Concerns about Age

oldyounghands1

There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away
When the glow of early thought declines in feeling’s dull decay;
‘Tis not on youth’s smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast,
But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past.
Byron, Stanzas for Music [1]

I’ve seen, as probably all of us have, many articles on body image in the past. They mostly talk about the affects of negative body image on our mental health, and specifically they talk about feeling fat, seeing imperfections in the skin, and the rise of eating disorders and plastic surgery. The issues surrounding eating disorders are not ones I am 100% clear on, as I do not suffer from this, although I would highly recommend the Christian blog A New Name, by Emma Scrivener, for more information about eating disorders.

What I would like to talk about here is our society’s fear of ageing. Watch the television for a while, and you will see a multitude of adverts for this and that potion, body lotion, expensive eye cream and whatnot, which purport to hide the signs of ageing, to make you look young (and, the implication is, beautiful.) We live in a world where youth is equated with beauty, and where an increasing number of both women and men fear looking and growing older. Compared to other European countries, we spend far more on items to make ourselves look younger, from clothes to pills to potions. [2] As a commentator in The Guardian wrote:

A 2002 survey found that fear of ageing was no longer confined to 35- to 49-year-olds but had spread even to 20-year-olds. A pair of American researchers found that we develop negative stereotyping of ageing by the time we reach six. [3]

Fear of ageing is not a new thing, of course – hence the lines from Byron at the start of this piece. We have idolised youth in this country for many years, and tend to see the young as sexually desirable, beautiful, worthy of admiration. Other countries, such as China, respect elders (including their grey hair) and, according to the article I quoted, in that country ageing is not seen as something that will inevitably badly affect the memory of a person. I would be interested to know how much of our stereotypes of older people arise from cultural differences rather than organic ones. Many people also fear the physical results of ageing, of falls, injuries, disease, and impairment. In some ways our (societal) fear of the old reflects our fear of the disabled, of those who think, look, or act differently to the “norm.”

I feel the pressure to look young, as anyone does in our society. I perhaps feel it a bit less, because as I have become older I have, more and more, thought that this is my body, it isn’t fantastic, but it is mine, I’m stuck with it. While I don’t have a super-positive body image, I do have a sort of resignation to both how my body looks now and how it will change in the future. While many anti-ageing remedies are promoted to people my age (32) so far I have not felt particularly keen on buying any of them. I have recently stopped (at least for the moment) dyeing my hair, because I really don’t care if there are grey bits in there.

I may be unusual, though. Many women (and men) fear ageing to the point where they spend an absolute fortune on things that claim (often inaccurately) to make them look younger, and on cosmetic surgery. In itself, this isn’t really a problem – if you want cosmetic surgery then you should by all means have it, and the same goes with whatever creams or whatever you choose to buy. You are responsible for your own money, and caveat emptor and all that.

For some people, a fear of ageing can take over their life in the way that other forms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder can. Not everyone who wants to look younger suffers from BDD, but it is an extreme example of concern over the appearance. A slight or imagined fault in the person’s appearance may completely affect the person’s life, for example:

someone living with BDD may avoid a range of social situations because of the anxiety and discomfort these situations create. Alternatively, a person may enter such situations but remain very self-conscious. They may camouflage themselves excessively to hide the perceived defect by using heavy make-up, brushing their hair in a particular way, changing their posture, or wearing heavy clothes. They may spend several hours a day thinking about their perceived defect and asking themselves questions that cannot be answered, such as, “Why was I born this way?” [4]

I have some – very tentative – thoughts on a Christian response. As with everything, this may not produce instant results, and the MIND page on BDD that I quoted at [4] recommends talking to medical practitioners, counselling, CBT and other approaches, but I have found a few things on the internet which suggest to me ways in which Christian principles about beauty, youth and age can be something you affirm. I also think that, whether or not you have BDD, affirming principles about our worth to God can be very helpful. Here are some biblical verses which you may find helpful:

  • The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7b) Whether we are beautiful or ugly, young or old, or, like most of us, somewhere in the middle, our physical appearance means nothing to God. He is interested in what is inside, not what is outside. He also tells us that we should not judge others based on appearance, as that is not right judgement (John 7:24) If we should not judge others – then we should not also judge ourselves for what we look like.
  • Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)
  • “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” (Romans 9:20b) The Bible often talks about how we are planned by God, we are made: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13) I try to reflect that whatever I look like, I was made by God, and I hope that were I to become physically disabled, or develop a problem with my body image, I would be able to reflect still that God created me as I am, for his plans and purposes and he does not view my appearance.
  • God is with us, regardless of youth or age, and it is to him we must look, whatever our age: Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isaiah 46:4)
  • The Bible often talks about people being a “good old age” – long life is a blessing, age itself not a curse, for example: Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)
  • I think that the Bible teaches a nuanced view of youth and age – there are good things about either. And, of course, people can be good or bad people regardless of how young or old they are, but the Bible often speaks of the wisdom of age, and the folly of youth, and we should, as a culture, make more of the experience of people who are older. I know I have learned a great deal since I was a teenager, and in fact I would not want to be a teenager again – I may have developed bipolar in the years since but my human experience is so much greater, and I have achieved things personally (like getting better with social anxiety so that I now appear as a confident person) which mean a great deal to me. There are good things about either and we should – all of us – strive to stop treating youth as better than age (while avoiding doing the opposite)The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.” (Proverbs 20:29)

 I don’t have a huge amount of inspiration for this, but I do think it is important – not just for BDD sufferers – to reflect on the fact that God does not care what we look like, he cares about what we are. Trying to rest in the knowledge that we are children of God, whatever we look like, helps some people to try to shake off the shackles of constant preoccupation with their appearance, their age. These are things we cannot change a great deal, and trying to do so can take over a life. I hope that one day everyone can accept themselves and love themselves – because then they can love others.

I would like to end with another quote from Byron, except this time to say that there is plenty of glory in age – and I certainly hope to be around to enjoy old age!

O TALK not to me of a name great in story;
The days of our youth are the days of our glory;
And the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and-twenty
Are worth all your laurels, though ever so plenty.
Byron, “All For Love” [5]

You might like this Christian link: Feel Ugly? or this blog from Beliefnet

Notes

[1] You can read the full thing here: http://www.online-literature.com/byron/699/

[2] As reported here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/breakfast/2336805.stm

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/apr/08/familyandrelationships.family1

[4] http://www.mind.org.uk/mental_health_a-z/7990_understanding_body_dysmorphic_disorder

[5] Full poem: http://www.bartleby.com/106/169.html

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