I live in a city where it’s still O.K. to look dowdy, especially if you’re a man. In fact, you can go places in Washington with a good head of grey hair and the Brooks Brothers sport jacket you wore in high school. Sometimes, if you also have a boyish glint in your eye, you can even get the top job in town (see: Clinton, William Jefferson).
So I was thrown off guard a few weeks ago when Tommy, a muckety-muck in the entertainment industry I’ve known for years, burst into a meeting wearing a tight-fitting Prada jacket and black jeans and looking tanned, buffed and Botoxed. “Who is this guy?” I said to myself. Tommy (not his real name) is at least five years older than me, but there wasn’t an inch on his face that hadn’t been “youth-enhanced,” as they say in the cosmetic surgery business. It was scary, not because the work was awful, but because it was barely noticeable. Forgive me, AARP, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt older than I did on that day.
Granted, Hollywood is a weird place. To survive there, you have to either know a good surgeon or be blessed with the genes of Dorian Gray. Comedy writer Alan Zweibel, part of the original Saturday Night Live team, loves to talk about the contortions his contemporaries go through to appear as if they haven’t aged a day since they turned 39. To keep up appearances, not only do they look and dress like thirty-somethings, they’ve had mental cosmetic surgery as well. They’ve cut out any words from their vocabulary that might hint that they were boomers. “How did this happen?” he writes in the AARP Bulletin. “Why am I the only one in Hollywood who got older? Why doesn’t anyone else remember Vietnam? Or Willie Mays? Or blue suede shoes?”
This is not just happening in southern California; everybody seems to be getting into the act. The number of men getting facelifts went up 14% nationwide last year. Some men turn to surgery to fend off age discrimination in the marketplace—I get that–while others get swept up in hapless quest to attain the new liposuction-centric ideal of masculinity. Time was, writes Alicia Potter in The Boston Phoenix, the manliest men in popular culture were “burly, barrel-chested, even hairy” guys, like John Wayne or Burt Reynolds who “probably couldn’t even point out their deltoids, never mind sculpt them.” But now the two models are the “slender, sculpted, almost feminine look” of Brad Pitt or the “pumped-up but still low-fat physique” of Nicholas Cage.
This is not a diatribe against cosmetic surgery. Who am I to judge if someone feels they need to get a little tuck here or a slice there to make themselves more attractive? What concerns me, however, is the basic assumption underlying our obsession with looking young. Dominique Browning, the author of Slow Love, believes that the wide acceptance of cosmetic procedures among the over-50 set heralds the birth of another “ism” among boomers: ageism. “We’ve crossed the line; we’re angry that we’re growing old.” she wrote recently in The New York Times, “We’re angry at people who remind us of what aging looks like. We are colluding in an elaborate social compact to convince ourselves that we don’t have to go there. And no one wants to say that the Emperor and Empress look better with naked faces.”
Ageism, of course, is not a boomer invention. It goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Homer described the elderly as “hateful, accursed, difficult and sorrowful,” and Socrates, who is widely regarded as a paragon of wisdom in Western culture, was vilified by an Athenian mob and sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting youth.
What’s different now is that if you have enough money and aren’t squeamish about anesthetics, you can fool yourself for a lot longer than Socrates could that you can pull a fast one on Death. But Death has all the time in the world—you don’t. The purpose of life is not to cling to the past but to embrace the present and all the mysteries it holds. The late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once told me, “The only thing you can count on in life is this very moment. Everything else is an illusion.” I was in my late 30s at the time and didn’t understand what she was talking about. But I never forgot what she said, and the older I get the more sense her words make.
Maybe it’s because I inherited my father’s gray hair at an early age or because I had an emergency tracheotomy when I was really little and developed an aversion to surgery of any kind. But I figured out a long time ago that the search for eternal youth is a sucker’s game. When I think about how far I would go to look younger, none of my options include a needle or a knife. I prefer the philosophy of actor Henry Winkler, who was honored at an AARP event last year. Asked whether he’d rather be young-looking or young-thinking, he replied, “The way you look is not as important as the way you use your energy–because energy can make you very attractive.”
You take Homer; I’ll go with the Fonz.
What’s your take on cosmetic surgery for men? Would do you think is sexier John Wayne or Brad Pitt? This is not a rhetorical question.