Academic journal article Generations

Cosmetic Surgery and Cosmetics: Redefining the Appearance of Age

Academic journal article Generations

Cosmetic Surgery and Cosmetics: Redefining the Appearance of Age

Article excerpt

Why visible signs of aging are met with increasing disdain.

Apprehensions about aging are certainly not new. Ponce de Leon's well-known search for the fountain of youth took place in the sixteenth century, and the quest has continued unabated ever since. It is said that in the iooos the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathed in the blood of young Virgins in an attempt to retain the beauty of her youth and reverse the signs of aging. The modern cosmetics industry reinforces its cultural influence by addressing similar concerns.

Considering this long history, it would be erroneous to suggest that present-day dermatologists and plastic surgeons have only recently manufactured the need for their anti-aging products and services. Still, the expansion of the influence of contemporary medicine into the management and reconstruction of the aging body's appearance is historically noteworthy. Unfortunately for those in midlife and beyond, current medical aesthetics increasingly suggest that the more one's skin changes with age and diverges from youthful standards, the less "normal" and desirable an individual's appearance becomes.

Today's advertisements constantly remind us that wrinkles and sagging are now not only unacceptable signs of aging, they are manifestations to be prevented and corrected. Many physicians now legitimize the cultural battle against aging, which means traditional cosmetic promotions and anti-aging quacks no longer act alone. In his bestselling book, The Wrinkle Cure (2000), the dermatologist Nicholas Perricone asserts that "wrinkled, sagging skin" is "a disease, and you can fight it" (p.i). To Perricone and like-minded popular authorities, the visually significant and unwelcome "disease" of aging can be combated through the use of nutrient-based, scientifically formulated "cosmeceuticals." Other healthcare professionals offer nonsurgical anti-aging cosmetic procedures such as Botox injections and microdermabrasion for those seeking expedited results. Plastic surgeons promise the most dramatic age-defying changes through surgical reconstruction of the body's exterior. It seems that this millennium's fountain of youth is technological and restores youthful appearance with scientific and medical know-how. Statistics show that use of such age-defying measures is growing each year among women and men.

The increasing use of anti-aging cosmetic technologies raises several important questions: If aging is a natural process to be experienced by all, why are visible signs of aging met with increasing cultural disdain? Why, for many, does looking younger mean greater happiness and improved social standing? What are the cultural effects when doctors employ medical authority on a mass scale to define "appropriate" appearances of aging? Does a technological fountain of youth ultimately strengthen ageist sentiments? The following discussion will address these questions.


Over the course of the twentieth century, improvements in sanitation, healthcare, and nutrition dramatically increased the average lifespan in the United States. At present, it is for the most part taken for granted that an average American will live beyond the middle years. Americans no longer focus simply on living longer; we want to live better-and look better-as we age. Science, medicine, and other fields aim to make this goal possible by slowing our biological clocks, fighting the diseases of age, and restoring our sense of youth. Many gerontologists and related practitioners now focus on "positive aging" rather than traditional conceptions of aging that emphasize the "problems of aging," with the goal of providing alternative representations of later life and challenging ageist stereotypes. Indeed, many forces are currently working to alter the experience and image of aging in order to improve what aging feels like as well as what aging looks like.

At first glance it would seem that so-called positive aging could only serve to counter the "systematic stereotyping and discrimination" typical of ageism (Butler, 1975, p. …

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