Aging is (Not) Unnatural

Laurie and Debbie say:

Cross-posted to Feministe. All photographs by Laurie Toby Edison.

Some photos below may not be okay for office viewing.

After our introductory post on Feministe last week, Daisy Deadhead asked if we wrote about age as a body image issue, since we hadn’t happened to mention it in that post. Great question!


We think age is a crucial body image issue, especially in this culture. On the one hand, we have the multi-million dollar “beauty” industry and ad agencies all striving to squeeze every dollar they can out of making us hate our bodies. On the other hand, we have the medical establishment frantically trying to make every human variation into a medical condition. Aging is just about the most fruitful area either of these groups can pick on. Contrary to all of this noise, aging is normal.


Used to be, “aging” started somewhere around the 40s. Now, especially for women, “aging” starts before you’re 30. Since the only definition of “hot” is 25-or-under (and often younger than that), you’re out of the race. (Some of us don’t think we need to run, but for millions of women, it’s terrifying.) Is anything sagging? Is your skin starting to change texture? Toning equipment and skin creams are there to solve your problems.


Not too much later, the doctors get into the act. “Perimenopause” has been completely medicalized, and is basically treated as a chronic condition. Once you’re past it and into menopause, then the complicated question of hormones has to be addressed. Some doctors are starting to recommend that men replace their (naturally decreasing) testosterone as an anti-aging supplement.

It’s not like the corporations take a vacation while the doctors get busy: natural changes in your aging body are subject to both commercial and medical attention. The Botox providers need money, as do the labiaplasty doctors who will make women’s pubes look young again. Cosmetics and plastic surgery for men are becoming more and more popular all the time. Executive face-lifts for both men and women are common. The exercise machine manufacturers and the gyms don’t just talk about health and fitness: they also talk, constantly, about youthfulness. (By the way, this keeps people out of gyms in droves. Many people would exercise more if they didn’t feel like failures because it never makes them look younger.)


Whether or not you follow all these rules, buy all these products, work at looking young, inevitably (unless you are seriously unlucky) you’re going to get to a point where you’re not looking young any more. Then what you’re really supposed to do is disappear (although active versions of people your age will show up on TV all the time, buying Depends, and energy products, and other commodities). A few years ago, we were at a BlogHer session, and one of the presenters asked people to name the identity you felt most uncomfortable revealing. Women were talking about everything from being Jewish to being queer, and everyone was nodding. Laurie raised her hand and said, “I always talk about my age, which is 62, even though it sometimes makes other people uncomfortable.” For the rest of the weekend, women kept coming up to her, thanking her, and telling her how brave she was. Announcing her age in public was clearly a much more transgressive act than talking about sexual orientation.


Everyone who lives long enough ages. Everyone’s body changes as they age. While there’s a certain amount of general predictability to the course of aging, the specific changes are very variable from person to person. Some of them are difficult to cope with; others are not. Some people stay healthy and active into their 90s; others don’t. Youth does not have a monopoly on beauty.

Like so many other body image issues facing us today, it isn’t aging that’s the issue, it’s how we treat aging.

10 thoughts on “Aging is (Not) Unnatural

  1. This is an amazing article, and the pictures are beautiful. I am an artist who finds the human body wonderous at all ages, shapes, size or sex, so this blog post is right in line with my own veiws. Several thoughts – in many ways the anti-aging prejudice and industry is most injurious to the young. They are taught a in a thousand subtle ways that growing old is a tragedy and something to be avoided at any price tag. This means that as their bodies inevitably age and change, they have no narrative to connect with that gives them a healthy perception of aging.

