boomers] are angry that we’re growing old. We’re angry at people who remind us what aging looks like,” writes Dominique Browning in “The Case for Laugh Lines,” a critique of Botox Nation. Her second claim — that anger (aka fear) makes us shun the old — is pretty disturbing, and I think she’s right on both counts.  

Browning bemoans the proliferation of cosmetic procedures, onscreen and off and at ever-younger ages, to the point where acquaintances go unrecognized and faces are stripped of expression. Yet right up front she asserts that she’s “as supportive as the next gal” when it comes to cosmetic surgery. I used to be pretty agnostic myself, smugly relegating it to the domain of the vainer or wealthier, clucking about of the slippery slope. But the view in the mirror dismays, and I hadn’t ruled out the possibility of a little help against the tug of time. Now I understand that that’s not an option. Even the ambivalence has to go, even over those little brown splotches that the dermatologist could zap off my freckly hands in seconds.

Because, as Browning writes, knife and needle are “age-deniers. (You cannot call them youth-enhancers when you are no longer young.)”  They are signifiers of the self-loathing in which ageism takes root. To pretend that we can somehow dodge the hallmarks of aging is to ramp up for a Sisyphean struggle, like those poor bastards pitting sandbags against the Mississippi this spring. The land’s going to flood, and just as surely we’re going to die, wizened and wrinkled if we’re lucky. The costly struggle exhausts and ultimately embitters.  More perniciously, it turns the tucked of butt and shiny of cheekbone against their own best interests and distorts their sense of self.

Browning understands this, noting that we don’t advise our friends to stop fixing their frozen faces because “we are unable to visit the issue of the broken self-image [my emphasis]. And that’s what this must be about. We . . . loathe the evidence of aging. It is, surely, a change. It is even frightening. Mortality heaves into view.”  Yet she ends the piece with a muddle-headed call to “just ignore the signs of aging” that perfectly embodies our generation’s ambivalence. Calling herself “a big believer in denial,” she writes, “It is too much to ask that we embrace our changing faces — that we celebrate our mother’s beauty in our own graying hair, that we remember the joy that created those laugh lines, that we recognize our father’s forehead in the way ours wrinkles when we are perplexed, or we catch a glimpse of our aunt’s eyes when our own crinkle with delight.”

It’s a tall order, yes, but hardly too much to ask. What better chance do we 50- and 60-somethings stand of making peace with our cosmetic destinies, and moving on?  We get to drop those sandbags, and there’s another benefit, a paradoxical one:  obsessing over our appearance makes us look older. Anger and anxiety etch the face most cruelly, and repel; confidence attracts.