What is the ‘ideal’ self in old age?

Written by Maho Omori, Adjunct Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology and Research Assistant, La Trobe University (Shepparton campus): One evening, I was reading gossip news about Meg Ryan, a Hollywood actor. She is 54 years old and according to the article, at this age her appearance has not changed much since she was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ in the 1990s. Criticism follows –  she is having too much plastic surgery to maintain a youthful appearance. Another piece of gossip (linked to the above article) talks about the appearance of Cameron Diaz, who is 43 years old and now happily married. She looks ‘old’ because she has too many wrinkles and appears fatter. The article asks if she is comfortable with her changing appearance. These two stories are conflicting. Clearly, the media and the public have created a certain image of these two famous actors and people get confused, surprised and shocked when they face the reality with reference to the image. So, how should they look in the process of ageing?

Hollywood has created a powerful ideology that emphasises the importance of ‘youthfulness’, with the younger the better. This has enormous influence in our society, including Australia, and is reflected in ageing policies that provide individuals with guidelines on how to manage ageing. These policies actively promote independence and autonomy, both of which are a privilege of younger adults. Communities have set up various activities for older adults, such as University of the Third Age (U3A), through which they can seek hobbies, learn new things, volunteer and socialise with friends. These activities help older people gain a sense of purpose in life. It is clear that societal expectation toward ‘old age’ has shifted from dependency, once framed as structural dependency (Townsend, 1981), to independence. It also means that individuals are responsible for how they age.

Advanced medical technologies now offer unprecedented opportunities to respond to these societal changes and combat ageing through anti-ageing medications, although some biomedical scientists believe those promoting such claims are charlatans (Fishman et al., 2010). According to the American Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine (A4M), ageing can be medically treated just like other diseases. Although this idea has been contested, particularly in the social sciences, the anti-ageing industry has a rapidly growing market for its pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals (Petersen and Seear, 2009). We have witnessed that health stores, pharmacies and even supermarkets are increasingly providing products that promote ‘anti-ageing’, that is, to ‘postpone or relieve the effects of biological ageing’ (Vincent, 2006:196). For example, I recently found that one of my hair products had the words ‘ageing treatment’ on the bottle. It obviously helps prevent dry hair caused by ageing. I do not think I bought this because I needed anti-ageing hair treatment (I probably just wanted any product that moisturises my hair), but the words have become a common catchphrase for a range of products. Consumerism makes it possible for us to seek an ideal self at any stage of life by our conscious choices (Featherstone,1991).

Questions came into my head. How do lay older people make ‘the conscious choice’? What is rationale for their choice of using anti-ageing medicine? I sought an answer in my PhD research, which was completed in 2015. I interviewed older adults living in Australia and Japan who consciously made choices to use anti-ageing products, either pharmaceutical or nutraceutical, in their health practices and I asked why they did so. Cosmetic products were excluded. I found, essentially, they were using them because they wanted to age well. Participants’ shared understanding of what ageing well meant was not to live forever (or longer) or not to get (or maintain) a youthful appearance, but rather to keep their lives going. In other words, they wanted to continue doing what they had been doing in their everyday lives. I called this concept ‘continuity in life’ in my thesis. It includes doing household chores, maintaining social activities, volunteering, teaching yoga, doing exercise, playing golf, playing musical instruments and many others. They all agreed that ‘slowing down’ in what they do was acceptable, but ‘giving up’ was not ideal. They believed continuity in life allows them to obtain a sense of who they are.

Next, I sought a lay view of ‘anti-ageing’ in the context of ageing well. An Australian participant, Rowena, (aged 67) nicely explained what she believed it meant and her views were applicable to most participants:

It’s impossible to stop ageing because we are going to age. Each year we get another birthday candle. I would like to think that this is just age accumulation. We are still going to age. However, the body deterioration, which is normally associated with ageing, is slowed down hugely by taking these supplements.

Maintenance of healthy body conditions for as long as possible was the main reason behind the use anti-ageing medicines, and was talked about as top of the list of important things for ageing well by almost all participants. They purposefully selected particular dietary supplements and hormone treatments based on their health conditions in order to prevent occurrence of age-associated diseases like osteoporosis. In doing so, they sought to maintain their current state of good health or manage existing age-related health issues such as knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. In addition to taking anti-ageing medications, eating well and exercising moderately were part of their anti-ageing practices.

All participants sought coherence in their biographies by protecting what they had established through their life courses. This could be particularly important for them in terms of maintaining a coherent sense of self. Shilling (2008) argues that habitual activities can be terminated by changing bodily needs, which are particularly apparent in ageing bodies. Subsequently, change disrupts one’s biography and potentially results in an identity crisis. This notion was supported by many participants who compared themselves with ageing others who have lost the physical ability for a continuous engagement in life, and indicated that ‘that’s not me’.

There was no space for me to pay attention to cosmetic products. Based on existing research it is clear that the concept of identity construction and the use of cosmetic surgery are closely linked (Brooks, 2008). The stories of Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz can be an interesting case study of how maintaining youthful appearance through cosmetic surgery contributes to a sense of coherence in the self in older age.

References

Brooks, A. (2008) ‘Growing Older in a Surgical Age: An Analysis of Women’s Lived Experiences and Interpretations of Aging in an Era of Cosmetic Surgery.’ PhD dissertation, Boston College.

Featherstone, M. (1991) ‘The Body In Consumer Culture’, pp. 170–96 in M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth, and B. S. Turner (eds.) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage Publications.

Fishman, J. R., R. A. Settersten Jr, and M. A. Flatt (2010) ‘In The Vanguard Of Biomedicine? The Curious And Contradictory Case Of Anti-Ageing Medicine’, Sociology of Health & Illness 32(2): 197–210.

Petersen, A., and K. Seear (2009) ‘In Search Of Immortality: The Political Economy Of Anti-Ageing Medicine’, Medicine Studies 1(3): 267–79.

Shilling, C. (2008) Changing Bodies. Habit, Crisis and Creativity. London: Sage Publications.

Townsend, P. (1981) ‘The Structured Dependency Of The Elderly: A Creation Of Social Policy In The Twentieth Century’, Ageing and Society 1(1): 5–28.

Vincent, J. (2006) ‘Ageing Contested: Anti-Ageing Science And The Cultural Construction Of Old Age’, Sociology 40(4): 681–98.

 

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