Age means change, if we need a tidy way to summarize super-complex biological processes. To be a human being, or a plant, or an insect, or an ocean, or an ecosystem, is to march continually onward, relentlessly, in a perpetual act of metamorphosis, whether it’s one that is entropic or rejuvenative in nature.
So if the default state of humanity is change — one in which our lives are immersed at every turn — why is it that we are so resistant to our innate transformation — the central truth about our humanity? Why is it that when it comes to our beliefs, for example, we hold on for dear life, attacking those who challenge them as though they are striking at the very heart of our souls, when in all likelihood, we are going to shed them like yesterday’s fashions just as soon as we make up our minds to do so? Similarly, why is it that we lay siege on our physical selves? Forget the economic costs — money that could surely be put to better things than injecting toxins into our faces or cutting ourselves open in a bid to appear as though we were dipped in wax. They are no more than a pointless attempt to stop time, to convince ourselves and others — without success — that we are forever young, and carefree.
To fight our bodies’ aging is about as patently unnatural as any mission we could imagine undertaking, because it sets us apart from — and in a confrontational relationship with — the internal world of our cellular biology and microbiomes (in our skin, G.I. tract and saliva, among other places and processes), and the external world of… everything else. While cosmetically we can pretend that time has stopped (to whose benefit, I’m not sure), we cannot alter the underlying biological processes that make it so.
Bluntly put, until we shed our cells for silicon, it’s a losing battle.
Our twin onslaught of psychological and physiological warfare is not only unnatural, bizarre and self-defeating, it is also schizophrenic, insofar as it really misses the larger point about what aging does for us.
While that college friend who never overcame his frat-boy persona may still be the life of the party, few of us would want him around when the lights come on and the hangover’s gone. Which is another way of endorsing maturity. When we age, our life experiences have the potential — not always realized — to expand our knowledge of self, as well as our utility — our value — to our communities. Wisdom is experience-turned-insight. So while I’ve met plenty of people who resist the lessons that come their way — lessons that could lead to insights, and whose resistance cheats themselves out of increased cognitive capacity — I don’t know anyone who would look you in the eye and admit they’d prefer to remain ‘dumb and deceivable’. In too many instances, our decisions betray the disconnect between our words and our deeds.
This phenomenon is referred to as psychological resistance. It is described as “the phenomenon often encountered in clinical practice in which patients either directly or indirectly exhibit paradoxical behaviors in a change process.” Wikipedia posits that perfectionism, criticism (and self-criticism), disrespect, preoccupation with appearance, social withdrawal, an obsession with appearing in control or ‘invulnerable’, and an inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism are all dimensions of psychological resistance.
Know anyone who fits any of these descriptions? It is quite possibly more the rule than the exception; which makes me wonder what it is about us that makes this so prevalent.
I’d suggest that it is emblematic of arrested development — a Peter Pan Syndrome, of sorts. Online psychology and neuroscience magazine Exploring You Mind’s appraisal of the leader of the ‘Lost Boys’ is that he’s “afraid of growing up” — “afraid of facing his problems and being mature.” Our shadow, they say, “is like a mirror where we recognize ourselves”; and the fact that Peter keeps losing his, or hiding from it, is emblematic of his penchant for hiding from his greatest fear — growing up.
I know a number of people like this — who exhibit Peter Pan Syndrome, or psychological resistance. And no one suffers more for these behaviors than those exhibiting them. In our bid for perpetual childhood — or the wake of our immobilizing fear of change — we cheat ourselves out of several of life’s greatest treasures: perspective, self-acceptance, and their resulting stillness. It is a beautiful thing to age, psychologically. Becoming vulnerability to growth becomes its own reward, because it primes us to face our demons head on, after which we stand a chance of vanquishing them, and to be honest with ourselves, after which we can better aim our energies. As Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
So to retard our own psychological growth is to prejudice everything that could make us truly happy.
Our attitudes toward physiological change follow the same arc. According to Forbes, the global beauty industry was worth $532 billion in 2019, and is projected to reach $800B in just five more years. At that rate, before long it’ll be a trillion dollar market. The psychological underpinnings of our physiological obsessions with beauty are really no different from our resistance to behavioral change. They are driven by fear — fear related to our self-worth. Sure, publications, marketing campaigns and the fashion industry have all set unrealistic standards for girls and women who want to look like what they see. They ‘normalize’ the extreme by featuring women whose bodies would’ve been considered unhealthy until the 20th century; they post-produce all imagery, erasing every blemish, discoloration or deviation from an ever-capricious vogue, based on nothing more than a desire for homogeneity (and if we’re honest, in the case of the fashion gods, a largely inherent disdain for the female form); and so some girls as young as 11 slather their skin like painters applying gesso to a canvas, to smooth every bump, close every pore and achieve an unnatural, featureless sameness, while others hide their curves, regurgitate their meals and aspire to look like what amounts to little boys, for the adoring camera.
