Like a prayer for graying gracefully, we wonder whether age is just a number
Still on the road at 81, Bob Dylan sings on newly remastered “Time Out of Mind” that “It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”
His face and voice are gnarly like the bark of an oak, every crevice revealing hard miles and hard living.
The Dylan of today little resembles the ragamuffin troubadour who came east to make his fortune. Within days of arriving in New York from Minnesota, Dylan visited his ailing hero, Woody Guthrie. The musical pugilist was old before his time, languishing at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, N.J.
A lifetime away from those days, Dylan, like octogenarian Joe Biden, wears his age proudly.
For Madonna Louise Ciccone, who rose to pop stardom while flaunting her sexuality with cone bras as a fashion statement, age is both commercial and political. She heads out on tour this year after stunning fans by leading with her face rather than her body.
“When I’m 64,” as Paul McCartney sang, Madonna challenges our perceptions of beauty and aging. Even sympathetic columnist Monica Hesse, writing in The Washington Post, limned the star’s new visage “as if she’d tucked two plum potatoes in her cheeks.”
Madonna responded to the storm she had perhaps intentionally seeded: “Once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny.”
The bitter pill of our treatment of beauty for women and men was never so visible. A silver-haired man is distinguished; his gray wife is late for a coloring appointment. There is nothing new about the cultural demand for women to lock their looks in amber to maintain their allure and sexuality or to achieve plastic perfection against the ideals of the day. Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens depicted glorious, full-bodied women. With supermodels such as Twiggy and Kate Moss, we had a sharper pencil logic. Before you can freeze it, you might need to build it. Marilyn Monroe had her nose fixed and her chin strengthened to achieve the “blonde bombshell” look that made her the first Playboy centerfold. Goodbye, Norma Jeane.
We don’t know what to make of aging and our roles in society, no matter the gender. Roger Federer retired last year at 41, a ripe old age in a sport now driven by the power of youth. The French are protesting a shift in retirement age from 62 to 64, poor babies.
In the halls of politics, we are at an inflection point in what is acceptable. At 82, Nancy Pelosi was still giving better than she got. Yet more than a decade younger, a second-term Ronald Reagan seemed to stumble, and post-presidency he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Recently, Joe Biden gave the speech of his career at the State of the Union, reminiscent of Reagan’s snappy debate promise in 1984 not to exploit Walter Mondale’s relative “youth and inexperience.”
The concept of “ikigai” colors notions of value and self-worth in the world’s oldest population, the venerable Japan, where more than one-fifth are senior to our retirement age. Finding purpose and preserving family enable the Japanese to age more gracefully than in Western nations. For Americans, our ambivalence and fear of aging fuels an industry of plastic surgery and the debate about Biden seeking a second term as president. Perhaps we would feel better if his vice president were not a younger woman perceived as a lightweight. Paging Nancy Pelosi!
Let’s face it, we are a superficial society, at least when it comes to public figures. John Kennedy almost blew us up over Cuba and mired us in Vietnam, but he died still young and beautiful. Lyndon Johnson did more for the country than any president since FDR, yet he took the fall for Saigon and for keeping the same kitchen Cabinet cooking that Kennedy had installed. Like Richard Nixon, who won his debate with Kennedy on radio but lost it on TV, LBJ wasn’t winning any beauty contests, and we attribute his civil rights triumphs to his predecessor.
For men it’s a mixed bag, but for women the bag holds only snakes. Spending time with Gloria Steinem in her 70s — no construction signage — she radiated a sensual appeal that should have been the envy of many a coed. Ditto a day with Joan Baez. Such accomplished women reminded me that it is not smooth skin that defines an appealing person.
These are exceptions. Like Madonna, stars such as Meg Ryan and Jennifer Grey did so much work they became unrecognizable. It isn’t just women; remember Mickey Rourke?
In a media monsoon of body-shaming and pretty-shaming our teenagers and preteens on TikTok, it is hard to see how we will reach a deeper view of beauty, especially for women.
In the metaverse, maybe a new Madonna is just setting the stage — an avatar of herself, time out of mind.