On wrinkles, grey hair, ‘pertness’, beauty and death: and the privatisation of the body as capital

Just reading a lovely, thoughtful post ‘On being a babe… or not’ by Australia author Susan Johnson (My 100 Lovers, etc) over at her blog, prompted by some comments by Pamela Stephenson on last night’s Q&A.

Johnson talks about the many and complex decisions we make these days in response to our ever-changing bodies, and the pressure to look young:

“Look, no way around it: I am dying. I am on the train that is going in only one direction, and what dyeing your hair or Botoxing your face or getting a surgeon to pull up the skin of your sagging jaw is trying to do is pull the emergency stop cord.

But, hey, folks, the train aint going to stop! It’s going one way, and what the grey hair and the sagging and the wrinkles are telling you is that your time with dark hair and no sags and no wrinkles is over. Move over! Let the unlined youth climb aboard! Unclutch your hands! Let life pass over you, let the trajectory of birth to death continue on its way.”

Mourn your unblemished, smooth skin. Mourn your glossy curls. Yes, it’s a grief, no way around it: it’s a grief because it’s about loss. Loss feels like all the other losses that have come before, all the losses like Russian dolls packed inside you.”

Thinking about this I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which was first published in The Age (Opinion, 27 Oct 2006, p19) under the title:  ‘Are Wrinkles Really All that Ugly?’  Here it is:


In parts of Papua New Guinea there is said to be a dreaded curse that a witch may put on an enemy to make her breasts stay pert and upright, like a young girl’s, forever.

However, for the customers of the beauty surgeons, portrayed on Jonathan Holmes’ documentary ‘Buyer of Beauty Beware’ (Four Corners, ABC-TV, 23 October), pertness and youth is the dream and the promise. As Dr Josef Goldbaum neatly explains, ‘We don’t have to accept what nature throws at us.’

For Meredith Jones, who interviewed plastic surgery patients and their surgeons for her PhD and [2008] book, cosmetic surgery is just one aspect of contemporary ‘Makeover Culture’. Within an ethic that approves working on the self, improvement is regarded as labour rather than vanity, and a commodity for which one shops (and if wise, shops around).

For in the modern, privatised notion of the body — where the ‘civilised thrust’ (as an anthropologist once put it) has replaced the ‘primitive droop’ – body and mind are separate realms. Flesh is ‘nature’, passive and inert, and thus is not only open to being manipulated and controlled by a sovereign mind, but is in need of such control.

As such, our bodies – like our houses and land – have become a personal capital, to be invested in, worked and improved. It’s all about managing your assets, and having botox injections in your twenties and thirties becomes a kind of cosmetic superannuation, to protect you from the less bountiful experience of old age. Surely something every good citizen should consider and, if they can afford, take out.

However with the body seen as an ongoing project and investment, there can also be a recurring and sometimes permanent sense of incompleteness.

We keep adding to it – clothing, hair dye, accessories, push up bras, tattoos, piercings, more clothes, newer clothes, less clothes, muscle building. And we keep taking away: dieting, liposuction, depilation. (Peering into the fridge late at night: if only I can find the right thing to put into it… Maybe this chocolate ice-cream?)

Indeed for all our manipulation, modification and adornment of bodies in the name of individualism, greater pleasure, aesthetic delight, choice, personal freedom and power, we seem to be in the midst of an incredible epidemic of body loathing.

And while, as Holmes points out in his documentary, the surveys show the overwhelming majority of recipients of cosmetic procedures such as breast enhancement are delighted with their results, what of those (usually around ten percent) who aren’t?

It might be fine if they were merely not so happy, or indifferent. But a quick look at websites such as Silicone Holocaust (with a picture gallery not for the faint-hearted) suggests the kind of long-term physical and emotional devastation for this minority that should make all of us alarmed.

It’s also worth noting that these surveys, conducted by the plastic surgery industry, usually only have a short follow-up period: months, rather than years. On the home makeover programs, almost everyone is ecstatic when they walk through that door and see their new improved and redesigned space – the glossy paint and clean fabrics, the shiny neat surfaces and bold colours. But I often wonder what it’s like to live long-term with these quick fixes.

Sometimes, I’m sure it’s wonderful. Life-changing. And I’m certainly not immune to the seductive lure of modern uncluttered style — or of slim bodies and smooth skin.

But if I had the money to furnish my house any way I wanted, what would I pick? And if I called in a makeover team, what might I lose?

I love my house, and my house loves me. And while there are things I would like to improve, I’d actually like to keep the current style in which a creative use of old and found things figures strongly. I’ve learnt to find a peaceful balance between beauty, practicality and comfort — even to see beauty within functionality. I’ve learnt to find an aesthetic that values difference and variation; one that easily accommodates change and use; that recognises the difference between looking new (or young) and looking good.

If it is possible to cultivate a home furnishing aesthetic that appreciates the rich effects of time and brings both peace and pleasure – one where the patina of age, the scratches and marks of usage are a part of the beauty and story of an object – can it really be so impossible to do this with regard to our bodies?

If leather can become more beloved, and more sensuous, with age, why not skin?

As the beautiful Italian actress Anna Magnani once said to a photographer: ‘Please don’t retouch my wrinkles, it took me so long to earn them.’

[photo of Anna Magnani]

Anna Magnani


Love to hear your comments.

And if you are interested in this topic, you may also like to take a squiz at another piece I wrote, From the Primitive Droop to the Civilised Thrust: Towards a Politics of Body Modification. This one was presented at a conference and also included in my PhD thesis: The Body as Fiction / Fiction as a Way of Thinking.

(And for all those who hit the ‘FB recommend’ or share buttons below — thanks so much!)

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5 Responses to On wrinkles, grey hair, ‘pertness’, beauty and death: and the privatisation of the body as capital

  1. My first experience of the degeneration of age was slowly to understand I was freed to be completely me. A few more transitions later (which, by the way, I think we should celebrate, bring back female rituals) I saw in the mirror a horrible thing – it wasn’t me! It wasn’t. That woman was a misery and her mouth turned down! I know, back teeth fall out, gums shrink and physics takes over. Of course you have plates; but they are uncomfortable and spoil the enjoyment of food and you don’t know where they are. Also there are teeth implants, but they are not at sensible prices. So now this is you; but Time has whipped back what it gave you – your individuality! Surely this is the utmost transition? You are Everyone, all interconnected – the good, the bad, men, women, stupid, clever, all ages and maybe all times.

  2. Beth Spencer says:

    I love your comment, Kathleen. Thank you so much for sharing. What you are saying here suggests to me that looking in the mirror can be a profound and sacred experience if we can let go of judgement and see our bodies as a part of the whole earth. And if we can accept ourselves, not despite the wrinkles and changes, but because of them.

    • Yes, but Beth, I can’t get as far as Because; I get as far as With. This has an advantage though: I see nearly everyone as beautiful now as they are nearly all younger than me! What is beautiful about the old people I see is the long time I can spend contemplating them. Ah ! that’s what you were saying – our divergence is between story and picture! I love you!
      And you put my web site up – no one has gone near that for ten years, including me! Except for this facebook feast of the last week or so, that’s what I do most of the time; paint impossible pictures.

      • Beth Spencer says:

        Yes, the ‘because’ is a big leap. An interesting experiment to stand there and say it to oneself and see how it feels.
        And having your website linked is so very appropriate — portraiture is such a complex art. It’s lovely to see your studio as well as your work.
        I remember a filmmaker saying something about that he found older faces so incredibly beautiful, like an intricate landscape.
        Best wishes for your painting of the impossible.

  3. I need to add that this orderly, architectonic font does not suit my thought processes, I mean, sprouts!

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