Ah, youth!

Fountain of Youth, woodcut by Sebald Beham, 1513

I had a couple of experiences this last week that surprised me.

The first took place in Liebling’s congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints located in Kiel, Germany. We were seated in a row near the door to the chapel, and a friend of Liebling’s came along to greet us all.

The modest collection of German words that I know includes both pronouns and terms for family members, so I actually understood the conversation. The woman asked Liebling, “deine Schwester?” (your sister?) and Liebling answered, “Nein, meine Mutter.” (No, my mother.*)

You can picture that question being asked by someone intent on flattery, but the woman’s reaction made it clear that this had not been her plan. She gaped at us both, looking alarmed, and sort of stumbled away, shaking her head. Liebling and I both laughed.

It got me thinking about how much effort gets devoted to trying to look young. I might want to consider myself a conscientious objector when it comes to culture wars surrounding things like fashion and the pursuit of beauty and youth, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m a rebel fighter.

I think about the time and money and pain and inconvenience that go into trying to get (mostly) women’s bodies to match an ever-changing, artificial and nearly impossible standard, and it makes me sick.

Gothic carving of the fountain of youth, ivory

Apparently, though, I’m not entirely immune to my cultural training, or I would have found the German woman’s question puzzling instead of gratifying. It seems I don’t mind that she thought of me as younger than I am.

The second experience had to do with the voice-over recording session I did right before we left for Germany. I was reading the part of a village matriarch in a video game currently in development. The game designers got back to the sound engineer with some feedback. In addition to things like wanting me louder and more dramatic in the beginning sequence, one said that I sounded like a young woman trying to sound like an old woman. We’ve got another session scheduled to see what can be done about that.

It’s possible that Liebling’s friend is just impressively unobservant, and also that I’m a rookie at voice-over work (which is certainly true). But whether or not I look or sound young for my age, these two stories gave me a chance to reflect on the way that our culture has come to worship at the altar of the young. As it happens, that altar also features the impossibly thin and the blandly beautiful. It’s all kind of tangled up together.

Andy Rooney said, “It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.”

I know that superficial, celebrity-driven culture has it entirely wrong when it comes to the supremacy of youth and appearance. But is there a culture that’s got it entirely right?

There are folks who read this blog from many parts of the world,† and I would love to hear from you about how your culture considers age and beauty. If you live in (or come from) a part of the world where the elderly are respected and honored, and where being beautiful is not prioritized above everything else, I’d like to hear about it. And maybe I’d like to retire there, one day, a long time in the future.

Last year in Venice. I’m bracing myself for someone to tell me I’m looking old. I guess it is what it is.


*Liebling and I have been mistaken for sisters before, but the last time was probably 8 years ago, and I’ve collected quite a few more gray hairs since then.

†Wordpress summarizes the countries of those who go to the blog to read posts. It always gives me a lift to see a new country represented. Over time the list has come to include more than 75 countries, from Morocco to Russia to Fiji to Croatia, Vietnam to Bangladesh to Guernsey to Saudi Arabia.

I’m always happy when someone leaves a comment–and tell me where you’re from!


[Images: Wikipedia, Fiddler]

4 thoughts on “Ah, youth!

  1. I think the best cosmetic is soap and water, sleep and healthy food.
    I know you agree; and those who don’t spend countless dollars that in the end do not stop aging but speed it- if it worked they wouldn’t have to sell so much!

    • So right! Every time I’ve been in a play and worn lots of stage makeup I’ve considered how smearing it on and scrubbing it off can’t be good for my skin. Just letting it breathe seems like a good thing.

  2. I am saddened to say that in my culture, Brazilian, the pursuit of looking thinner and younger is a life long one. It is also a huge part of a woman’s daily routine. Growing up in it, naturally, rubbed off on me. I try to be as happy as I can with the way I look, and wear as little make up as possible, but there is always a little voice in the back of my head saying that I could have done better, I could be a little skinnier, and I am close to my forties. We have all seen what that does to younger minds…

    • I hear you. When it comes to evaluating myself on looks regarding my face or my figure, I think of myself as past all that, but I notice that when I pass a mirror, I check to see if my hips are looking wide or my stomach isn’t flat. Discouraging.

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