As a child, I had freckles on my nose and cheeks. My body was not covered in freckles like some of my childhood friends, but I didn’t like that I had freckles anywhere on my body. My distain for my freckles was well known to my family.
One day, my great-grandfather, Sterling Grim, told me a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch remedy for removing freckles. He said that on May 1 — very early while the dew is still on the grass — you get naked, go outside, and wash your face with the dew and wipe your hands on your backside. The freckles would disappear from your face and end up on your backside. Believing my great-grandfather to be a wise man, I took him up on his suggestion.
On May 1 that year, I got up very early, took off my pajamas, went outside naked, and washed my face with the morning dew, wiping my hands on my backside. Surprisingly, the old traditional remedy worked! My freckles did disappear — but not right away. In fact, my freckles didn’t disappear until I got much older.
I guess my great-grandfather, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, knew what he was talking about. Only, he never told me about all the other spots that would appear on my body as I aged!
Many children are troubled with their appearance. It might not be freckles. Perhaps it’s the shape of their bodies (too skinny or too husky), lack of physical strength or ability playing sports, or having to wear eyeglasses or braces.
However, children are not the only ones who can be fixated on their appearance. Ageism in our society can manipulate adults into shame-based product purchasing or undergoing medical or surgical procedures to make us look and feel younger. Ageism can be destructive to our self-esteem and relationships. Self-directed ageism — how we feel about ourselves as aging persons — may cause fear and anxiety about growing old.
Reflecting society’s obsession with youthfulness and appearance, ageist media messages depict later life and signs of aging as objectionable and encourage older persons to embrace consumerism and the anti-aging movement. Anti-aging remedies to improve wrinkles, mask gray hair, and soften skin are present everywhere. From face creams to face-lifts, Botox, and surgical body shaping, many adults go to great lengths to look younger.
I am not opposed to products or procedures that make people feel good about themselves. I owned a small sports car for many years until recently. I traded the car when I could no longer easily climb in or out of it!
I also recognize beauty is personal and we should be free to do as we please. My concern is the underlying feelings that drive many or most of these behaviors — namely fear, shame, and embarrassment.
When we internalize ageist discourses that equate physical attractiveness with youthfulness and aged appearances as being devalued and unappealing, we risk our God-given ability to acknowledge and embrace the process of aging — something we embark upon the day we’re born. Do we believe scripture when we read, “The glory of youth is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair?” (Proverbs 20:29)
Learning to accept ourselves as we age can be an important lesson for many of us. Consider accepting:
- The changes in our physical appearance and not be dragged downed by them
- The limitations of body and mind that stand in the way of accomplishments
- The reality that our years remaining are growing shorter rather than longer
- That our life may not be what we had originally thought, hoped for, or predicted, but it is the life we have lived and we have done so with integrity, honesty, and faith
- The joyous facts that in old age, as in all ages, we are loved by God and that our spirits need never grow old
The Bible reveals to us in Psalm 90:5-6 our human years are “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” We are called and invited to count our days not in fear, but in hope, trust, and with love.
In her book, Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It, Tracey Gendron writes, “The definition of old has to do with having lived or existed for a long time. The definition of young has to do with having lived or existed for a short time. Despite what you and I have been taught, young and old age are not either good or bad states of being – they just are.”
Neither being old nor young should lead us to value judgements about our appearance or behavioral expectations concerning our actions. Wrinkles, gray hair, or sagging bodies, should never get in the way of our becoming our true selves as we age.
The following is a beautiful story spanning generations with a timeless lesson for all. The author is unknown but the message is clear.
An elderly woman and her little grandson, whose face was sprinkled with bright freckles, spent the day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their faces painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws.
“You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line said to the boy.
Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head.
His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl, I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek. “Freckles are beautiful!”
The boy looked up, “Really?”
“Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why, just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.”
The little boy thought for a moment, then peered intensely into his grandmother’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Ageism will not cease without the acknowledgement that with aging we become old. That’s how God made us. As Becca Levy points out in her book, Breaking the Age Code, older adults who have positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively compared with those with more negative perceptions.
Gray hair can be masked with hair dye. Sagging flesh and drooping skin can be strategically covered with clothing. Facial wrinkles can be concealed by cosmetic surgery and creams. For some people, declining physical attractiveness is met with sadness, dismay, and a determination to do everything possible to change the inevitable.
Reeve Lindbergh wrote in her book Forward from Here, “One reaches a time in life when the attempt to look gorgeous requires an effort greater than any result it can possibly produce. That’s when it makes sense to make friends with reality.”
Aging is how God made living things. I’m making friends with reality. How about you?
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-400-0539.