Does our desire for unlined, youthful looking faces mean more than just a quest for beauty? Does it not also represent a deeper desire for the life of leisure or at least a life unmarked by trouble that such faces represent?
In describing photographers’ strategy of portraying social groups through portraits of individuals, Howard Becker writes that “the life a person has lived, its good times and bad, leaves its marks. Someone who has lived a happy life will have a face that shows that. Someone who has managed to maintain their human dignity in the face of trouble will have a face that shows that…” (The quote is actually found in his book Writing for Social Scientists (pg. 74) and comes from an early draft of an article.)
However, this is not always true. Those who have means and access to cosmetics try to alter their appearance, and in the Western world, this often means applying lotions and make up or even the extremes of cosmetic surgery to look young and carefree. I have even noticed this tendency in myself. In the past year, quite likely as a result of some very difficult experiences and the subsequent stress, lack of sleep, and ill-health, I’ve noticed new lines appearing around my eyes that I would very much like to erase, so I dutifully apply lotion around my eyes each day. It is almost as if wiping away the traces of the trials would also remove the deeper, unseen scars or at least it would hide them better. We don’t want to admit that life can be hard, and most of us don’t want reminders of how much life’s challenges effect us every time we look in the mirror.
Presenting a youthful, unwrinkled face to the world lets us portray a person who has their act together and is able to float through life without much resistance. It gives the illusion of an easy life and one of which we are fully in command. We would very much like to believe this about ourselves, and perhaps if we can convince others, we may be able to convince ourselves as well.
Of course, this is not the only reason for the pursuit of beauty or the desire to look young. However, I wonder if we as a society valued age, wisdom and experience more (and the wrinkles acquired along the way) if it would help us face the prospect of aging with less trepidation.