I can’t understand the term “anti-aging.”
Ditto for its equally baffling synonyms: “age-defying,” “age-reversing,” “age-perfecting,” “age-deflecting” and “de-aging” (a neologism that suggests the patina of time can be sprayed off with the same stuff used to de-ice airplanes).
It’s not that I’m linguistically challenged. I can easily parse “anti-wrinkle” and “anti-cellulite”: furrows and dimples are visible, concrete attributes. For those who view them as the skin equivalent of senescence, be my guest: rage, rage against the appearance of cellulite.
But to be “anti-aging” seems about as logical as being “anti-Tuesday” or “anti-weather.” Like them or not, Tuesdays and rain will come. As will skin aging, even though a number of face creams position themselves as time machines, promising to stop the biological clock, rewind the hours of sun exposure or even, as one recent ad campaign put it, “get 10 years back.”
A nonsense word, and yet it’s everywhere: the inevitable Google search turned up three million references. (Anyone for Natural Anti-Aging Butter Premium Grade A Shea Butter?)
How did such an oblique term so entrench itself in our everyday vocabulary? As far back as the ancients, humans have searched for immortality and have employed words that connote longevity, said Erin McKean, the chief consulting editor of the American Dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. “We’ve been using ‘rejuvenate,’ meaning to restore youth, to make young again, as a verb for at least 200 years,” she said. “Anti-aging,” however, is a relative newcomer. “ ‘Anti’ means something we don’t like. ‘Aging’ has been bad ever since we figured out it led to dying.”
Though the term has been used for decades, it became popular in the late ’80s; McKean found a 1984 article on “anti-aging” in The Washington Post describing an investigation into medical quackery. Conducted by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the investigation found arthritis cures made of “moon dust,” ground diamonds being sold as cancer medicines, “and anti-aging serums containing placenta extracts, amino acids or other worthless chemicals.”
About that time, “anti-aging” started showing up in the names of cosmetics and other products. McKean theorized that the term caught on because it’s so amorphous, allowing for vague-sounding product claims. “If you say ‘anti-aging,’ how anti would it have to be, really?” she asked. “My guess is not much. Any amount of sunscreen could be considered anti-aging.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with aging interventions. After all, anyone who takes cholesterol medicine is not aging naturally. But buying into anti-aging products seems to say something deeper about our collective bid for immortality through technology — or at least an immortal exterior. It doesn’t seem to matter if the products have a physical effect as long as they have an emotional one. Like alchemy, they posit the idea that we can engage against time.
And that’s the thing. “Anti-aging” can connote many things — death-defying, youth-prolonging, appearance-enhancing — but underneath, our obsession with the term is really just a symptom of our contemporary malaise: age-phobia.
“Anti-aging” means to this generation what “anti-war” meant in the ’60s, said Nina Jablonski, the head of the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University. It’s a kind of collective term for our fears and dislikes, she said. “ ‘Anti-aging’ is one of the words that has slipped into the language in this decade because everything connected to natural aging is anathema,” said Jablonski, the author of “Skin: A Natural History.” “It doesn’t matter if it’s anti-aging breakfast cereal or bath salts or a particular flavored water that one drinks at the gym. Anti-aging is equated with not being old, and especially not looking it.”
We’ve experienced the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war against AIDS and the war on terror. Now we are witnessing the war on aging. Once a fact of life, aging is emerging as a malady to be fought with the same vigor as, say, cancer. The International Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine and Regenerative Biomedical Technologies, which first met in 1993 with 12 physicians, expects more than 3,000 attendees this month.
Perhaps the biggest downside to the anti-aging mania might be felt by those who do not wish to participate in it, making people who busy themselves with occupations other than the Sisyphean fight against wrinkles and bulges feel like they lie outside the popular norm.
Allen Ginsberg, ever the gadfly of the human condition, once referred to himself in an early verse as “this clock of meat.” He was 23.
Now, almost 60 years later, some analysts are setting the decline of human attractiveness at an even younger age. At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Eva Ritvo, the vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Miami’s medical school, told a room of cosmetic doctors that age 14 is when a girl’s lips reach their peak of fullness. After that, she said, “it’s an uphill battle.”
As for this clock of meat, it’s enough to make me anti-anti-aging.