Aging Is (Not) Unnatural

Laurie and Debbie say:

Cross-posted to Body Impolitic. All photographs by Laurie Toby Edison.

Some photos below may not be okay for office viewing.

After our introductory post here last week, Daisy Deadhead asked if we wrote about age as a body image issue, since we hadn’t happened to mention it in that post. Great question!

Nahamura

We think age is a crucial body image issue, especially in this culture. On the one hand, we have the multi-million dollar “beauty” industry and ad agencies all striving to squeeze every dollar they can out of making us hate our bodies. On the other hand, we have the medical establishment frantically trying to make every human variation into a medical condition. Aging is just about the most fruitful area either of these groups can pick on. Contrary to all of this noise, aging is normal.

LANI

Used to be, “aging” started somewhere around the 40s. Now, especially for women, “aging” starts before you’re 30. Since the only definition of “hot” is 25-or-under (and often younger than that), you’re out of the race. (Some of us don’t think we need to run, but for millions of women, it’s terrifying.) Is anything sagging? Is your skin starting to change texture? Toning equipment and skin creams are there to solve your problems.

kaz

Not too much later, the doctors get into the act. “Perimenopause” has been completely medicalized, and is basically treated as a chronic condition. Once you’re past it and into menopause, then the complicated question of hormones has to be addressed. Some doctors are starting to recommend that men replace their (naturally decreasing) testosterone as an anti-aging supplement.

It’s not like the corporations take a vacation while the doctors get busy: natural changes in your aging body are subject to both commercial and medical attention. The Botox providers need money, as do the labiaplasty doctors who will make women’s pubes look young again. Cosmetics and plastic surgery for men are becoming more and more popular all the time. Executive face-lifts for both men and women are common. The exercise machine manufacturers and the gyms don’t just talk about health and fitness: they also talk, constantly, about youthfulness. (By the way, this keeps people out of gyms in droves. Many people would exercise more if they didn’t feel like failures because it never makes them look younger.)

RHYLORIE

Whether or not you follow all these rules, buy all these products, work at looking young, inevitably (unless you are seriously unlucky) you’re going to get to a point where you’re not looking young any more. Then what you’re really supposed to do is disappear (although active versions of people your age will show up on TV all the time, buying Depends, and energy products, and other commodities). A few years ago, we were at a BlogHer session, and one of the presenters asked people to name the identity you felt most uncomfortable revealing. Women were talking about everything from being Jewish to being queer, and everyone was nodding. Laurie raised her hand and said, “I always talk about my age, which is 62, even though it sometimes makes other people uncomfortable.” For the rest of the weekend, women kept coming up to her, thanking her, and telling her how brave she was. Announcing her age in public was clearly a much more transgressive act than talking about sexual orientation.

ray

Everyone who lives long enough ages. Everyone’s body changes as they age. While there’s a certain amount of general predictability to the course of aging, the specific changes are very variable from person to person. Some of them are difficult to cope with; others are not. Some people stay healthy and active into their 90s; others don’t. Youth does not have a monopoly on beauty.

Like so many other body image issues facing us today, it isn’t aging that’s the issue, it’s how we treat aging.


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24 comments for “Aging Is (Not) Unnatural

  1. August 19, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Your guest posts here have been amazing. Thank you so much for bringing such a holistic view of body image to the discourse here.

  2. August 19, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    excellent post. i also enjoyed the pictures you’ve included.

  3. femnist
    August 19, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Excellent post! However, the pictures are not work safe – it doesn’t matter whether you are posting naked pictures of people who are ‘attractive’ according to popular culture or otherwise. In fact, this is sending a very twisted message, like ‘Nude pictures? So what, they’re not of young, sexy people’.

  4. Napalm Nacey
    August 19, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Great post, I loved it.

  5. laprofe63
    August 19, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    For women, “aging” starts before you’re 30…? I’m trying to remember that far back…. I don’t remember worrying about aging in my 20s, even though I found my first grey hair at 18. YIKES!

    I think for women, aging does inevitably tie in with childbearing. I wasn’t much trying to participate in mating rituals with anyone in my 20s. And I wasn’t thinking about fertility or children at all. (In fact, I resisted that well into my 30s –until my body betrayed me.)

    Now at 46, I’ve just recently started thinking more about aging, and trying to figure out how I want to do it. I’m determined to spend my remaining years alive feeling how I want to feel about myself, not how someone else trying to sell me stuff or fit me into their sex plans, wants me to feel.

    Aging can be the first time a person gets to play the game of life without the board.

  6. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    amandow, FilthyGrandeur, and Napalm Nacey ,

    Thanks. I really appreciate your words.

    femnist,

    Glad you liked the post.

    It says “Some photos below may not be okay for office viewing.” at the top of the post, just as it would if I put up similar photographs of conventionally attractive people. So the message is consistent for all images.

    laprofe63,

    We were talking about the societal/media definitions of aging. I think it varies a great deal in how people experience it personally. I had my children relatively young and childbearing didn’t relate to aging for me. And like you. I didn’t think about it til my 40’s .

  7. femnist
    August 19, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Oops! Sorry, didn’t notice the warning!

  8. emmo
    August 20, 2009 at 12:35 am

    The warning doesn’t do much good unless the pictures are put “below the fold” or “after the jump,” thus giving people a choice of whether or not to load them if they happen to be at work.

