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The Real Face of 50

Science and surgeries now offer paths to delay the aging process. But not everyone is taking them.

But some in the no-Botox crowd worry that our fixation with wrinkles has gone too far and that denying who we are isn't healthy. Last year, in an interview with Elle, even Julia Roberts complained about our culture's obsession with Botox, saying, "Women don't even give themselves a chance to see what they'll look like as older persons."

Our preoccupation with looking younger, say experts on aging, suggests there's something wrong with the aging person. "Focusing only on loss implies that individuals who are aging are less of who they once were, and it fosters negative societal stereotypes of older adults," says Debra Sellers, Ph.D., associate professor in Kansas State University's School of Family Studies and Human Services.

Others suggest that our pursuit of youthful appearance is just the latest in a history of appearance-altering practices among Americans. In the early 20th century, for example, food shortages were not uncommon, which made being fat a status symbol: A wide waist showed you had big cash — for big meals. In Victorian days, women, to appear more buxom, corseted their waists to 16 inches. In Colonial times, young men seeking promotions powdered their wigs to appear older and more credible because the aged garnered respect: Only 2 percent of the population lived past 65.

Our preoccupation with looking younger, say experts on aging, suggests there's something wrong with the aging person.

Life expectancy at the turn of the 20th century was 47; today it's 78. More than 70 million Americans are now in their 50s and 60s. Though the paths to looking beautiful and robust have changed, the motivation remains largely the same: We want to belong. "These days people are fighting the perception that they're old, because they still want to be considered players in life," says Calasanti.

The American obsession with youth started in the 1950s with megastars Elvis, Brando, and James Dean; it intensified in the '60s when teenage models like Twiggy redefined glamour. But 1990 was the watershed year when the media began to sell us on unrealistic standards for youthful beauty. How so? Photoshop. Manipulated images that erase wrinkles and traces of fat prompted many of us to feel that aging was avoidable. Over the years, as magazines and advertisers digitally altered photos of celebrities (such as supermodel Christy Turlington, who's only 42) to avoid even a hint of laugh lines, we began to wonder how we too could have ageless skin.

Thanks to medical advances and healthier lifestyles, boomers now wrestle with an interesting paradox: They don't feel as old as they look, which makes them want to look younger. After swearing for years that she would never have plastic surgery, Jane Fonda says she "got tired of not looking like how I feel." In 2010, at age 72, she underwent surgery on her face, neck, and chin. When Stanley Frileck, M.D., a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, asks his patients what they hope to achieve with surgery, most tell him that they — like Fonda — want to look the way they feel. "They are vibrant, active, and healthy people, many still with careers," says Frileck. "They don't want how they look to hold them back."

Next: What do class and race have to do with it? >>

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