Confucius taught that everything has beauty, but that not everyone may be able to see it. American culture has seemingly turned a blind eye to many forms of beauty; indeed, for a multitude of Americans, it may be difficult to conceive of a beauty that is not fleeting or naive. Although beauty is supposed to be found in the eye of its beholder, we often find ourselves programmed to view beauty as an objectifiable, uniform concept. It is, of course, easy to heap blame on the media or on the endless flow of retouched photographs filling fashion magazines for creating an illusion of perfection, an ideal that does not really exist in nature. While I love fashion design as much as the next American woman, as a consumer and as a mental health professional, I find it important to celebrate individualism and embrace imperfection.
That which a society prioritizes or considers beautiful can have a tremendous mental health impact on its citizens. Older adults make up the fastest growing population in the U.S. Women over 60--so often absent from fashion magazines, and marginalized in television and film--can be made to feel invisible to the rest of society. This is a major risk factor in developing anxiety and depression, the most common non-neuropsychiatric disorder among the elderly. Worldwide, approximately 15% of the elderly population live with a mental disorder. This number is alarming considering that this segment of the world's population will go from 12% to 22% between 2015 and 2050.
Women over 60 struggle with all the same common life stressors as younger women, but many also have to cope with a decline in both physical and mental agility, chronic medical conditions, and loss of cohorts. All of these life stressors combined can lead to feeling isolated and lonely. Loneliness and isolation can be mitigated, however, by revising our cultural perceptions of aging. How can we do this? We can start by shifting our perception of beauty, taking inspiration from Eastern cultures that cherish and celebrate the elderly, rather than segregate them out from the rest of society.
Resilience is also a protective factor that guards against mental illness. To build resilience among this population, we could guarantee their visibility in our communities. And, while it's nice that we've tapped gray, and even white, as the hair colors du jour amongst young and old alike, we're still not doing enough. Older adults have much more to contribute to our society. For starters, they have an enormous store of wisdom from a lifetime of experience in the world. So, how can we change the culture to celebrate, rather than segregate older men and women? A few actions we could take as a community that would have a huge impact on this population include, (1) eliminating age discrimination in the workplace (last time I checked, wisdom and experience were valuable employee assets), (2) featuring more women over 60 in fashion and beauty magazines, (3) stopping the practice of retouching photographs in the media, or further lauding those celebrities who point out when they have been airbrushed, (4) creating more leading roles for women over 60 in film, and (5) creating more space for fashion design that celebrates age as beauty.
Building resilience and changing how we define beauty will not only serve as important protective factors for this population, but it will also help us see the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. Aging is a natural part of being alive. To believe otherwise is illusory. Everything that exists in our natural world gets older and changes over time. Insects, plants, fish, animals, humans, and even the stars in what falsely appears an ageless sky age over time, eventually completing their respective life cycles. It's time we start accepting the truth about life, instead of denying reality. In this way we can all live life more fully, embracing the beauty in everything, including the process of life itself. Quoting Ernest Becker, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlines everything." Because, let's be honest, our fascination with youth is merely a way of denying our mortality.