Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Appearance of Age

As I move closer to 30, and as my little sister starts planning for the start of her college career next year, I find myself thinking about aging. I'm not one of those overly dramatic "I'm almost 30, my life is practically over!" types, but I do think that when you realize that high-school ended a decade ago, it's natural to reflect on the fact that you are getting older. While there is always room to learn and change, at this point you've largely stopped growing and started aging. This post isn't really about the internal psychological or spiritual aspects of aging, though. Rather, it's a reflection on how the world around us watches us age.

I was often puzzled, as I grew out a full beard for the first time, at how often I was told that it made me look old (or at least much older). How is it possible, I would ask myself, that a little hair can  change the appearance of my age by that much? I know beards are often seen as a symbol of maturity, but it struck me as peculiar that 10 years could be magically added to my face just like that.

Similarly, I always looked at the little old ladies wandering the grocery store with jet black hair and wondered who they thought they were fooling. The fact that the puff of hair on your head is a uniform coal color rather than a swirl of grey and white with a hint of light brown doesn't make you look younger, it just makes you look insecure. Again, white or grey hair is a sign of age, but in this day and age of easy access to hair dyes, do people really put that much stock in hair color when gauging age?

On closely a related note, receding hairlines are often a signal of age. I've seen men in their 60s with more hair than some men in their 20s, though, so this is yet another of those factors that seems like a largely superficial one that most people would overlook. Yet for whatever reason, most of us don't overlook it.

It's odd, but people see and apply all those aging factors to their perceptions, without really thinking about it and without even going beyond hair.

Then there's fitness. Obviously being in good physical shape makes you healthier and extends your lifespan, so I'm not going to criticize anybody for taking care of their body. But again, I'll hear people remark that so and so looks like a 20-year-old, and all I think is that no, they look like a 60-year-old who takes very good care of themselves. Good for them, but you can have abs and still look old.

Of course on the flip side of a fit body with an aged face, some people just have those "baby face" qualities that make them look younger than they are, even when the wrinkles start to form and their body starts to degenerate. These people seem to, by simple virtue of their facial structure, resist the appearance of aging in some strange way.

On top of all these things, there is the notorious Hollywood treatment, where a magical blend of makeup, lighting, and cosmetic procedures melts the years right off . . . or at least it's supposed to. Obviously this works to an extent for some people, but for every Jennifer Aniston there's a Steven Seagal. This particular factor doesn't seem relevant to most of us, since it doesn't come into play in our own appearances. It matters, though, because we see actors and models all the time, and despite the knowledge that they don't really look like that in their daily lives, the way they look on camera alters the way many people think we should all look as we age.

Combine all these factors in the right way, and it's astounding how big of a difference a person can make in the appearance of their age. None of this really matters to me personally, but I wrote this article just to provide a little context for the following visual demonstration, which I think is rather stunning.

Pictured here we have Tom Cruise on the left, and Aarne Bielefeldt on the right. As you've probably guessed from the nature of this article, they're about the same age. As nobody would guess without said context, Tom Cruise is actually the older of the two by about three years.

Now does this mean that somehow Cruise has aged the "right way" and Bielefeldt has aged the "wrong way"? Well, no. Aging, like any other part of our lives, is a reflection of who we are. How you handle the process, and how your body reacts to it, are pretty vital elements of you as an individual. It is, after all, one of those few things that we are always doing. I'm a big advocate of the idea that people ought to age gracefully, but that just reveals my own personality. I'm not judging those who hang on to youth in one way or another. Rather than placing either of these men alone on a pedestal, or targeting either of them with criticism, I'd say they each embody a particular ideal of masculine aging. (Of course, feminine aging has a whole other set of ideals and issues surrounding it, but I'm not a woman so I'd be speaking without much experience or context if I dove into that subject.) Our culture is pretty divided on how men "should" age, and I think these two effectively represent the ideal state of the man of about 50 as seen by either side. Which of the two camps you lean more toward (or where you fall elsewhere on the matter) says a good deal about your personality and values, in my opinion. It's not one of those things that is distinctly right or wrong, though. It just illustrates our differences.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not going to say much about feminine aging, except that I agree an ancient woman with bold-colored hair looks ridiculous.

    As far as masculine aging, I think there are two ways to do it: The right way and the wrong way. The right way is to do it with dignity. That means you're allowed to take care of yourself, pluck, prune, trim, moisturize, but you can't color your hair, get surgery, or use Rogaine. I've said that since I was 20, and I've balded with dignity ever since. (I'd like to shave my head, but my wife says I'd look like Megamind. I tell her I've been going for the supervillain look for a long time now.)

    Don't let a 50 year old hear you worry about aging. I got poo-pooed.