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Images of ageing

Updated Wednesday 18th December 2013

If there's nothing wrong with being old, why do people attempt to look younger than they are? In this debate, we look at society's images of ageing.

Please note: The views expressed in this debate are all genuine, but in order to encourage open debate they were captured off-camera. The video below features people sharing views randomly assigned to them, which may not reflect their personal beliefs, nor those of The Open University as a whole.

Video

Transcript

CAROLINE

Beccy, your hair's looking nice today, have you just coloured it?

REBECCA

I have.  I'm feeling a bit guilty about it actually.

CAROLINE

Guilty?

REBECCA

Yes, well, here I am, I spend my life, I'm a gerontologist, I spend my life telling people you shouldn't discriminate against people on the grounds of being old.  There's nothing wrong with being old!  And here I am dying my hair to cover up the grey.

CAROLINE

But would you feel the same if you say, you know, just changed the style or curled it or done it differently?

REBECCA

No.

CAROLINE

Is it specifically about the colouring?

REBECCA

It's about the grey, you know, because whether your hair is straight or curly, it's neither here nor there, but if your hair's grey then that's, you know, people see you as older and, you know.  I feel as if all I'm doing is making my hair look how I want it to look.  But actually how I want it to look is how it looked about ten years ago, not how it looks nowadays.  That just feels a bit hypocritical of me.

CAROLINE

You feel as if you're kind of betraying older people in a way.

REBECCA

That's right, that's right, as if I'm kind of pretending to be younger than I am.

CAROLINE

Okay.

JONATHAN

Are you betraying older people or older women, because men don't sort of have the same issues about their hair exactly do you feel?

REBECCA

Perhaps not, no, no, but then perhaps older men have other ways of dealing with it, like having a very short haircut.

JONATHAN

Short haircut, no that's true, that's true.  No, we also do try and present an image of what we'd like to have and hair, because it's so obvious, is a very obvious way of doing that I guess.

REBECCA

That's right.

CAROLINE

I mean to me it's very loaded because people talk about a sea of grey hair and you know that we've looked at things like what people call the pensioner's hairdo and the mass production of this particular look of age.  And on the other side of that is this idea of a slightly out of control older woman with long grey, you know the sort of hag look.

REBECCA

Yes, yes.

CAROLINE

So there's this whole baggage around, particularly older women's physical appearance and very much manifested in what they do with their hair.  You know, if your hair's out of control, you're out of control.  So it's not like you're on an even playing field here, Rebecca.  You know, you might want to individually hold to having your grey hair, but you're in this society where it's kind of a part of the revulsion against the ageing body.  And people don't like wrinkles, they don't like old skin, you know, and this is what you're battling against.

JONATHAN

That's a very strong phrase, revulsion against the older body.

CAROLINE

Well people have talked about fear of ageing; I think sometimes it isn't so much fear of ageing as dislike of ageing.  You know the contamination of this kind of no longer tight, fit, young, healthy body, and that, as you've said many times before, spills over into people's attitude to sex in later life.

REBECCA

Yes, yes, this sort of older bodies are disgusting, so it's absolutely disgusting to think about older people having sex.

CAROLINE

Yes.

JONATHAN

And presumably the older people themselves buy into that.  If there's a sort of an idea around generally that older bodies are disgusting then people who have older bodies think their own bodies are disgusting.

REBECCA

Well that's certainly a danger isn't it?  Yes.

CAROLINE

So I suppose the tension is between combating the ageism itself in whatever way you can, including I would say dying your hair if you want to, or resisting it by denying that you want to change yourself and put yourself back ten years or whatever, so.

REBECCA

Yes, yes.  But I think perhaps for those of us who make a living out of thinking about ageing and talking about ageism it just feels a bit hypocritical to kind of do something which is so obviously about making myself look younger.

CAROLINE

Well would you for instance do Botox or something like that?

REBECCA

No I wouldn't, but I don't know whether that's just about what we're used to, you know, because Botox is quite a new technology and, you know, hair dye.  And also possibly risky and has nasty side effects and things, whereas hair dying is quite trivial and I can do it at home in the bathroom and, you know.  So I think there's some quite practical stuff.

CAROLINE

But do you think it's because dying your hair isn't functional?  I mean for instance you and I both wear specs and very often people sight goes or hearing goes -

JONATHAN

Yes, that's right, yes.

CAROLINE

- and they adjust it don't they?  They buy a hearing aid or they buy glasses and they're not expected to just gracefully go blind and deaf, so why is your hair different?

REBECCA

Because having dark hair gains me no benefit, whereas wearing my specs.

CAROLINE

Does it not gain you a social benefit?

REBECCA

Yes, but I don't think I should take that social benefit.

JONATHAN

But it's interesting in a way that some of those changes seem more acceptable than others.  Like wearing glasses seems to be okay.  But I read that somewhere that of the 17% of people who need hearing aids, only 17% of that 17% actually go and have their hearing tested.  Because that's a much great marker of getting older is losing your hearing, than just wearing spectacles, because people wear spectacles much more across their life course.

REBECCA

Yes, across their life course.

CAROLINE

Yes.  And for the same reason people often won't use a stick -

JONATHAN

That's right, that's right.

CAROLINE

- when they need to, for a long time, or a wheelchair the same thing.

JONATHAN

Yes, yes.

CAROLINE

So it's partly about resisting ageing for yourself personally, of which I would say your hair colour is one of them, whilst accepting aging in some other senses, so.

JONATHAN

But that's interesting to say isn't it?  Because in studying and thinking about ageing, you're also studying and thinking about something which affects you very personally.

REBECCA

Indeed, yes.

JONATHAN

And that's not always true with other sort of social forces that are going on but ageing applies to everybody.  So it set up those interesting sort of discussions and debates really.

CAROLINE

It does, but I think with age discrimination if people, and you get this a lot on blogs and comments, things online, a lot of bad comments about age for various reasons, like Professor Mary Beard on the TV with her long grey hair, you know, a lot of trolling around that at the time wasn't there?

JONATHAN

Yes, yes.

CAROLINE

So, but the people who are doing that are aware that they themselves must at some point age.

REBECCA

Whereas I think they probably aren't, I think they're probably denying it, you know, that kind of.

CAROLINE

Well they can't really be, because, you know, unless they die young they're going to age, they know that really.

REBECCA

Yes, yes.

CAROLINE

But they're obviously able to distance themselves and other the aging person to the extent that they feel that they can do this.

JONATHAN

Yes, yes that's interesting.

CAROLINE

So I think that's interesting.  And does that come down to education again?

JONATHAN

It's like denial real isn't it?  Denial that it’s going to happen to the person who's writing those sort of comments.

CAROLINE

Yes.

What do you think?

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