A culture’s fear of aging

aging 4Two weeks ago I came across a book titled How to Age as I strolled through the snowy streets of Brooklyn. The book, written by Anne Karpf, criticized people’s fear of aging and promoted advanced adulthood as a nurturing life stage. To illustrate negative views of aging, Karpf used an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science in 2000 as an example:

In a booth open only to children under 15, participants had their photo taken and then, at the press of a button, a simulation appeared, showing what they’d look like at yearly intervals until the age of 69. The computer added grotesque pouches and blotches, elongated and sagged their faces and gave them heavily rutted lines. The boys lost their hair. No one looked good, reported the cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette, let alone humorous, contented or beautiful – the software engineers had based the algorithm on ‘older equals ugly.’ No wonder the children emerged shaken, saying ‘I don’t want to grow old.’

Karpf’s critique made a valuable point. Equating aging with ugliness is insensitive and simplistic. But it also overlooked an important issue. Modern children in the U.S.—living in urban centers and away from extended family networks—rarely get to stand face-to-face with their elders. Wouldn’t it seem valuable, then, to familiarize them with these imperfect images? Karpf’s conclusion was much different—she condemned the exhibit as grotesque:

The Boston exhibit embodied a whole set of entrenched cultural beliefs that prevent us from seeing our lives as a single, finite entity. It estranged the children from their future selves, encouraging in them instead the desire to freeze at one particular age. Welcome to the world of anti-aging: for, as these children grow, they’ll encounter many more reasons to fear their own aging, making it even harder for them to conceive of their lives as an entity.

I have no idea what these images actually looked like, and I’m sure they weren’t pretty. But Karpf’s critique seemed like an oversensitive stretch. It reminded me of the old fairy tale debate, Are the Grimm brothers’ fairytales too crude for kids now-a-days? For all we know, the exhibit might have been a humorous prank designed by software engineers to terrify children. Have we lost our capacity to laugh at ourselves? When I think of the terrified parents of these children, I can’t help but wonder if we have become too engrossed with youth and beauty to accept the less attractive (but natural) parts of aging.

Karpf is better known for her work as a columnist for The Guardian, where she writes about older people’s issues. I have to admit that in spite of her oversensitive assessment, I’ve become quite a fan of hers.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor

aging 3

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall


Black and white drawing is “Fear of Aging” by Scarlett Royal.

Image below signature is footage from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher (2008).


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