This post first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
It’s hardly news that US culture is obsessed with youth. The massive amount of advertising for products to make us look or feel younger is ample evidence. While we generally think of this as more of a factor in terms of how we evaluate female attractiveness, the fact that we often consider men to be more attractive when they have less body hair (something that generally correlates with youth) or have more hair on their heads may point to some ways that this plays out differently for men.
Given that there’s a strong cross-cultural tendency to view youth as attractive, I tend to think that that’s indicative of something wired into us. I don’t have any concerns with it, as such, but I think that the fact that we tend to devalue age is a problem.
In his book The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, Hillman writes:
When “old” gains its definition only by pairing, it loses its value. In a culture that has only identified with the “new”…”old” gets the short end of the comparative stick, and it becomes ever more difficult to imagine oldness as a phenomenon apart from the lazy simplicities of conventional wisdom.
In the last few years, I’ve had conversations with a number of friends about how they feel about getting older. One of the common themes has been that while it would be nice to be able to have the resilience of an 18-year-old, none of them would be willing to be turned back into an 18-year-old again if it would mean losing their experience. The wisdom that has come with getting older is worth the price, as is the unwillingness to create and tolerate as much drama as our younger selves put up with. Granted, this is among folks in their 30’s and 40’s. Perhaps older people with more physical limitations or medical issues would respond differentially.
But what does that mean in a culture that mostly promotes people who look like they’re in their early 20’s as sexy? When we do talk about older folks as being sexy, why is it usually in the context of how young they look? What does it mean when media pundits micro-analyze celebrities for wrinkles or other signs of age? And what are the implications for how we think about sex?
One effect is that we tend to desexualize older people. Rather than seeing people of all ages as sexual beings who deserve the freedom to express their desires, fantasies and preferences, we act as if gray hair takes away sexuality. Focusing so much on this idea that being young is a requirement for being sexy shames people for being older because we tell them/ourselves that they are not desirable as they are. And that reinforces the sex-negativity that traps us all.
Another effect of our cultural obsession with youth is that we forget that our sexual experiences are supposed to change as we move through life. I once heard Joseph Kramer point out that the food that we enjoy when we’re young is different from the food that we enjoy when we’re older, so why should we expect sex to be any different? But rather than embracing this perspective, we reinforce the idea that we’re supposed to be having the same sex at 60 as we had at 20. This ignores the diversity of sexual possibilities and as Gayle Rubin points out, when we negate the spectrum of benign sexuality, we strengthen sex-negativity.
I’m not suggesting that we need to stop seeing youth as attractive. Rather, I think we need to embrace the beauty of age. When we allow ourselves to only see younger people as sexy, we create a situation in which we must either continually strive for youth or see ourselves as non-sexual beings. Changing our thoughts and attitudes is an essential part of the process. As the Buddha is reported to have said:
The thought manifests as the word,
The word manifests as the deed,
The deed develops into habit
And habits harden into character
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.
It’s easy to see someone in their 20’s as a sexual being. I invite you to do the same when you see an elder. Or strike up a conversation with someone in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s or older about sex. Or when you’re sitting on the train or bus and find yourself fantasizing about that cute 20-year-old, try imagining what the gray-haired guy a few seats down looks like when he’s enjoying himself. If you find it difficult, or if you find yourself having a negative reaction, take some time and ask yourself why that is.
For that matter, when you catch yourself saying that someone looks good “for their age” or when you see an older couple kissing and say “Aww! That’s so cute!” try reframing that. How about “that person looks good!” or “That’s sexy/beautiful/wonderful to see.” When we gently reframe our thoughts, we set larger changes in motion. And as long as we do it with compassion for ourselves, rather than blaming ourselves, it can have some really positive effects.
Besides, sooner or later, you may find yourself with gray hair & wrinkles. If you change your attitudes about elders and sex now, it’ll be a lot easier to have fun when you’re older.