And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.
October 26, 2014 7:19 AM   Subscribe

"A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?

And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy."
Ursula K. Le Guin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means
posted by still_wears_a_hat (42 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
“Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

She's a wise lady. I think I'm going to start using life-deep beauty, such an elegant turn of phrase.
posted by arcticseal at 7:33 AM on October 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


She's a wise lady.

There is nothing UKL has to say that I don't want to hear.
posted by clarknova at 7:52 AM on October 26, 2014 [11 favorites]


We should probably buy the book.
posted by Segundus at 8:15 AM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


During a recent physical therapy session, the therapist (a thirtyish blonde woman who would not have looked out of place running a triathlon) asked me to take off my shirt. I did so, in front of her and her younger male intern.

Even though I am probably in above-average shape, I gestured to my 64-year-old torso and said, "behold your future and weep."
posted by Danf at 8:25 AM on October 26, 2014 [20 favorites]


Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.”
...
"There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment."


do you even dance, bro?
posted by Greg Nog at 8:33 AM on October 26, 2014 [13 favorites]


I once busted out a rant like this at a hairdresser's.

I was platinum blond as a child, but by now it's darkened to a much darker "dishwater blond" that sometimes, in certain lights, looks a bit dull. I got my first gray hair sometime in my early 30's, and they've been coming in more and more quickly since then. And so once, when I was getting a haircut, the stylist asked me if I'd ever considered getting my hair colored as well, ever?

"...No," I said. "I'm actually good with how it is."

"Oh, not to change it," she said, "just brighten it up a little, or maybe" (here her voice dropped to a whisper) "cover up any gray hairs."

"Actually," I said, "I like my gray hairs. Because you know what, I know each and every thing that probably gave me each of these gray hairs - all the late nights doing theater, and the shows I did, and how I busted my ass to do them. And - actually, here, look at this," I said, pulling up my pant leg to show her a bruise-looking mark on my shin. "See that? Everyone asks me what happened to this - this is just a patch of burst capillaries. And you know, I could probably do something about that too, except - I'm pretty sure that I got this after walking this 60-mile walkathon a couple years back. I probably could have not done it and had awesome legs, but I'd much rather have had that awesome experience and a patch of burst capillaries." I was kind of on a roll now. "I just think that - look, I've done an awesome life, and okay, yeah, it's given me some gray hair and a couple scars and dings and nicks, but you know what, all that stuff has come along just beause I've been living a kick-ass life, and you know, I'm proud of that, so I want to keep my gray hair, dammit."

Both the other clients and one of the other stylists started cheering when I said that ("go girl!") and I think I saw one of the clients quietly confide to her stylist that you know what, she was actually going to cancel the coloring she'd been about to have, she'd just stick with the cut.

Besides, if you look at my gray hairs amid the rest of the hair, they're sparkly. I really like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:34 AM on October 26, 2014 [85 favorites]


Even though I am probably in above-average shape, I gestured to my 64-year-old torso and said, "behold your future and weep."

Unless you were their first patient ever, they have likely seen considerably worse, I would imagine.
posted by the sobsister at 8:55 AM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


We should probably buy the book.

Yeah, there's at least one other essay in there that this Brain Pickings site has already brainpicked, and both times it's sort of left me feeling like "Wait, what is this site adding here that's worth reading?"

You can write a good review that quotes heavily from the source, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that — but if all of the interesting parts come from the source, and none from the reviewer, the whole thing starts to seem like a bit of a scam.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:06 AM on October 26, 2014 [16 favorites]


Finally, theauthor is really talking about a beauty that is not the beauty we associate with the idea of "good looks" but rather something that gets embedded through age. Fact: physical beauty belong to the young. Once you are old or oldler, you are cast aside by those who are driven hormonally by sexual drives. At best, you get told, as I did recently by my doctor: "You are in good shape, look nice FOR YOUR AGE"

The ancient Greeks, wise in so many ways, noted that when young, we do things on the spur of the moment, are driven by unharnessed drives, do things based on emotions rather than thoughtfulness. When we are older, we are rational, thoughtful, consider what we do or intend to do, and thus are much wiser.