More to the point of today’s thoughts, the search for the fountain of youth is a growing pastime. Groupon says that 58% of their market is ‘over 45’s’, and that they are the biggest spenders. With that said, we’d expect that to be the case: in youth, we reach our physiological peak — ‘peak ripeness’ — early on, then spend the vast majority of our lives sliding slowly down the back side of that particular mountain, in a decades-long act of entropy. Most alarming, though, is what the selfie phenomenon has wrought in the search for the flawless image for their faceless followers. According to refinery29, “the number of women aged between 19 and 34 in American having Botox and fillers has risen 41% since 2011.
Young women are asking doctors to make them look more like the filtered versions of themselves on social media.
In South Korea, this has reached a fever pitch. According to Diggit Magazine, every ad in Seoul’s subway stations is about plastic surgery. A popular app there called Cymera automatically filters out pimples or freckles by default, and has ‘beautifying’ functions that re-sculpt jawlines and enlarge eyes, to allow girls to achieve, specifically, an anime look. Gallup Korea says that one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 have undergone cosmetic surgery, vaulting it into a peculiar pole position, globally. Greece weighs in at number two, followed by Italy, the US and Colombia. In Korea, plastic surgery has been so normalized that a prominent clinic in Seoul has created Jawbone Tower — a story-tall plexiglass cage filled from floor to ceiling with the removed portions of former clients’ jawbones.
You can’t make this sh*t up.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have known for a long time that if you repeat something to yourself enough times, you begin to believe it. While the implications of that phenomenon are far-reaching (fake news, anyone?), the search for physiological ‘perfection’ — whatever that may mean to its adherents — is, in my view, no more than the sum of people telling themselves, or one another, that they are not good enough as nature made them, and that somehow, enough make-up, unnatural dietary habits and/or plastic surgery is the path to salvation. Our magazines, our movies and our culture are all obsessed with what is quite literally the superficial. If any culture has institutionalized the adulation of beauty — and the rejection of imperfection — it is South Korea. In fact, it’s often the difference between getting a job or being passed over. New Yorker did a 2015 article on the phenomenon. The author writes, “Remarks from relatives, such as “You would be a lot prettier if you just had your jaw tapered,” are considered no more insulting than “You’d get a lot more for your apartment if you redid the kitchen.”” In Seoul’s so-called Improvement District, some 500 clinics vie for your dollars within a single square mile. Their names betray the underlying problem. There’s Top Class, Wannabe and 4Ever.
In the search for the almighty dollar — or won — we have created a global monster: a population that no longer feels good about itself without neutralizing what makes each of us physiologically unique. And with it, we seem to have forgotten that what matters — what truly makes someone special — is well beyond the reach of any knife, bonesaw or syringe.
While fighting age, per se, with plastic surgery isn’t the prime driver for the selfie generation (they are still at ‘peak ripeness’), it won’t be long before time begins to imprint itself on their faces and bodies, too. And if 19-year olds are remaking themselves while they are at their physiologically most perfect, what do you think will happen as gravity, environmental stresses and psychological ones take hold, over time? In my view, it is entirely likely that within just a few generations, a fair chunk of the developed world will no longer even entertain the notion of remaining unretouched, in the ‘real world’.
The foundational operating premise of the beauty industry is that you are not acceptable as you are. How else do you generate shareholder value?
If you were to somehow overhear a conversation between parent and child, in which the parent continually admonished the child, at every turn, telling it that it wasn’t pretty or tall enough, that its skin was too whatever, and its eyes too small; and moreover, that its ideas were valueless, teased and harassed it for entertaining lofty ideas or the pursuit of knowledge, and told it that it would never amount to anything, if it tried to be different from everyone else, what would you do?
Would you nod your head and say to yourself, ‘Yup; that sounds about right,’ or would you be outraged, telling the parent that it was crippling its child’s self-esteem, and with it its chances of growing up to feel adequate, let along good about itself? What is self-esteem, if not strength? What is encouragement — positive reinforcement — if not an investment in your child’s (or spouse’s, or friends’) confidence? What does confidence do, exactly, for someone, if not embolden and amplify their reach, in the service of their loftiest goals?
And for that matter, what does insecurity do for one’s mindset?
I think we all know the answer to that.
Every time we reinforce the notion that we are not good enough as we are, and that the solution to our problems — acceptance, adulation, a good job, parental approval — is to be found under the knife, or in a tinted powder, or in an app’s filters, or in the number of likes we receive for a picture that treats us like a commodity — we may sell more blush or rhinoplasties, but we are also super-charging the world’s neuroses.
