I have been a long time away from this blog and loathe to say that something like Madonna’s appearance at the Grammys is what inspired this post. I know little about what passes for the current music scene, am the opposite of a fashionista, have never understood why bad publicity is better than none, don’t know Madonna nor have any insight into her own views of what motivates her sartorial choices. I watched her performance, read the mostly negative comments, and had to search the internet for the now famous photo of her weird derriere-displaying outfit. Such is the research that has caused me to ponder once again the meaning of successful aging.
The common reaction to both the performance and the outfit is that Madonna acted and dressed inappropriately for her age of 56. Too old for any of it, mostly the near nudity. If asked for my personal opinion and without much thought, I probably would have preferred to see something, anything other than that ridiculous outfit. Helen Mirren, there’s an older woman who knows how to dress, I thought. But then I remembered that Mirren was famously photographed not long ago in a red bikini, with comments running mostly to the doesn’t-she-look-great-for-her-age variety. Aside from the desire to shock and grab some attention that morphs into financial gain, what would motivate a 56-year old Madonna to make such a poor fashion choice?
She wants to defy, not be, her age. She wants to see herself as a twenty- or thirty-something, and counts on others seeing her as closer to her young self than she is. She might have, if she had thought about it at all, hoped for comments of the kind evoked by the Mirren bikini photo. The looks-good-for-her-age-can-she-really-be-56 kind. Because successful aging seems to be all about turning back the clock, appearing more youthful than one’s chronological age, even, beyond the physical, maintaining properties of the mind and spirit often associated with youth (endless optimism, anyone?).
Lest anyone think I am sniping about poor deluded Madge (not that I know her well enough to resort to the nickname), she is not alone. Many older women dress and act in ways that signal a desire to be younger, and to be seen as such by others. I observe people in my own life who think it’s a good day when (and only when) they don’t feel their given age. Whether it is about themselves or someone else, even mental faculties are assessed and described in a more youthful light. “She has the mind/wit/courage/flexibility/work capacity/energy of a 20-year old,” when said of a 65-year old, is seen as a compliment.
I am not immune. Recently in a doctor’s office, a consulting nutritionist who was unable to assist in restoring my 62-year old body to that of, well, even a 40-year old, commented that upon meeting me she had thought me to be younger. “You look terrific for your age. I am sure that everyone must tell you that,” she said. Not only was I delighted, I repeated the comment for days afterwards because I thought that maybe I too was among the age-defying, and I liked it. More than I should have.
Defiance only gets one so far, though, and in the end, seems a losing strategy. My own health problems associated with an aging body are most certainly undeniable. If you saw me getting up from a chair, we would both know that I am not a moment younger than my age. My hair grows grayer by the month. My youthful optimism and energy are carefully conserved as is consistent with their scarcity. I keep forgetting names.
What if we were to accept rather than defy our age? It strikes me as if one might experience the same sort of relief as those who give up the chronic and soul-sucking ritual of dieting, another game in which few ever seem to win. We could define successful aging in a way that might give us a shot at actual success. We might define it as accepting our limitations without shame, and making the most of all that we have. The most enlightened among us might even identify and appreciate the advantages (greater inner peace? freedom?) of being old and live a daily life in appreciation of those things.
I hope so. Age-defiance is getting too burdensome, although I may still wallow in its comforts now and then. When it comes to accepting aging, as with many things, I yearn for and admire enlightenment, while still spending a moment or two in the dark, pondering how and hoping to get there.