True. But that "wisdom" was all written by older Greek thinkers so that they would be thought to be wise and needed.
Physical beauty is nice and also nice is an inner beauty based on age, character, experience...
If you had to pick one of the two, which would you choose?
posted by Postroad at 9:07 AM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Relatedly, from Frances McDormand:
Looking old, she said, should be a boast about experiences accrued and insights acquired, a triumphant signal “that you are someone who, beneath that white hair, has a card catalog of valuable information.”
posted by drlith at 9:24 AM on October 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


Self-acceptance in defiance of overwhelming cultural messages about what a self should be is a trait to be prized. Le Guin's essay is a lovely reminder of that.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:30 AM on October 26, 2014 [10 favorites]


Well, I went to a new hairdresser after not taking care of my hair for a few years, and I mentioned that once things got settled I would also consider dying my hair, and he immediately said, oh no, the grey is so much more sophisticated!

I was really surprised, and a few people I mentioned it to seemed skeptical, but then a woman from my neighborhood told me I had inspired her to go grey!
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:36 AM on October 26, 2014


I am so much comfortable now in my own skin than I ever was as a young person.

(I did finally dye my hair, though. Not because I hated my gray-don't have much of it yet, even at my age-but because, darn it, doing new color is fun! I like fun.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:39 AM on October 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


What St. Alia of the Bunnies said. Exactly.
posted by mumimor at 10:03 AM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]



Even though I am probably in above-average shape, I gestured to my 64-year-old torso and said, "behold your future and weep."


That's... kind of rude
posted by asockpuppet at 10:10 AM on October 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


My teeth, by the old looks of them, have certainly experienced a lot of mountain dew.

That said - fuck yeah. Old is sexy. Or can be. It's all how you feel inside. Well outside, too. Sometimes you can't help but feel like shit, physically or mentally. But in the end, this whole "young is hot" is horseshit. I've taken appreciation for younger people (when I was younger, it was all about the older people), so I like to think I have a wide appreciation for all kinds of people - fat, skinny, old, young, saggy, perky, wrinkly, muscley, grey hairs, brunette, blond, redhead, whatever, man. We're all people and we all can have beauty.

I guess that's beside the point? I don't know what's going to happen when I hit that point where I experience what the OP is talking about. I already feel tired and run down at 38. Meh.
posted by symbioid at 10:38 AM on October 26, 2014


EmpressCallipygos if your comment had fists I would fistbump them so hard
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:59 AM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've got my share of aches and pains in my fifty year old body but I do feel so much more comfortable in it than I did twenty or thirty years ago. The ironic thing is that I spent so much of my early life feeling awkward and uncomfortable with the way that I looked but now that I see pictures of myself at that age, I think "shit, I looked like a movie star when I was 22. Why didn't I know that?" Somehow you only learn to be happy with yourself once you're fat and bald and gray.
posted by octothorpe at 11:02 AM on October 26, 2014 [16 favorites]


Besides, if you look at my gray hairs amid the rest of the hair, they're sparkly.

Is it OK if I totally use this at every given opportunity borrow this?
posted by Solomon at 11:03 AM on October 26, 2014


That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

This strikes me as insightful, but then I think of artists aged 60 with a 30-year-old companion and wonder.

It's a cliche, but we often hear, and can find some evidence of, women as a group being more open to a "gestalt" approach to who they consider beautiful, and I wonder if it's true, is it built-in, or is it an artifact of how we socialize our young women. There are huge, vast problems with the latter, but it would be good to capture this if it's a real thing, and apply it to everyone.
posted by maxwelton at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Time is the ultimate luxury. We are lucky to reach middle age or beyond with faculties functional if not intact so that we might ponder youth's ephemeral external beauty. Those who have seen youth die understand that beauty means being alive in every sense, regardless of what that might actually look like.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think "shit, I looked like a movie star when I was 22. Why didn't I know that?" Somehow you only learn to be happy with yourself once you're fat and bald and gray.