In a relatively short period of time, our ideals have undergone such a seismic transformation — mutation — that they are wholly unrecognizable from those that fueled our rise to dominance of the planet. The ancient philosophers whose discoveries those who still care about matters of intellect still follow, some thousands of years later, valued virtue above all else. Building on his mentors Plato and Socrates, Aristotle preached the importance of developing excellence of character as the means of achieving praxis, or excellence of conduct. Funny, that: the notion that good character leads to good actions and in turn good outcomes. No psychological resistance there!
The Stoics doubled down on this concept, instituting the mantra that “Virtue is the only good.” Interestingly, to the Stoics, the idea of living a virtuous life was not about overcoming one’s own baser instincts or nature. To the contrary — and this is where it was brilliant — it was the firm belief that virtue in conduct is our nature, and therefore Stoics sought to understand the rules of the natural order in order to realize their own full potential.
What happened to us? When did the pursuit of knowledge, or intellectual honesty, or truth, become ‘elitism’? When did ‘regular folk’ become so anti-intellectual, and so mistrusting of things that aspire to psychological and intellectual robustness? How is it that ancestors who knew two millennia’s worth less about the planet, science and our own biology somehow still manage to tower over us, intellectually? The even consider this concept is mind-numbing.
And how is it that what was considered the beauty of the life cycle — our physiological Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter — transformed from something that guided our actions, and our inter-generational engagement, into something where we now compete against the very people who used to be the target of our emotional investment, so that we can pretend we are immune to the Laws of Nature and Time? Instead of embracing our own mortality, and focusing on passing on whatever wisdom we have squeezed from our life experiences to our children or theirs while we still can, we engage in acts of competition and subterfuge with them, so that we can pretend we’re friends rather than parent-and-child, or compete for compliments, or insist that our grandchildren call us “glamma”, not “grandma”, as my own aunt does, as if somehow, embracing the reality that she is aged and has grandchildren is a denial of her potency; and that it is a weakness to be hidden, rather than an achievement to be trumpeted. We do these things to perpetuate a ruse — a ruse we don’t even believe ourselves, really, but reinforce regardless, to mask our psychological fragility.
Of course we don’t believe it.
How could we, when in spite of our best efforts to seem ‘forever young’, and to fight the entropy that catches all of us, eventually, we know exactly how old we are, how saggy our skin it, how flagging our energies are, and how emotionally stunted we’ve remained; and so life becomes a perpetual construction project: the creation of an increasingly complex web of lies that we hope will either palliate ourselves adequately, or that we somehow (?) hope to actually believe one day, to protect ourselves from looking too closely in the mirror, and discovering just how empty we are — how far from grace, virtue and fortitude our lack of investment has rendered us.
We have traded depth for surface — or fortitude for fragility — and in the process, we have become but a pale shade of the ancestors whose powerful shoulders we still stand on, and who understood what would make us successful, as individuals and as a species, but who we no longer understand; and further, incomprehensibly, we mistrust, while still reaping the harvest of their deep investment in our psyches, and potential.
Instead, we wring our hands about whether our chins are the perfect shape or our popularity has waned, or whether — god forbid — we are a buzzkill, or a smarty-pants.
We are doing every man, woman and child a gross disservice by servicing the notion that the surface is all that counts, pulling out all the stops to prevent anyone from looking too closely at us, lest they discover that there is less than meets the eye.
The ancient philosophers had it right: virtue is the only good. Moreover, there is poetry in aging. In fertile soil, people are indeed like great wines, getting better with the passing of time, rather than like Beaujolais Nouveau, fun for its associative value, but good for no more than a bad hangover and next-day regret.
‘Likes’ are not lessons, or insights.
Popularity is nothing if we do nothing with the privilege that it affords us — to direct people’s attention and energies toward the practice of self-knowledge and acceptance, while simultaneously inspiring them to be the best selves they can be, in service of building up their community’s capacity and reach.
You know, as our ancestors did, for us.
There is nothing ‘pretty’ about arrested development or insecurity. And while most people would likely agree with that statement, few among them take the tiny next step to realize that our behaviors increasingly cultivate those very qualities.
A return to the value ethics and intellectual curiosity of our philosophical and understanding-seeking forebears, twinned with the ‘strength is beauty’ and age-embracing attitudes of pre-modern humans, are the only ways I know of to avoid pulling all humans down to a level of infantile regression in which we are all babies: incredibly fragile, self-absorbed and blind to nuance, or complexity.
Somewhere along the century of its telling, the story of Peter Pan mutated from the cautionary tale it was conceived to be into a parable of virtue, in which the protagonist represents the acme of human worth: a boy who hates himself, and will go to any length to lose the shadow of his conscience, so that he may remain in Neverland in perpetuity, acting like a child.