  9. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 20, 2009 at 12:39 am

    amandow, we blog like this all the time at Body Impolitic. Stop by.

    Emmo, the picture “above the fold” is clothed, and that was intentional.

  10. emmo
    August 20, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I’m not sure what you mean. All of the pictures appear on the main page at Feministe. There is no option not to load them if you don’t feel you’re in an appropriate setting. No worries. I guess it just won’t be safe to read this blog at work anymore. My loss.

  11. helen
    August 20, 2009 at 1:20 am

    earnest, beautiful images and article

  12. VK
    August 20, 2009 at 5:49 am

    All the pictures turn up on the main page for me too – you might want to check your cut because currently the main page is very non-work safe for those of us at our jobs :(

  13. August 20, 2009 at 6:09 am

    They’re showing up on the main page for me as well. There should be a cut.

  14. August 20, 2009 at 6:14 am

    I’ve thought about aging all my life, probably because (in growing up) I saw aging as automatically conferring a certain respect and dignity to women that we don’t have when we’re young. I couldn’t wait to get old! Couldn’t wait to get that gravitas, finally have people take me seriously!

    And then I “grew up”, and “got old” (heh. I’m 42), and discovered it doesn’t work that way everywhere, in every venue. The doctor’s office, for one. It’s hard to find a doctor who will take any concerns or symptoms seriously enough to look into them—everything will get written off as “of course you feel like shit! you’re old!” As if now that I’m over forty, I oughta just buck up and get ready for the damn grave. At the same time I get “praise” for looking “so young!” Bah. I’ve got two grandmothers in their nineties. I’m thinking that with any luck, I’m gonna be around for a while.

  15. stonebiscuit
    August 20, 2009 at 9:09 am

    The images all showed up above the fold for me as well. Great post, interesting topic, but the warning text should have been bigger and the images should have been below the fold.

  16. oldlady
    August 20, 2009 at 10:25 am

    It was when I hit fifty–half a century!!!–that aging first hit me. Now, a quarter of a century later, it’s still difficult to think of myself as old–I don’t FEEL old. (Gertrude Stein said we are always the same age inside.) My body looks old and sometimes it betrays me–it won’t do many things it used to do. But, aside from that, all the lines and wrinkles and white hair are simply signs of life. The old bod has that comfortable, lived-in look.

    In addition, the years are supposed to give us some wisdom, if we are lucky, and if we search for it. And somewhere along the line we realize that our mothers were right all along, about one thing, at least: our real beauty lies inside us, not in how we look.

  17. August 20, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    @Emmo #10, VK #12, Natalie #13, Stonebiscuit #15: We’ve fixed this with a cut tag and we’re really sorry if this was a problem for anyone.

    As guest bloggers on Feministe, we didn’t understand that the standards here are so different for than they are for Body Impolitic readers. We won’t make that mistake again.

    Laurie and I both think it’s sad, but not surprising, that the culture makes an issue out of respectful fine-art nudes of diverse bodies.

  18. sophonisba
    August 20, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    The collected effect of these photos is really something. The women: one fully clothed, three quarter view; one classic female visual cliche of clutching her body to herself; one facing the camera with no coyness, what a relief–but partially obscured behind a chair. All visible thighs tightly pressed together. None of them present their images without contortion or coy concealment.

    The men: seated in poses of exaggerated relaxation and confidence, spreading their legs to show their penises, smiling happily. Self-satisfaction.

    The overpowering message I get from this set of photos, arranged in this way and displayed as a group, is: man or woman, age doesn’t change a god damn thing about how you present your gender.

    Of course this assumes that the poses are the models’ choices, not the photographers–perhaps this is not the case? Though the effect of the images remains the same. Any one of them alone could be explained as a personal stylistic choice, and probably is, but the collective effect is amazingly depressing.

  19. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 20, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    sophonisba,

    The work is very collaborative. The models choose where they want to be photographed and they choose the poses. My job is to make them comfortable enough so that they are relaxed in their body language and of course to the art.

    What people see in the images is their personal reaction. Obviously I see something very different when I look at these portraits.

    These were chosen because they felt like a good fit for the topic of aging. No handful of images will illustrate a project. This type of criticism of my work is most often that my images of women are too direct and confrontational.

    Check out the Women En Large Gallery and the Familiar Men Gallery for serious look at the projects.

  20. August 20, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Gorgeous photos.

  21. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 20, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    oldlady,

    I’m not sure it’s so much that we feel “young” inside. I certainly don’t feel (except is some essentials) the way I did when I was 22. But I feel good and the world is fresh and fascinating. I think our internal experiences of ourselves are going to vary greatly, but I think the problem is the we tend to often to accept the bad cultural stereotype about what it feels like to be older.

  22. Suza
    August 22, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    These images and some of the comments remind of how body-deprived Americans are and our culture is. I lived abroad for many years and went to a sauna regularly, during the day when the older ladies went. Nudity, toplessness is such a no big deal thing in some European countries, at beaches, etc. You forget when you’re here, how twisted our society is. It’s sad.
    Context is everything isn’t it.

  23. Bonnie
    August 24, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Thank’s for the article and photos – the images make me realize I am normal. They are validating – and thanks to the people who were brave enough to be photographed in the nude. I am so self-conscious of my body, I won’t wear anything but jeans because I have vericous veins and I won’t wear anything sleeveless because my arms have wings. Thank you again for the article. It’s definitely food for thought!

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