    I was more fortunate than most – by relationships with older people, in particular with my grandmothers, when I was young, I developed my own understanding of aging, its strengths and beauties. That is another barrier built into the culture – there is no intergenerational contact to create these naratives and alliances between the young and the old. The elderly are warehoused in nursing homes and extended care facilities, and few families truly see to it that the younger generations have that contact. I grew up in my grandmothers home – my mother was born in the upstairs room. My grandmother taught me to read, taught me that age does not make you a non person, taught me even that death is not a horrible tragedy, but the natural turn of the wheel.
    I am 47 years old. Age and time are intersecting for me in an unforeseen way – I am Gender Dysphoric and identifying as trans/queer. My body is female, totally – at this point I present masculine. I am not intending on surgery or T. I tend to train wreck people to some degree, sometimes painfully so as I live in a dangerously conservative area (we have had gay – bashing murder not far from us.) When I was younger, I was a factory worker doing a mans job fabricating metal. (and no – not getting paid what my male counter-parts got paid. Post for another time!) I worked long hours and my body was muscular and toughened by my employment. More masculine, you might say. At the time, my awareness of my gender differences were masked by the subculture of the southern factory I worked in. There were women there far tougher, butcher than me, who were utterly straight, with kids and grandkids who would have been profoundly insulted if you had questioned their sexual and gender identity as anything other than heterosexual.
    It is only as I have left the factory, and pursued my art that my self awareness has changed over the years. I lost about 5 years of my life to increasing degenerative arthritis, and finally had a hip replacement about a year and a half ago.
    Inevitiably, time, age and disability have caught up with me – I am no longer muscled, or nearly as “butch”as I was. Age has softened my body, rounding it, feminizing it. This became profoundly uncomfortable for me, forcing me for the first time to ask and answer some difficult frightening questions – and the answer is, yes, I am trans. Yes, age and body image affect that. I find myself wondering how many other trans people, both FtM and MtF and all those between, have found that the changes of middle age brought about the awareness of their identities, or heightened their discomfort with the dichotomy of their bodies and their identity.
    Finally, I feel as though there is a direct, though subtle, connection between the disaproval of age, particularly and profound for women, and the over arcing narative of male patriarchy, dominance and heteronormative binary culture. Movies constantly pair increasingly older men with increasingly younger women as the objects of desire and relationship. Pornography has been making the point that any woman looking barely 18 is in their prime – and the portrayal of some of these women leave me wishing I could check their drivers licenses! This is linked to the myth of beauty, the despoilation of innocence and the rejection of age. For men it is held up as not the loss of beauty, but the loss of virility.
    I am very grateful to you for addressing this and other issues on your blog. Please continue your profound exploration of the human condition, and I will be following with deep interest!

  2. Cameron,

    I’m glad you like my work. I really thank you for your words about the blog. The encouragement is good for me.

    It’s sounds like you were very fortunate in your relationships with older people. I also had a wonderful grandmother.

    I agree with your comments on aging in this culture.

    I have a good friend who is an FTM, who did indeed experience in middle age increased levels of both his awareness of identity changes of of gender dysphoria. He transitioned in his 50s.

    Thank you for your complex and thoughtful comment. I appreciate its strength and clarity. Debbie, Marlene and I felt like it added a great deal to the discussion.

  3. These are beautiful photos!

    I sell health supplements, so I do have ‘permission’ to ask folks’ ages. People are all wound up about it, even men.

    I would call it pathological, the fear of aging in our culture.

  4. This is such a wonderful and refreshing post–the human body is beautiful in all shapes and sizes!

    I’m 40 this year and proud of it–thanks for the inspirational post!

  5. yeah, thanks for this. i am 36 and already experiencing a profound sense of pressure over aging – this began at about the age of 27 or so i would say. i think i am resisting pretty well and managed the transition from superannuated teenager (how i felt towards the end of my 20s) to young, and now to mature adult. but i still have bad days… there is something messed up about a society where the majority wish is to freeze-frame one’s persona and appearance at what is really a fairly early, unformed stage of development – i think to become fully adult and enjoying the blessings of aging and experience – of which there are many, i’m beginning to know -in the face of this unholy eternal youth cult is one of the greatest personal challenges facing my generation. but back to me – i am a hetero-tomboy who broke up with a longish term (cross-dressing!) boyfriend just over a year ago – i have not had sex with anyone since then, and while i’m pretty confident about how i “present” with clothes on, and i like my face a lot, still i am actually terrified about being naked with anyone new. you know, i see the way my belly creases, when i move my legs up in a certain way – and it freaks me out. i have the pathological idea lurking around that any man who would be into my body as it is now would have to be someone with very “niche” tastes – men, after all, are as bombarded by the youth-cult and it’s airbrushed women as we ourselves are -. ridiculous – probably – still, at least now that i am aware of this demon i can address it. more power to you!

  6. oh yeah, cameron, thanks for bringing your grandmother into it. at 93 my wrinkled, tiny whitehaired mrs pepperpot of a granny is considered a great beauty, so she can be my example too. ok so maybe she’s got “good” cheekbones, but it comes down to the grace, stoicism, commonsense, and generosity of spirit which radiate from her rather tubby person. very very old ladies rule.

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