Folklore suggests that society’s quest for eternal youth has led its coveters along some downright unusual paths. However, centuries later we continue the fruitless journey to no avail–and perhaps inadvertently to our own peril.
Legend has it that in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce De Leon searched tirelessly for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory went so far as to torture and murder her servant girls; consuming and bathing in their blood in the belief that it would aid her health and adolescent glow.
The Fountain of Youth is a myth whose allure reigns strong. Bathory’s tactics even garnered a makeover and some press in recent years, when celebrity Kim Kardashian indulged in a blood facial and shared the experience with fans via social media.
The macabre image of America’s favorite reality TV star, her meticulously made-up face instead covered in flaking dried plasma, flashed before the eyes of the country. It held up a mirror to our culture’s complex relationship with aging.
Spectacles of these increasingly absurd tactics to stay young beg the question: Just how far will we go in our search for unobtainable everlasting youth? And furthermore, what ramifications are born from our desires to do so?
BTR reached out to two doctors whose work pertains to disparate yet inextricably related fields– the body and the mind. Dr. Sharon Giese is one of the most prestigious cosmetic surgeons in New York City, and Dr. Dale Archer a practicing psychologist and New York Times best-selling author. Their respective work explores the process of aging through different lenses.
Inevitably, an obsession with youth is one fraught with disappointment. Perhaps the only certainty in life is that it will end. The only guarantee of youth is that it will fade.
Yet Americans continue to obsess. Dr. Archer explains, “I think that everyone wants to remain relevant.”
Similarly Dr. Giese muses, “People want to stay in the game.”
According to Dr. Giese, these pressures to maintain youth are especially intense for women, whose image and physical presentation are under unrealistic scrutiny. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgery’s most recent statistics report, there are approximately 15.6 million cosmetic procedures annually. Ninety-two percent of these are undergone by women.
The majority of Dr. Giese’s patients are middle-aged (a fact consistent with the national average, as 49 percent of cosmetic procedures are performed on patients between the ages of 40 and 55). However, her experience shows that measures are taken at all ages to fight the hands of time.
She tells BTR that some women in their 20s come in for preventative Botox, while others receive their first procedure at age 65. Then there are some 80-years-old already on route to a third facelift.
Though Dr. Giese admits beauty standards for women have demanded extreme measures throughout history, she believes that the burgeoning presence of editable digital media adds a level of difficulty for women that didn’t previously exist.
Giese says that photoshopped advertisements bombard women with unfair standards, concerning everything from their weight, to the shape of their noses to the size of their breasts. They then feel pressured to alter their bodies, to conform with the ostensibly perfect and youthful images which flash before them every day.
One of the most shocking ways that this has manifested in recent years is an increasing trend of surgical procedures performed on women’s genitalia.
“Particularly in the past five years, there’s a lot more interest in the aesthetics of the vagina,” Dr. Giese says. She tells BTR that she performs Aesthetic Genital Rejuvenation, but not Vaginal Tightening Surgery, explaining that the latter is a painful and invasive procedure.
Dr. Giese worries that unrealistic expectations may in fact leave women with crippling insecurities about their aging and naturally changing anatomies, consequently preventing them from living healthy and fulfilling lives. She hopes a national atmosphere is not fostered wherein “a woman who is 60 feels like she can’t have sex with somebody who she’s dating…because she’s not quite as tight as somebody who’s 20.”
Though she enjoys the aspect of her job that empowers women to feel better about themselves, she also laments the expectation that women must adhere to undue criterion.
“I don’t like that there’s one aesthetic standard, because there really isn’t one,” Dr. Giese explains. “It’s not fair for someone who really has a normal anatomy to feel like there’s some pressure to change something.”
As a whole, Dr. Giese doesn’t see a desire to maintain youth as an altogether bad thing. She tells BTR that many of her patients simply feel younger than they may appear, and she is able to help their inner selves match up with their exteriors.
She feels that anti-aging trends in the cosmetic surgery field are responding to a general societal shift in terms of life expectancy, and activeness.
“We’re aging a little bit differently. People know more things about cellular aging internally, so people are taking advantage of those things.” She continues, “I always say that I’m so happy that I’m getting older in the age of Botox.”
Psychologist Dr. Archer has a different take. In his conversation with BTR, he asserts that a preoccupation with youth is an altogether counterproductive endeavor–one that prevents individuals from reaping the benefits of wisdom hard-learned, and introspection hard-fought.
Outside of plastic surgery and other physical anti-aging techniques, Dr. Archer argues that, there’s also the mental side of the equation, and a lot of older folks share a passion to embrace modern technologies.
Ultimately, he feels that in attempting to skirt the aging process, whether that through physical or mental means, we lose more than we could possibly attain.
“What you gain as you go through these stages in life is wisdom, so if you try to stop the progression, and focus your effort on staying young,” he explains. “By definition you’re taking time and effort away from what you should normally be doing as you age, which is learning more about yourself, about the world, about why things are the way they are.”
Though a preoccupation with youth seems like a staple in beauty standards, collective cultural norms, and social capital, it just might be more of a hindrance than a help.
Dr. Archer says, “There is going to be inherent risk with trying to subvert a process which is birth, growing up, maturing, growing old, death: it’s all part of the cycle.”
Rather than obsess about wrinkles, or the latest trend in technology, Dr. Archer suggests that our focus should shift from external to internal values and gratifications.
“The whole point is, understanding your stage in life, understanding yourself, understanding the big picture, being able to put yourself and your life in perspective, and realizing that this is natural and normal to go through these various stages.”
He concludes that being hung up in any stage of life is not healthy.
Whether it be ancient superstitions or modern advancements that promise the key to staying young forever, it seems clear that the endeavor is futile. Instead, perhaps our focus should lie in reframing the way we view our maturing selves, and finding value in our ever-changing bodies, minds, and spirits.