You know when you're in high school or college, no matter what you look like, you find, say, maybe 1 in 10 people of your preferred gender(s) attractive, physically? My big eye opener was revisiting a college campus when I was (I laugh now from near 50) 35 or so, and realizing "everyone here is beautiful!" The number was now more like 9 in 10.

Of course, when you're young a person's physical beauty is often enough to base a "relationship" on, whereas from the lofty perch of late middle-age, it would be "yeah, they're lovely looking, but are they interesting? Do they find me interesting?"
posted by maxwelton at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


I trust some of the paeans to age, time and wisdom will continue--as an "old white man" I am more than willing to take my lumps for being white and a man--but when future posts refer to us as oldsters, old white men, old people a little support would be appreciated. BTW, I know my experience of beauty has broadened--it can be a smile, the turn of a neck, the grace of acceptance, the courage to change or just the warmth of caring.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:19 AM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t.

That depends on your childhood.
posted by wrabbit at 11:37 AM on October 26, 2014 [11 favorites]


"It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies."
I think this is absolutely true, and has so much to do with a person's whole history; their outlook on life as shaped by their family upbringing and socioeconomic circumstances, their habits and overall outlook on life. I love meeting "old" (which I guess always means "older than your current age by a decade or two" when thinking about these things) people who still seem to be engaged and actively curious about the world around them, and generally enjoy being alive despite the increased sagging, aches and pains that come with advancing age. I hate meeting "young" (younger than your current age by a decade or two) people who seem to have checked out already and seem to exist in a persistent pessimistic state.
posted by usonian at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2014


Empress, I'm with you. My 50th is this weekend, and I thought about dying my hair before the hoopla, but I've decided that my waist length, tending toward silver, ringlets are pretty cool, so I'm just gonna let it be. (Also, I have so much hair...so much, it takes 4+ hours to get it colored. Ain't nobody got time for that.)
posted by dejah420 at 12:29 PM on October 26, 2014 [4 favorites]




Per nebulawindphone, I'm really uncomfortable with this format of extended excerpts of a piece linked together with a few modesty strips of color commentary. This seems to be crossing the line beyond which you should just be linking to/reading the original piece, instead.
posted by Andrhia at 12:46 PM on October 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


When you're young you have the luxury of not caring about your body beyond the pure aesthetics of it. You just assume the fact that you are not in pain as the default condition. When you get older, you learn that problem-free-healthy is not in fact a default condition. Perhaps you did a lot of stuff in your youth that was demanded by beauty standards, like wearing high heels - it was tolerable back then, but perhaps you pay for it in later years. Maybe you smoked, because it looked cool, and now get to pay for that. I remember way, way, way, way back when I was a pre-teen, how in my neck of the woods, it was fashionable to have a "slouch", the desirable posture (for a guy) was to hang your head forward and droop your shoulders and sort of hunch - it was a kind of hippie "cool". I sometimes meet some of those folks, now some 40 years later - often with terrible posture and back pain not to envy.

For the young, an ache comes along, and you just wait it out and it goes away. When you get older, paranoia sets in. That neck crick? Yeah, what if it's a disc slipping? What if it's old age and your spine has deteriorated and it's all downhill from here? You're grateful every time you recover "whew, I guess that was not terminal!". You just don't have the luxury of assuming that it's temporary. And then the horror. You reach the age, when some things just don't go away. Your paranoia becomes sadly justified. They - entropy and biology - really are after you. Hard to find beauty in that. You don't need beauty to be confined to youth. But it's hard to find beauty in ill-health and devastation. Gray hair is not inherently bad, it can still be beautiful. But gnarled twisted fingers ravaged by rheumatism? This is not the charm of found driftwood and abstract sculpture at a gallery of modern art - this is screaming pain, this is not aesthetics, this is visceral. The body is shaped according to cultural norms of beauty. Invasive body alteration is not a Western invention. Pre-Columbian people sharpened their teeth with tools - but toothlessness due to disease or old age was not a standard of beauty, for it signified destruction. Skin art can be found all over the world, but nowhere are boils, carbuncles and disfiguring skin disease celebrated.

