Published on May 27th, 2015 | by Adrienne Ione


Who is that in the mirror?

Have you ever questioned your own reflection? At what age did you first ask, “Who is that person in the mirror? Is it me? Would everyone agree?”

I asked a Tacoma man, age 102, “Who do you see in the mirror?” he laughed and said, “A very old man…who shares my name.”

For some, the idea of getting older can be scary and daunting, particularly in at a time when our culture glamorizes youth. The Global Industry Analysts Inc. estimates more than $115.5 billion are spent each year on anti-aging products. A youth-obsessed culture with a repugnance for aging can be highly problematic, leading to an exaggerated equivalent of a nation full of rowdy and obnoxious teenagers.

One of the demanding and precarious balancing acts for women, argues psychoanalyst Annie Reich, is to simultaneously strive for the iconic image of beauty while maintaining a poised sense of self-esteem.

All too often, the iconic cultural image of beauty is one that fits a singular, one-dimensional, age-limited body prescript. Pick up any popular magazine, browse websites on anti-aging, or tune into popular television and you will see it: younger than young, ageless, slender, and by all means, lose the gray hair. These images directly inform our standard for attractiveness.

I am a pro-aging psychophysiologist and personal trainer. I work with people up in age, integrating mental and physical health to resolve feelings of incongruence with the aging process, or to strengthen existing abilities. I asked several locals about their perspectives on aging, highlighting the pervasiveness of a cultural ideal body image.

A woman who will turn 90 this August, shared a recent encounter where another woman said to her, “Oh my, you don’t look 90,” and beamed with absolute delight – as if not appearing your age is the greatest compliment one can bestow.

To delve into this messy mirage of self, aging, society and beauty, let’s take a bird’s eye view of one component, body surveillance, of objectified body consciousness – a concept developed by Dr. Nita McKinley, psychology professor at University of Washington Tacoma. McKinley suggests there is one objectified form of a woman’s body as defined by an outsider, rather than by how she feels or how her own body functions.

As they age, research suggests that women continue to evaluate “their appearance based on internalization of ageist beauty norms, which emphasize the physical [aesthetic] aspect of the body.” The iterative process of monitoring and managing our body dictated by objectification can become a self-defeating prophecy when we valorize a stagnant image of beauty that does not allow for changes as we age.

One consequence of a lifetime of body monitoring or self-objectification is that some develop identities or self worth that are strongly rooted in and defined by their physical appearance.

This relentless cycle of body monitoring crosses gender boundaries. A Tacoma man who requested to remain anonymous shared:

There has been a growing disparity between the image I have of myself and the actual image. I have only recently begun practicing seeing myself as the much older person that I am and trying to feel comfortable in that reality and close that gap. There is a distinct experience of stages of dying stretched out over the decades. The feeling of having an aging body is possibly even more impactful than the outward appearance. Dealing with the loss of vitality, enthusiasm, muscle weakness, decrease in endurance, and slowness of mental activity. In many ways what I look like is much less impactful than what I feel like.

Lisa Leonard is in her sixties and offers her reflections on her changing image across her lifespan: “Sure, I look different to myself but I’m OK with the changes. It’s like being in a play and you get to be a different character. In your mind you always feel like the same person but you have the richness of life’s experience and hopefully a little wisdom to take along with you!”

I asked a few people, “As you have aged, in what ways has your relationship with your body image changed (or not)?” Sheila Atkinson Higgins, 80, in Texas, matter-of-factly responded, “There’s been no change.” Quite to the contrary, Colleen Carmean, “50ish” in Tacoma exclaimed, “Are you kidding me? I used to be gorgeous. Now I avoid full length mirrors.”
By focusing solely on our physical image, we miss the internal nuances that can be enriching gifts to ourselves and to society.

What if we thought of people up in age as one of our community’s greatest natural resources? Perhaps then we would begin to shift how we perceive others, and how we perceive ourselves, developing a sense of worth that moves beyond our physical appearance.

It is estimated that for people who were born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964, nearly 205,479 people will share their 50th birthday on every day of this year.

Although you may not be turning 50 this year, perhaps you will be one of the lucky ones who will turn some other number. On your birthday, will you be celebrating or mourning?

Our perspectives on aging make a difference in what we focus on and how we feel. When we focus on deficits or losses, our self worth diminishes.

When we focus on our gains, we feel good. I encourage you to make a shift on seeing beauty in your age, or strengthen your positive self image, by saying, “I love you,” next time you see your reflection.

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