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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. Headshot

The Culture Of Anti-Aging

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I was skipping alongside my granddaughter Sadie the other day, when she paused to say: "Grandma, you're like a little kid in an old person's body." Perceptive and blunt -- as 3-year-olds are -- I wasn't sure what to make of her observation. When I realized it was exactly how I felt, I decided to take it as a compliment.

You see, I've never kept my age a secret and feel fortunate to be strong and fit at this stage of my life. Of course, there's effort involved in maintaining my vitality -- regular exercise, healthy eating and good grooming habits. And, sure there are routine visits to my physical therapist. But most importantly, I make sure I have reasons to smile. I love my work as a psychologist and writer -- professions that fortunately improve with age. My children keep me busy, but also bring me lots of joy. And, yes, skipping with my grandchild helps too. At this point of my so-called "mid-life," I have no plans to surgically halt the inevitable signs of aging that are visible on my face or body. Instead, I will try to wring every drop of happiness and fulfillment as I can out of the years that lie ahead.

So, it was with some sadness that I read about 83-year-old, Marie Kolstad, a great-grandmother from California, who opted to undergo cosmetic surgery -- a three-hour, $8000 procedure -- that she said would make her family "proud" of how she looked. In an interview with ABC News she said surgical breast enhancement was "a simple way to go," to look as young as she feels.

"I didn't think it was a big deal, " said Ms. Kolstad, a full time property manager with four children, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. In addition to hoping to please her family, she said going from a 32A to a 36C was a necessity if she wanted to attract a male companion. "That's not going to happen if you don't have the figure these geezers are looking for," remarked Kolstad.

Kolstad is not unique among her peers in deciding to enhance her looks through cosmetic surgery. According to The New York Times, there are many "septuagenarians, octogenarians and even nonagenarians who are burnishing their golden years with help from the plastic surgeon." The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported 84,685 surgical procedures among patients age 65 and older in 2010, including 26,635 face-lifts; 24,783 cosmetic eyelid operations; 6,469 liposuctions; 5,874 breast reductions; 3,875 forehead lifts; 3,339 breast lifts and 2,414 breast augmentations. Baby Boomers are currently the largest group requesting both non-invasive and cosmetic surgical procedures.

While there is some evidence that plastic surgery can increase self-esteem, there's little research to support the positive impact it has on 70- and 80-year-olds. Does anyone really believe that Holstad's grandchildren really cared about her wrinkles and sags -- let alone the shape of her breasts -- or were enthused about her decision to have surgery?

In my practice, I hear the opposite reaction. Offspring are often quite disturbed when they see their parents or grandparents undergo cosmetic alterations. Ms. Kolstad may view surgery as "no big deal," but as with any invasive procedure, there are risks involved. Adult children know that going under anesthesia is a big deal and that the risks increase with age. Watching the recovery is frightening too -- yes, bruises take longer to heal, and aging skin appears more fragile and lacks youthful resilience. Husbands, children and grandchildren wonder, "Why would you do this when we love you just the way you are?"

Surely no one blames Ms. Kolstad for wanting to look vital, active, and even sexy and sensual at her age. Some may even applaud her. We are all living longer and few of us are willing to fade away or resign ourselves to quietly disappearing in senior citizen homes. Kolstad, like the rest of us, has been reminded all too often about the importance of defying age, not only to keep our mates, but to secure our jobs from being usurped by those who look younger. Condemning Ms. Kolstad is to condemn an entire anti-aging culture. But is our only recourse the surgical alteration of our faces and bodies?

What happened to aging gracefully by focusing on the qualities that accrue with maturity and that make us attractive at any age? How about those who are still capable of turning heads when they walk into a room -- not because of their gravity-defying breasts, but because of their elegance, their warmth and their brilliant smiles. Gloria Steinem, at 77 -- recently in public view promoting the new documentary, "Gloria: In Her Own Words" -- continues to serve as a graceful role model for women. Then there's Betty White, who was just voted "most appealing celebrity" in an e-poll this year.

And, what about the complicated message that surgeries like Ms. Kolstad's send to the generations that follow? Don't they reinforce the belief that looking older is to be feared; that it is imperative to wage battle against an aging appearance at the risk of our health and financial well-being? Is there ever a point when we just say, it's time to deal with our changing looks with greater acceptance rather than resistance?

By implication, Ms. Kolstad's actions seem to suggest that there is no age where we draw the line. If we're never too old, then maybe we're also never too young to correct our "imperfections." Let's not forget the recent peauty pageant contestant whose mom felt she was just the right age, at 8-years-old, to receive Botox injections for that "perfect" look!

Maybe Ms. Kolstad has been taking advice from actress Jane Fonda, who recently talked about how to look hot and sexy at age 73? Although she has previously made no secret about her eating disorder and struggles over her aging appearance, she spends 50 pages of her new autobiography, "Primetime," sharing her secrets for looking and feeling younger. And while we may admire her candor, it seems unreasonable for everyday women to view Fonda's artfully reconstructed body as a model for success. Wouldn't it be more useful to talk about sexuality at 70 and 80 in terms of sensuality and intimacy -- qualities that are ageless -- rather than focusing on being hot and sexy through surgical alterations?

I steer clear of fashioning myself after movie stars, or for that matter anyone whose life is about perfecting their appearance in print and on screen (or making sure Photoshop does)! Instead, my role models come from everyday life. Like my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Marcia, who somehow still commands attention when she enters a room with her flaming white hair, her straight back and her radiant smile. No doubt her self-confidence is aided by the fact that her 99-year-old husband, Arthur, is palpably in love with her. There's a noticeable easy intimacy in their exchanges. They hold hands and show each other genuine affection. Arthur frequently can be heard telling Marcia how beautiful she is, yet I don't think a surgically sculpted "hot and sexy" is what he has in mind.

Neither Marcia nor Arthur have had plastic surgery. They seem to accept that their lives are growing increasingly constricted -- Arthur is hard of hearing and Marcia is losing her vision -- but they continue to appreciate the faculties and abilities they have. My mother-in-law tends her lovely garden, while my father-in-law reads voraciously. With Marcia's sight failing, Arthur reads books out loud to her. Every once in a while they pause to talk about what they've read and to acknowledge how fortunate they are to have each other, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- even if they can no longer skip with them.

Do you have a role model for aging gracefully? Do you think there should be age restrictions on cosmetic surgery?

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com and www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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