It’s sad, but it’s a fact: others judge you by your looks. That has implications for your job status, your income, your social life. Can you win at this game?
We live in a youth-obsessed world
Research shows that employers are often biased in favour of the tall, the good-looking, the younger. So as long as you’re any (or all) of the above, you’ll get a better job, and you’ll earn more money. You’ll move in better-looking, better-paid circles.
You can’t alter your height, but you can make yourself more beautiful, and you can do something towards keeping yourself looking young. It’s small wonder so many of us support, in one way or another, the multi-billion dollar global anti-ageing industry that sells the elusive promise of youth.
Perhaps we limit it to slathering on gravity-defying creams and pursuing certain qualities of youth, such as being slim. Maybe we eat power smoothies, munch supplements, sign gym memberships. Perhaps we take it one step further, and inject our foreheads, or in other ways keep the cosmetic surgeons busy.
This steadfast pursuit of youth (or, at least, of looking younger) is everywhere. But why? And why now?
We’re living longer
“Sad though it is, there’s no getting away from the fact that, these days, we are judged by the way we look,” says Susannah Constantine, one of the ûber-successful What Not To Wear duo. Susannah and colleague Trinny Woodall have made a fortune out of the TV series and books that deal with our apparent lack of intuitive ability to “style ourselves” effectively.
It is all about tweaking your clothing style, they say – and getting a decent haircut. Once you know you look good, your confidence grows, and people respond more positively to you, and you get more confident, and the upward spiral can change your life.
Our physical appearance, they rightly point out, works with our mental/emotional state to make self-image a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This really matters because we are living longer than we have ever lived before.
“In 1900 the average life expectancy was 47,” says Dr Geraldine Mitton from Cape Town, author of the Anti-Ageing Handbook – Practical Tips to Staying Young (New Holland Publishing/Struik). “Now it is well into one’s 80s” (provided you live in a non-war, non-disease-stricken zone). “People want to retain their quality of life. It is no good living that long if you are unable to enjoy those years.”
As millions of baby-boomers head for retirement, the concept of age is constantly being redefined. But if 45 is the new 32, and 65 is the new 50, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on us to live up to that – in terms of looks, in terms of fitness, in terms of effectiveness.
Anyone who is commercially minded is looking at it: the beauty and fashion industry, the finance sector, the pharmaceutical field, the complementary medicine people.
The “miracle ingredients”
We break our wallets for the enticing assurance of “breakthrough” beauty treatments which allegedly banish wrinkles and crow’s feet, and bring back the bloom of youth.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) both in South Africa and abroad, is increasingly, responding to an industry that sells dreams of youth to millions. Several advertisements punting age-defying products have been withdrawn after independent substantiation could not be provided by the manufacturers.
A controversial school of thinking suggests ageing is a disease that gradually diminishes the ability of the pituitary gland to produce growth hormones. The American Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine, which runs global conventions and programmes, promotes the use of the hotly disputed human growth hormone in low doses.
Then there is resveratrol, a substance found in the skin of red grapes, that researchers say increases the activity of a protein called SIRT1 and increases the lifespan of yeast and mice. It has yet to be proven to be beneficial to humans, but research continues.
What else plays a role?
Gender (more women develop Alzheimer's than men), genes and hormones all play a role in the ageing process. They’re not unstoppable trains, though. Psychology Today reports that a growing body of research suggests that sustained cognitive activity (memory, perception, judgement, reasoning) may well hold the key to how well we age.
Dr Mitton agrees: One needs to look carefully at what is governed by our genetic make-up, she says, and what is down to lifestyle. “Apparently, 10-20% is the former.” Which means the rest is powerfully influenced by how we live our lives.
Known causes of premature ageing include damage from free radicals (such as too much time in the sun); out-of-control blood sugar levels; a sluggish detoxing system; a deficient immune system and waning hormones.
“The good news, however, is that it is never too late to start with lifestyle changes,” Dr Mitton says. And that means out with the cigarettes, excess alcohol, sedentary lifestyles, “bad” foods (margarine, cakes, fried foods, additives and preservatives) and overeating. In with exercise, healthy foods (nuts, freshly squeezed vegetable juices, yoghurt, garlic, olive oil), brain stimulation and watching your kilojoule intake.
The anti- (or youthful-) ageing industry is here to stay. Our job is to make sound decisions about how and where we spend our money, what we put in our mouths or on our bodies and what our reasons are for doing so.
We cannot predict when ageing will become an issue to us, nor can we forecast the extent of our reaction. What is almost a given, however, is that we will take steps to try and stem the tide of those accumulated years - and the youthful ageing (as Dr Mitton prefers to call it) industry is waiting.
“It’s not that I feel older – not that at all,” says Richard Webster from Cape Town, an entrepreneur who is headed for his 50th birthday. “But now, for the first, my head is telling me that I am. And I don’t feel great about that.”
It’s this feeling that motivates us to do something about it. We just have to make sure it’s the right thing for us.
(Robyn von Geusau, Health24, June 2010)