Old age necessarily involves deterioration. It becomes very tricky to pull off beauty. There is nothing "natural" and unforced about it. "Whaa, society wrongly regards a turkey neck as unattractive, how arbitrary, oppressive beauty standards!", well, the gent puts on an ascot cravat not because he's whimsical, but because it's no longer an optional fancy. Yes, you can do it. But it takes thought and effort. I saw a documentary about high-priced sex workers, women who were very successful at running their own business, often late into their late 50's, 60's and so forth. Their clients weren't fetishits. They were very attractive. I remember one woman had this tip and observation: when you reach a certain age in this business, you have to take off your clothes and walk about at least half an hour before the engagement. The reason is to give your skin enough time to bounce back from all the imprints from clothes, the chair, shoes and so forth - it's much harder to look beautiful if you've got the pattern from the loveseat stamped onto your bum. There is this test of age and skin, used by gerontologists and anyone curious about age - lay your hand flat, palm down on the table, and with your other hand, pinch the skin on the back of your hand and pull it up a bit, then let go. How long does the skin take to bounce back to flat? There's your skin age.
posted by VikingSword at 2:17 PM on October 26, 2014 [15 favorites]


I was reflecting the other day that the physical changes from age 0 - 20 are so profound, and then they're vastly more gradual for the next 20 or even 30 years. And then after that, they gain speed all over again and it's so disconcerting.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:03 PM on October 26, 2014 [10 favorites]


I am a 52 year-old guy who works on a college campus. Which means that I see many, many attractive young women every day. I have surprised myself by how often I see a 20 year-old and think, "She will be so much more beautiful in 20-25 years." (And not so damn skinny.)

I noticed in my 40's when I was dating women my own age how often they thought they were not beautiful, when they were. They thought because they weren't thin or had stretch marks or wrinkles that they weren't attractive. So untrue. Those were the things that made them so much more attractive.
posted by ITravelMontana at 6:05 PM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Besides, if you look at my gray hairs amid the rest of the hair, they're sparkly.

Is it OK if I [totally use this at every given opportunity] borrow this?


Go for it. Heh. (And they totally do - my "gray" hair is pure white, and there've been a couple times when I've come in out of the rain or snow and looked at myself quick and thought "oh hey I guess I got a few snowflakes/raindrops on my head after all - oh no wait, that's my hair. COOOOOOOOOL.")

A note, too, because the last time I told this story about "I don't dye my hair, maaaaan" someone else felt offended because she did for much the same reason St. Alia did; so for the record, if you wanna dye your hair for fun, cool! Go for it! I just don't like the notion of people feeling like they have to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 PM on October 26, 2014


Sigh. This is good. Aging still sucks. I've got one family member in a nursing home and another about to have surgery tomorrow, I'm trying to get work done before what's surely going to be a trying week, and man. My body and mind both feel weak and unwilling today.
posted by limeonaire at 7:34 PM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]



That's... kind of rude

Of course it is. You get to a certain age and you just... don't... care.
posted by Floydd at 9:22 PM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


VikingSword: When you're young you have the luxury of not caring about your body beyond the pure aesthetics of it. You just assume the fact that you are not in pain as the default condition. When you get older, you learn that problem-free-healthy is not in fact a default condition.

THIS^^^ is what "youth is wasted on the young" means. It doesn't mean young people are ungrateful or ignorant in any way. It means that those pain-free healthy days are so precious to an older person that they avidly make the most of them. Meanwhile, the same "youthful vigor" is wastefully strewn out to people who are stuck in school desks the whole day, where it wouldn't matter if their joints were stiff and creaky that day. That phrase is really a cry for equitable distribution of physical well-being: OCCUPY OLD AGE!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:31 PM on October 26, 2014 [8 favorites]


I first felt what seemed to me a rather ruthless betrayal by my body when I reached puberty. I loved being eleven; I was strong and fast and could excel at games and in school; I enjoyed myself. Then a series of changes began which I did not welcome and could not control. I learned to live with this new body but felt that same sense of being overruled by my body later when undergoing the changes of pregnancy and especially in the course of labor--the certain knowledge that this body was going to birth this baby whether I was on board with the idea or not.

