Fleeting Lives to Lead

This year, at the age of 21, I found my first grey hair.

It may have been a trick of the light. It may have been a paranoid hallucination. Or it may just be that time, as it inevitably must, is starting to rear its head.

My first reaction was to cut it off and forget about it. Bury it in the deepest, darkest crevices of my mind and no one else need ever know. Except that I am aware that one day, possibly sooner than I would like, I will find another one. Even if it takes another few years, the fact is that the ageing process will kick-in and I am utterly powerless to stop it. Such is our lot – as human beings we are all too aware of our mortal lives and the short time we have to enjoy them.

Why, then, given the short time that we have to enjoy ourselves, do we spend so much of it living in fear? One glance at the skincare section in Boots will give you an idea of the hostile attitude we hold towards ageing: a hostility that stems from a severe terror of looking our age. It is fair enough to feel anxious about the infirmity that comes with old-age, but for a young woman of thirty to be so ashamed of her wrinkles that she feels the need to inject poison into her face is downright irrational.

This fear of the ageing process is part of society’s more general obsession with unrealistically high standards of “beauty”. Women and girls of all ages are taught that in order to be worthy (of what, I am not sure) they must conform to certain ideals. The ideal woman must be skinny, tall, graceful in high-heels; have “flawless” skin, straight, shiny hair with absolutely no greys; sport hairless legs, armpits and anywhere else you can think of. Compare the way you feel you should look with every woman you know and you will find that the ideal woman does not exist.

And although I can only speak as a woman, I’m sure there are similar pressures for men. The media gradually feeds us an idea of perfection and then we learn to hate ourselves when we inevitably fail to achieve it. This self-loathing then fuels our compulsion to consume more and more products that will bring us that little bit closer to how we think we want to look.

None of this is new, of course. It’s what feminists have been fighting against for years. So why do we still buy into it? Perhaps it is part of the human condition, of our inherent tendency to long for something better than what we have – a warped version of the utopianism of Enlightenment philosophers, or the socialist revolutionaries of the early 20th century. For them it was perpetual peace and the fundamental equality of all humankind; for us it is being mistaken for 35 at the age of 40.

Then again, perhaps it is a symptom of a society that is inevitably, at its core, heavily materialistic.

On the surface, the global recession has put a dent in our consumerism – spending is down, this much we know. However, without this spending our prospects for economic recovery, we are told, are bleak.

Such is the nature of the machine – we must continue to spend more and more, lest the cogs come to a complete halt and we find ourselves with no engine to drive us nor any system to guide us. In these circumstances we have little choice but to keep on consuming, and the cosmetics and fashion industries act as mere players in a dastardly and elaborate game that extends well beyond their authority.

A vague sense of inadequacy and self-loathing is therefore essential to the economic system in which we function. For the moment we feel truly content we will stop buying, and the moment we stop buying is the moment we stop contributing, becoming nothing but spare parts.

What choice do we have, then, but to despair a little when old-age starts to set-in? To be openly old in this world is one of the worst crimes one can commit, for it shows both a blatant disregard for the feminine ideal and an unwillingness to consume.

As someone who has already balked at the sight of a grey hair, I can only hope that when the next one comes along I will have more courage. I do not want to live my life in fear of the next wrinkle or blemish.

With such fleeting lives to lead, we could all do with a bit of perspective – hair dye will not stop time from passing, and it will not make you a better human being. Why not try growing old gracefully?


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