Friday, December 10, 2010


Today is my birthday. I’m fifty-five, and since I was born in 1955, this seems like a significant celebration. Fortunately, 20th Century Fox decided to release the new Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in honor of the occasion, so it will be a very merry day.

I’ve been thinking about age, and how uncomfortable women can be admitting their real age. We’re supposed to be forever 29, as if that’s somehow the golden moment of womanhood. My own memory of 29 is of no sleep, no free time, and bouts of young-mother depression. Not a stage I’d willingly return to.

In most other cultures, age is considered an asset, not a liability. Social status increases with age, and elders of both genders are honored for their wisdom, experience, and knowledge.

The U.S., with its love of the individual, its disdain for wisdom, and its endorsement of eternal adolescence, continues to forge new ground in fear of growing older. Hair color sales have doubled since 2001; plastic surgery and botox injections continue to rise far faster than projections suggested.

While men are impacted by this love of youth, women seem to bear a heavier burden. How many men lie about their age? Various studies have shown that women are perceived as old, on average, ten years before men. Women are targeted far more heavily for treatments and products that minimize the appearance of aging, and are far more likely than men to feel dissatisfied with their appearance. In 2009, women received over four million botox injections, (94 % of the total number), and 7.2 million cosmetic surgery procedures (87 % of the total). 75% of women over 40 dye their hair, compared to about 5% of men.

My own hair started turning grey before I turned thirty. Pressured by friends, I bought a box of Clairol hair color and took it home to read the label. It looked like more time and bother than I was willing to spend. At the time, my concern was both time and money, which were in equally short supply. When I raised the question with friends, they had strong opinions on the wisdom of home vs. salon dying, but not so much wisdom on the question of why do it at all. Why? “If you don’t, you’ll look old!”

I tend to look at decisions from the standpoint of Luke 14: “If one of you wants to build a tower, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Sitting on my bed, staring once again at that box of Clairol hair dye, I pictured the hours adding up to weeks, the dollars adding up to thousands. And finally threw the box away.

When the topic came up several years later, I added concern about the health risks of hair dye: coal tar (listed as FD&C or D&C on ingredients labels) has been linked to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma. Another common ingredient, lead acetate, is banned in Europe, since studies have suggested it disrupts heart activity, causes neurological problems, and can lead to fetal mortality. Wouldn’t the FDA tell us if hair dyes weren’t safe? Unfortunately, they have no oversight of hair dye, or any other cosmetic, cream, fragrance, or shampoo.

Add some unexplored environmental concerns: does anyone have any idea where all those chemicals go? Once they’re in our water, is there any hope of getting them out?

Time, money, health, environment. My current deepest concern is the American obsession with appearance. If women my age cave to the pressure to artificially change our appearance, what does that say to younger women, watching us? In a culture obsessed with physical beauty, in a world where digital presentations of women create impossible expectations, the pressure on teen girls continues to grow. The age of first cosmetic surgery, first Botox injection, first use of hair dye, all press lower every year. Add the danger of eating disorders, and the epidemic of depression and anxiety for girls who don’t measure up. Dove has done a good job of depicting the strain (beauty pressure / photoshopped beauty / true colors).  I’m not sure they’ve offered solutions.  

In talking with teen girls about appearance, I can’t help but refer to Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. We live in a world where corporations profit from our dissatisfaction. As we conform to the world’s patterns we internalize its values until we, like those around us, value others for their appearance, dismiss those who are “ugly” or “old,” rest our own joy on how we think we look each morning. 

We’ve been sold a very expensive lie: combine the dollars we spend on appearance each year, and we’d have the funds to solve extreme poverty. Easily.

We won’t break free on our own, but we can offer ourselves, our aging, imperfect, physical selves, in gratitude, not complaint. God made us. Short, tall, skinny, plump, wrinkles, zits, bad hair days. We can wage the futile fight against time, or we can turn our attention to more important, more eternal things:
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness;
   come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
   It is he who made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.