There has been a steady decline of strength, stamina, and skin tone for my entire adult life. Sometimes now my body surprises me by some inability or by taking two days to recover from a simple outing. Life as a body has been a long adjustment, reconciling myself and accepting what I have to work with, making the best of it. To tell the truth, though, for all the beauty of a nineteen-year-old body and all the pleasure this body has been capable of, it's been touch and go and not entirely trustworthy since age eleven.
posted by Anitanola at 9:40 PM on October 26, 2014 [27 favorites]


You simply do not have the capacity to understand what having a pain-free body is like till you don't have one anymore, and then you can't go back.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:42 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Besides, if you look at my gray hairs amid the rest of the hair, they're sparkly. I really like that.

They're not gray, they're sparkling sil-vah, baby.
posted by corb at 9:25 AM on October 27, 2014


...lay your hand flat, palm down on the table, and with your other hand, pinch the skin on the back of your hand and pull it up a bit, then let go. How long does the skin take to bounce back to flat? There's your skin age.

That's a test of how well hydrated you are.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2014


That's a test of how well hydrated you are.

If there are clinical or pathological conditions, that affect tissue turgor, such as disease, or disturbed fluid balance (loss of interstitial fluid or at the other end, edema), then turgor will be affected. However, if the turgor measured is not under conditions of disease or disturbance of fluid balance, then it is a valid measure of skin elasticity (which decreases with age).

Tissue Turgor:

"Tissue Turgor describes the elasticity available to the skin, which depends in part on the presence of interstitial fluid. Tissue Turgor is an age related phenomenon; the geriatric patient commonly has poor skin turgor because the skin loses elasticity with age."

If the person is properly hydrated and not suffering from a disease that affects turgor, i.e. under ordinary circumstances, turgor is a perfectly legitimate way to asses the age of the skin.
posted by VikingSword at 11:09 AM on October 27, 2014


When you're young you have the luxury of not caring about your body beyond the pure aesthetics of it. You just assume the fact that you are not in pain as the default condition. When you get older, you learn that problem-free-healthy is not in fact a default condition.

I get what you're saying, but I do want to remind folks that not everyone had a healthy, painless childhood, and for those of us whose bodies went through plenty of pain and damage at a young age, "kids don't know anything" comments are sort of condescending and hurtful.
posted by naoko at 2:33 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


I studied traditional figurative portrait painting at an atelier. An adage in portrait painting: the face you have before you're 30 is the face you're born with; the face you have after 30 is the one you earn. People over 30 are infinitely more interesting to paint, IMO.

One day, when I was a senior student, a new kid complained to me that the model that day was 'boring' to paint. The model was one of the best models I've ever worked with; he was in his sixties, but could hold incredibly difficult and physically taxing poses; worked hard to create a narrative in every pose, and had so much character in his face that he was absolutely fascinating. But to this student, the model was boring because he wasn't a thin woman in her twenties.

I told the new kid to stop being so f*cking rude and instead learn how to really SEE the person in front of him. My teacher overheard, then came over and read the kid the riot act for being an ass to the model. The dressing-down was epic, but one thing my teacher said stood out:

"If you want to paint, I mean really paint someone's portrait, you have to fall in love with them a little bit when you're painting them. Otherwise you'll never find what's beautiful inside them. And yes, I mean fall in love with the dudes, with the fat, with the fat dudes, and the old dudes, and the old fat dudes — even though you're a dude. If you can't open yourself up enough for that? Forget being an artist. There's the door; use it."

Unfortunately, more people in this world are the kid in the story than the teacher.
posted by culfinglin at 9:14 AM on October 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


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