Toronto
3 min

Facing your age

Leave a little slack in the cheeks, doc

Would it have killed them to give her a few wrinkles? As the new TV season unwinds, I don’t know what’s more bizarre: the lack of sex on the cell-block drama Prison Break – which stars the mesmerizing Wentworth Miller as a smart-ass jail bird – or the lack of wrinkles on Geena Davis’s face.

Davis plays the first female president of the US on the butchly named Commander In Chief, but so far her greatest problem has been stretching her face enough to suggest a vestige of command. Her face is so smooth I spent most of the debut episode checking her lipstick for flaws. There was nothing else to watch.

Meanwhile over at O Magazine, the wealthy and powerful Oprah chooses to represent herself on the cover of an aging-themed issue with a photo that shows her looking like some sort of resident alien. The cover girl’s 51-year-old face is so tight her eyes have almost disappeared into the planes of her cheeks.

I’m all for people looking their best but I’m not sure resembling a robot counts. There’s something to be said for a face that reveals something about the person behind it. All these faces told me was that both women have a lot of money.

As someone in one of the dailies said recently, people wouldn’t be so worried about age if they had more contact with it. People who live in societies where the extended family is big and the generations mingle aren’t so worried. They’ve seen age up close and it doesn’t scare them. But in our age-stratified society where people either disappear from the TV screen once they hit 40 or turn into Barbara Walters, it’s probably natural that people are ambivalent about age and aging.

The Globe’s Christie Blatchford wrote a column recently in which she saluted the astonishingly craggy Rolling Stones (all male, please note) for letting it all hang out age-wise, while admitting that some of her crowd (mostly female) had at least considered plastic surgery.

Me, I loathe the very idea of plastic surgery. I consider it barbaric, intrusive and self-destructive – a denial of the self. Still, I picked up the current O purely for the stuff on age.

All that stuff about teeth bleaching and alpha-hydroxy acids; the technology alone is fascinating especially if, like me, you’ve mostly limited your anti-aging campaign to plucking grey hairs out of your eyebrows.

The real sell, though, was Nora Ephron’s piece on “maintenance.” Ephron made her reputation with screenplays that were both funny and tart (Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally) and she outdoes herself here with a blithely self-mocking account of her beauty regime. Step by step she takes us through all the stuff she does just to keep herself from looking any older than she has to. She concludes that she spends eight hours a week just slowing down time.

She used to spend 90 minutes every six weeks or so on hair dying. Now, thanks to highlights, she spends double “and because my hair colourist is (in her world) only slightly less famous than Hillary Clinton, it costs more per year than my first automobile.”

A more searching thinker might ask why she bothers. But Ephron merely mirrors the culture, she doesn’t question it. The answer in any case is quite simple. She figures she’ll turn into a bag lady if she doesn’t.

Ephron suggests the roots of this peculiarly modern problem with-out naming it: a surfeit of choice. Earlier generations had no choice but to look as old as they were. The available tech-nologies were, to put it mildly, inefficient. Family legend has it that one of my great-grandmothers used elastic bands to pull back her sagging face. I’m guessing it wasn’t terribly effective.

Things have changed enormously in the last few decades and the technology that made it all possible, according to Ephron, was hair dye. “In the 1950s, only seven percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no grey-haired women at all.” That one small advance made everything else possible, from facelifts to fashionable all-black wardrobes. Black looks lousy on people with grey hair, says Ephron. “It makes you look not just older but sadder.” (Note to self: Ditch the black sweater.) But it looks great on people with dark hair.

What she doesn’t mention is that all this choice creates uncertainty. A radiant Gloria Steinem once responded to a compliment on her youthful appearance with the famous bon mot: “This is what 40 looks like.” But Steinem’s 40 is not today’s 40. As for 50, 60 or 70, nobody has a clue what they’re supposed to look like, anymore than they know when “maintenance” turns to masochism. If all this primping is just a way of marketing the product known as our selves, have we not perhaps crossed the line where the sizzle is mistaken for the steak?

There’s a thin line between looking the best you can and looking like somebody else entirely. I don’t think we’ve figured out where that line lies, let alone what we hope to accomplish by crossing it.