When we think of the people we spot plastered on magazine covers, billboards and in television and movies, an image of an unblemished, healthy and polished individual comes to mind. Of course, “beauty” is a timeless theme that occupies any cultural landscape, and many reductive, unrealistic stereotypes of what beauty should be are often projected into society.
However, what is often overlooked is the most fundamental beauty standard we face: a compulsive fixation on youthfulness.
Appearing young is not only glorified in much of what we see in the world around us, but it has led to a deeper, more dangerous phenomenon of fearing the normal process of aging. Even the word “aging”— dare I say it again — feels dirty, yet it is the most natural part of being human.
According to a 2019 study by Ipsos Global Advisor, 60% of Americans feel negatively about aging. According to a 2014 survey by Pfizer, 87% of Americans said they were afraid of getting old, and a 2017 review by the American Psychological Association found that people fret over perceived age-related issues such as memory loss and struggle with loneliness at far higher rates than they are actually experienced.
Longing to look younger is not only psychologically taxing, but it can come at a great financial expense. The United States is an essential market in the global cosmetic industry, taking advantage of the public’s intense attention to appearing young and thus, ‘attractive.’
The United States earned an estimated revenue of approximately 62.5 billion dollars in 2016 through beauty brands like L’Oréal and Gillette. This year, the size of the anti-aging market alone was worth $17.44 billion and is expected to reach $22.47 billion by 2026, growing at a rate of 5.2%.
The normal resistance we feel to aging is rooted in biological reasoning — the idea of growing older and thus closer to death is innately unsettling. If we did not fear death in a biological sense, we would not have an incentive to survive.
We must be afraid to die in order to live, and the natural reservations we have toward factors such as memory loss, physical decline or losing loved ones in our old age are all entirely valid concerns. Although inevitable parts of life, these aspects of living are nothing to undermine.
However, when society adds all of this additional pressure to appear, act and feel young, our natural fear of aging metastasizes. We begin to view certain stages of our lifespan with resentment and dread rather than acceptance and gratitude.
The panic associated with getting older plays into one of the largest oxymorons of our society. We live in a culture that urges us to be in perpetual motion, constantly creating, consuming and utilizing every snippet of our time. Yet this very behavior is what pulls us out of where we are in the moment, distracting us with tasks, goals and plans with the fast-paced, success-driven frenzy we call the United States.
All the while, we unknowingly rush through the prime time of our golden years — the youth that is so excessively glorified.
Ultimately, people get into the habit of filling up all their time because they do not want to fall behind the rest in the invisible race of life. The pressure to “be someone” and build purpose early in our lives clashes with the desire to simply connect with our surroundings and fully engage in the present while we still have it.
Our whole outlook on time is broken.
Life is not intentionally designed to favor certain ages. Our biological clock shows no bias, and no rule tells us when and how we should possess beauty, success or even vitality. We create our own timestamps, and we define the meaning attached to each age we pass through.
The reality is that there is so much beauty wrapped up in every month, year and decade. Each phase of life is valuable and unique in its treasures.
Happiness, discovery, pain and growth are available to us at any given plot point in our individual lives, and meaningful experiences take place throughout our timeline. As a society, we should approach the process of growing with warmth and appreciation. Take a moment to acknowledge how special each age is in these lives of ours, the ones we often crowd with judgment, unrealistic expectations and suffocating standards.