Age-Defying Oprah: Denial, Delusion or Dermabrasion?

05/19/2011 01:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

I just can't get my arms around the wild contradictions in women's magazines these days. The latest comes our way in the May issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, with its special theme: "Love the Age You Are." Oprah sums it up in her "What I Know for Sure" editorial page. So what does Oprah know for sure?

"For sure we live in a youth-obsessed culture that is constantly trying to tell us that if we're not young and glowing and 'hot,' we don't matter," Oprah writes. "The entire television ratings/advertising system is set up to serve the 18-to-54 demographic." Oprah decries the problem of age-denying, and then she gets out her guns: "I refuse to let a system, a culture, a distorted view of reality tell me I don't matter," she writes. "That only happens when we buy into the propaganda."

How refreshing, I think, to hear Oprah rail with such conviction against the deceptions of our age-defying culture. But wait. Then I browse through O. I try to ignore its abundant advertising ("propaganda") peddling "age-defying" products to make us feel "young and glowing and hot." Then I get to the May issue's centerpiece: A five-page, four-color spread called "How Do You Feel About Your Face?"

Each page features a split image of the same woman with her face divided in half. The left half is her "real" face -- meaning the face of an attractive woman in her mid-50s with typical signs of age: crow's feet, forehead creases, eye puffiness, subtle brown spots, nasolabial folds.

The right half of the photograph shows the same woman's face modified by beauty products and increasingly aggressive "anti-age" tactics (although really, the modification was probably achieved through Photoshop). In the first photo, called "Easy Does It," the right side of the woman's face is modified by makeup and cream. The next page, "The Middle Way," shows her right side modified by needles and lasers. The last page, "No Holds Barred," goes whole hog with scalpels and sutures.

No surprise: In each photo the right side of the woman's face gets dramatically younger while the left side face remains the same (wrinkles and imperfections intact). Meanwhile, the virtues of a parade of familiar arms in the beauty arsenal are trumpeted: Retinoid creams, Botox, hyaluronic acid injections, brow-lifts, fractional ablative laser treatments, blepharoplasty and facelifts. By the time we get to the "No Holds Barred" page, a good 30 years have been shaved off her face in a transmutation that would make Joan Rivers cry. A final page gives us "The Skinny on Skin Treatments," brought to us by an expert panel of dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons. At the bottom, the fine print directs readers to a "Shop Guide."

So is this editorial, or is it advertising? Does it even matter these days? In this grey zone of mixed messages, it's the culture of self-reinvention that brings us our most glaring contradictions -- those that exist between the self-empowerment, "Be Your Authentic Self!" editorials and the relentless advertising eye candy and articles about how to look as young, "hot," thin and fabulous as possible.

How do we rise above the contradictions? "I refuse to let a system, a culture, a distorted view of reality tell me I don't matter," Oprah writes in her May op-ed. "That only happens when we buy into the propaganda." So don't buy into the propaganda, right? No small task when nearly every women's magazine is filled with it.

Now, before I sound like a malcontent, don't get me wrong. I'm not above vanity. I color my hair. I buy lots of face cream. I love eye-liner and lipstick. I think O is filled with intelligent and important pieces written by the best authors around. That's why I expect Oprah, whose powerful effect on mainstream culture is predicated on raising social awareness of issues and promoting authenticity, to offer American women a more honest and nuanced editorial on the realities of aging. With her giant media empire, surely she has the power to shape the editorial content of O, or at least her own op-ed. Is she too busy running other fiefdoms in her kingdom to pay much attention to it? "People who lie about their age are denying the truth and contributing to a sickness pervading our society -- the sickness of wanting to be what you're not," she reassert. Why, then, is the heart of that same issue an ode to that very sickness?

Surely Oprah could have offered us a little more realism (even complexity!) about the vagaries of aging in her May op-ed. Or write about something unrelated -- say, the virtues of French bulldogs -- instead of rallying so vehemently against the age-defying messages at the heart of that very issue. One hopes she's not too entrenched in the very system that she laments to notice the contradictions in the message that the May issue of O sends.

In this media bog, the biggest losers are girls. There's a new generation of young women who misconstrue women's magazines as gospel and begin "age-defying" as early as their 20s, using the very needles, scalpels and sutures described in "How Do You Feel About Your Face?" How sad it must be to worry about growing old when you're still young. What a bummer to grow up with the pressure of being simultaneously self-empowered and "hot" at all times.

Oprah, of course, is not the villain here. She gets it. "Denial leads to delusion," she writes. Sure it does, and ditto for age-defying and age-denying. So why can't women's magazines -- hers included -- bone up and stop being delusional?

Okay, so maybe I have become a malcontent. Or maybe I'm just getting old. That said, I'm not sure I'd want to relive my 20s, partly because I kind of like being a grown-up. I'm reminded of what Dorothy Canfield Fisher once said: "One of the many things nobody ever tells you about middle age is that it's such a nice change from being young." My bet is that Fisher, born in the Before Botox era, probably felt just fine about her face.