At a recent social gathering, a colleague told me, “My husband and I will be going on a cruise to celebrate my 60th birthday.” After a brief pause, she added, “I know you’re surprised; people tell me I look much younger than that.”
I can’t say I was surprised; she has a mature face of indeterminate age. But it seems I hear this more and more, people feigning surprise when they hear someone has turned 60, 65 or 70, or whatever. The reflexive response is always, “Oh, you don’t look at all like your age!” Of course, those responses may not always be entirely sincere. I’ve never heard anyone tell a woman, “Oh, you’re 60? I thought you were much older.” Or if they did, they didn’t live to tell about it. (I hear this mostly with women; though men may be equally vain, they tend to be clueless about age.)
It seems that if everyone pretty much looks younger than their age, or thinks they do, or are told they do, it raises the question: What is that age supposed to look like? Statistically speaking, we can’t all look younger than our age.
I’ve read about studies that show we tend to overestimate ourselves in certain skills, such as our ability to drive a car (I wonder about this while driving on Long Island, where that can be a death-defying adventure). But when it comes to age, I scoured the internet for clues. There was a recent study by the cosmetics company Lancome of 2,000 women. Of those surveyed, 75% said they looked at least five years younger than their age, while another 10% believed they looked at least a decade younger than their age. Very few women believed they looked their age.
Why do so many people think they look younger than they are? Inflated self-perception? There are pseudoscientific theories out there about how our brains process images; they say we retain an earlier perception of ourselves, even when we look in a mirror. This may explain why so many people look at a recent photo and say, “Oh, I look so old in that picture.” (Bad lighting? Faulty camera? Will the selfie generation still be obsessively taking selfies 30 and 40 years from now?) In the reptilian parts of our brains, we retain ancestral images, perhaps of grandparents we thought really did look old, though they might have been only in their 60s — or even 50s. Or media images from decades ago, in TV programs like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” where older people looked quite ancient.
We baby boomers have not aged gracefully. We came of age in a youth culture and were told not to trust anyone over 30. Now that many of us are twice that age and more, we are in denial about aging. We hear bromides: “60 is the new 50”; age is “just a number,” something I hear so often it’s getting, well, old.
Sure age is a number, but numbers have meaning. A billionaire wouldn’t say, “I have a billion dollars, but that’s just a number.” Or a judge wouldn’t tell a defendant, “I’m giving you 40 years in jail — but that’s just a number.” As a teacher, I never told a student, “You got a 50 on a test, but that’s just a number.” No, age is not just a number — it’s an age. In an AARP Magazine profile of Jennifer Lopez (who really doesn’t look her age), she was quoted as saying, as she approached her 50th birthday, “I am youthful and timeless. Age is all in your mind.” No, Jennifer, none of us are timeless and age isn’t all in your mind. Age is real, we are all moving relentlessly toward our own mortality — like it or not — and there is nothing we can do about it.
Perhaps we do look younger than our grandparents did, thanks to improved diet and health care. But we all have an expiration date. We can’t perpetually defy nature, or the cruel mathematics that states that a man’s hair thins in inverse relationship to the thickening of his waist (a kind of zero-sum equation). Only the second part of that equation can be partially ameliorated with a Spartan regimen of diet and exercise.
So the next time someone says you don’t look your age, take it with a grain of salt (though that won’t help your blood pressure). As for me, I recently turned 70. But my wife, in an uncharacteristic attempt at flattery, told me I don’t look a day over 69.
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