Of youth, beauty and old lady farts

“…The momentary playground / Of youth’s fickle beauty,” writes poet Robert Rorabeck.

We tend to equate youth and beauty — and health, the unholy trinity worshipped with fervor in our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Only the celebs don’t want it to be a “momentary playground.” Like recalcitrant children, they don’t want to leave off playing, come in for supper. They trust plastic surgeons to lift and tuck and liposuck. Whatever it takes, over and over.

I don’t think there’s a word to describe the feeling I get when I see some woman who I admired in my childhood — for her talent, her charm, or her good looks — and who now appears with some bizarre alien distortion of her once beautiful face. It breaks my heart to see her eyebrows lost to the top of her head, her cheeks stretched bizarrely taut — looking more like a Nazi lampshade than a human face. It makes me shudder.

Don’t these women understand that age can be beautiful? And even when it’s not, it has its own honest heart. I’d rather feature a face ravaged by age (or disease) than some strange simulacrum of what I once looked like (or wanted to look like or thought I should look like).

Left to their own devices, faces tell the story of our lives. We all fall out of the womb looking fairly sweet and innocent, but life and experience carve themselves into us. Maybe that’s why some are so terrified of looking like themselves?

Many years ago I was poking around in a women’s clothing store when I noticed the head sales woman, standing there, all gussied up, in full makeup. She was staring at nothing, lost in thought, her face in repose. And it seemed to me that there was something I didn’t like about her looks, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Just then a saleswoman came up and asked her a question, and the head sales lady’s face came alive. Immediately, the cryptic lines I’d noticed made sense, as she altered her face into a characteristic supercilious sneer.

So maybe what the youth-obsessed want to escape is not just looking older, but turning into the portrait of Dorian Gray.

However, even as surgeons become more skilled and clever, the general public finds more ways to extrapolate the person’s real age.

For example, liposuction only works on subcutaneous fat. While they can suck fat out of women’s arms and legs and tummy and butt, they can’t do anything about visceral fat — “belly fat” — the kind that’s inside our abdominal cavity, wrapped around our organs.

So we end up with middle-aged actresses with stick-like arms and legs but with a larger central diameter than a younger actress would have.

Or, we watch for the scarf, the universal sign that says, “The surgery worked pretty damned well, except that they couldn’t do anything about my @#$@#$ neck.”

What I really wonder about, though, is a subject not quite fit for family viewing. And that is: But what about the old lady farts? Let’s be frank, as we age, it seems as though the odors we are capable of emitting become more and more rank.

Even if someone has the re-manufactured face and body of an 18-year-old, she’s still going to have the lower intestine of someone her actual age. I get this awful image in my mind of some has-been actress, her arms and legs and butt all scrawny, her age hinted at only by her not-so-hourglass waist, ever-present neck scarf, and the menacing cloud of blue gas that swirls around her….

When I was five or six years old I was fascinated by my maternal grandmother’s hands. She had worked, for a time, as a washerwoman, and she had these huge, knobby knuckles, arthritic from all that scrubbing. The skin on her hands was thin with age, and the blood vessels were huge and ropy underneath. Her hands were mottled with scars and age spots, and I thought them the most beautiful hands in the world.

I remember looking down at my perfect little Pillsbury-dough-girl puffs of hands, at how obvious it was that they had known so much less life. I envied my grandmother her hands. I hoped that someday mine would look like hers.

And it wasn’t until I saw those hands, folded in the casket, that I realized that I had never seen them so strangely, unnaturally still. They had always been busy, arthritic or not, cooking, mending, washing, surrounding me with a million tiny gestures of caring.

I would not have changed a hair, a wrinkle, a crinkle, a jowl of that old woman’s face. I reverenced her age, her hard-won wisdom, her good heart, and I so wish that such things had not fallen out of style.

Copyright © 2009 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I am also interested in issues related to the LGBTQIA community and to women making music.

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Posted in Aging

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December 2009
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