8 Mar 2010

The Arrogance of Youth

Or rather, the arrogance of the assumption that youth is the sole desirable state for a human being to attain. I've long been incensed by the canonisation of youth practised by the media and beauty industry, not just because it's illogical, misogynistic and creepy, but also because no one seems to have spoken up and pointed out that being young really isn't all that great. The latest piece of nakedly offensive youth-worship comes in the form of L'Oreal's latest anti-ageing product, a cream called 'Youth Code'. Purporting to somehow 'mimic DNA' in order to 'restore youthfulness', the advert for the cream relies on all the usual tactics - nonsensical jargon, claims that some gunk in a jar can genetically rebuild your face, and, oh yes, the assumption that youthfulness is to be pursued and worshipped at all costs. Well, I guess an ad for 'Looking Your Fucking Age Code' probably wouldn't get shown much before the watershed.

But I'm past being up in arms about how harmful and offensive the beauty industry is to women - I think most smart women have figured out a while ago that the industry thrives on making us feel ugly and insecure so we will - shocker! - go out and buy stuff. It's all the worst excesses of capitalism and misogyny feeding off each other. And there is nothing more unattainable than the goal of 'youthfulness' - much as we don't want to hear it, YOU WILL NEVER HAVE THE SKIN YOU HAD WHEN YOU WERE 25 EVER AGAIN IN YOUR LIFE. LIVE WITH IT. L'Oreal and all their women-hating ilk make billions each year trying to tell us that the above isn't true, and that time can somehow be reversed. And a lot of us buy into it, because why wouldn't you want to purchase some false hope in a jar rather than resign yourself to the alternative that the beauty industry presents, which is obviously dying alone, craggy, sexually frustrated and probably smelly too?

As well as accepting that the gunk in a jar won't bring eternal youth, we need to accept the other side of the coin - that not purchasing the gunk in a jar won't result in the lonely, craggy death that we're battered over the head with, and nor is ageing the terrorist threat that it's portrayed to be. And we need to accept the flipside - that youth is not all it's cracked up to be. Right, how the fuck would you know, young missy? cry a million 60 year-old women. True, I can only speak from one side of the divide. But I think I can offer a perspective that someone who has not been young in this era perhaps doesn't appreciate. Being young may afford you 'awesome power' and 'social status' - if you're also thin, tall, blonde, tanned, clear-skinned and with perfect breasts, thighs, stomach and backside. Youth certainly isn't all the beauty industry ask of us, otherwise a great deal of the population could feel good about themselves and refuse to buy stuff, right? Better narrow the goalposts. So whilst we may not have the terrors of ageing to worry about, young women currently have to worry if their skin is too spotty/shiny/dry/pale, if their waists/thighs/bottoms/hips are slim enough, if their armpits/vaginas smell bad, if their body hair is excessive, if their breasts are the right shape/size/symmetrical, if they're wearing the right clothes/make-up/jewellery. And that's just the pressure placed on young women about how they look - never mind the insane contradictions heaped upon us with regards to how we're meant to behave.

If age affords women nothing else, doesn't it allow them something of a perspective on such matters, and give them some breathing space from the insane pressures and competitions of the teen and twenty-something world? Granted, the beauty industry is soon clamouring to replace the concerns of the young with the fears of the middle-aged, but at least by the time one has navigated relationships, babies and several decades inside one's own skin, one has had the time to build up something of an armour against society's crap. Not so when you're 17, 21 or 25 - you're still vulnerable, learning, finding out who you are, and being attacked at every turn by a society that tells you you're not good enough. Meanwhile older folk have no sympathy, telling you that the world is handed to you on a stick, and that they're oppressed by demands that they have the 'body of a teenager'. Pah. I'll tell you what a 'body of a teenager' is like. I've had cellulite and stretch marks since I was TWELVE YEARS OLD. I was flat-chested until I was 18, and spent most of years 12-24 with my weight fluctuating all over the shop whilst I fought bitterly with eating disorders, depression and self harm. Best years of my life? I wouldn't wish them on my worst enemy. Although older women do get a rough deal when it comes to being seen as sexual beings, I can also imagine that there's some relief in being considered aesthetically invisible. And anyway, I'm not being self-pitying here, but I've never been indundated with male attention even when I had that old 'body of a teenager' anyway. The eyes of my shallow male peers always floated to the thinner or blonder girls next to me, whilst I was the 'one they could talk to'. I invite any middle-aged person to swap their body with my teenage one and see how much they enjoy it - I guarantee them they'll be sobbing, drinking to excess and craving their more mottled crinkly bods again after a few hours of being constantly judged on your appearance and labelled wanting.

In addition to the aesthetic hell that is youth, I also find it amazing how selective we're happy to be when considering that the young don't necessarily have it all. My dad likes to argue that the physical health and vitality of youth is a big factor to be envied, and I can appreciate that up to a point (although the binge-drinking stamina fades quickly after 21, and if young people are so energetic, when did you last manage to get a teenager out of bed before 11am?), but beauty products aren't gonna reverse your sciatica, so what's the point? Why do we crave the appearance over all else? Wouldn't you rather have a crinkly face at 60 but the heart and lungs of a 21 year old? It would seem not - the beauty industry has got us so obsessed about appearance over health or personal qualities, that we've lost sight of what 'youth' really means. And what it often means is being naive, ignorant, arrogant, brash and deeply, deeply stupid. I should know, I've been and likely continue to be all those things, although I'd like to think I've mellowed since I was, say, 17. Being young also means facing a brutal, competitive job market, vast student debts, decreased job security, a terrifying financial landscape, little chance of a state pension in our old age, and a fight to get on the property ladder akin to the Battle of the Somme. It means being more likely to catch an STI (although the middle-aged are catching up - the pursuit of youth obviously means copying all our behaviour, however stupid), be sexually assaulted, be involved in fights, violence or homicide, and have problems with alcohol or drugs. Being young means not being taken seriously at home, school or in the workplace, being discriminated against for lack of experience, wisdom or knowledge, and being tarred with the same offensive brushes as our peers who commit crime, drink to excess or get pregnant. Oh, and try getting your car insurance for under £1,000 when you're 17.

If a face cream really could deliver all that, you know you'd run screaming in the other direction. So why don't we wake up to the fact that, not only do L'Oreal and their women-hating pals promote the delusion that youth can be regained, but they promote the even more bizarre delusion that youth is actually a good thing. Don't get me wrong, it can be great - the right to be stupid, carefree and get a student discount is nice while it lasts. But it doesn't last long, and the real world then takes great glee in turning you upside down and shaking you until most of your youthful preconceptions come tumbling out. Even if society does start to treat me differently when I'm in my 40s, 50s, 60s, I think I'll find it a lot easier to handle if I've got money, a secure career, a mortgage, cheap car insurance and not being followed round every shop I enter on suspicion of being a shoplifter, to cushion me - as well as the wisdom and life experience I hope to have accrued by then. Young women usually have few of those things to fall back on when faced with a media and a cultural landscape that is so contemptuous of them.

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