Challenging notions of age, beauty and fitness

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Challenging notions of age, beauty and fitness

Debbie Lee-Anthony
Published by Debbie Lee-Anthony in Dancing as you get older · 20 December 2021
Tags: agebeautyfitness
‘Challenging notions of age, beauty and fitness’.
In this article I will discuss ideas relating to health, fitness, fitness obsession and the effects of the ageing process upon the body.

During recent years there have been an increasing number of women undertaking weight training and body building in the gym. The ideology behind this, according to Christy Adair in Women and Dance, is that ‘everyone can have a perfect body and have only themselves to blame if they don’t succeed’. Thinking about this, I have noticed how advertising in the gym urges us to combat any signs of ageing.  The look, which we are surrounded with and indeed urged to achieve, is that of ‘the body beautiful’, which is young, sexual, and takes money and hard work to achieve and maintain. All the images presented on the T.V. and video channels boldly displayed in front of the tread mills, steppers and cross trainers are explicitly sexual, very thin and muscular, young bodies. Surely this all serves to promote this as the ‘norm’ or at least what we should all be aspiring to. More and more we are bombarded with adverts for anti-ageing pills and creams, to supposedly ‘slow down’ the ageing process.  One such product on the market is GH3 (Gerovital Pharmetucial) where the function of organs and blood are said to be radically improved and flaccid skin becomes smooth and tight.  Of course improving our state of health to deter onset of medical conditions is a good thing; but isn’t it ‘unnatural’ to want to change the appearance of our skin, merely to ‘look’ younger than we are?  It extreme cases it can become a fixation, not dissimilar to the jogger or weight trainer, when the desire to keep up and compete with others to look much younger, can be all consuming and at worst become an unhealthy compulsion.   In an age which is obsessed with being young, thin, fit, physically beautiful, and being devoted to celebrating bodily excellence, to some this can bring about acute feelings of anxiety.  

Stephen Kern pointed out in his cultural study Anatomy and Destiny, how in contemporary Western society, our bodies themselves greatly influence our social existence and can dominate our personalities and relations with other people.  Irrespective of age, we can become overly anxious by our own image, whether that be strikingly fat, thin, beautiful or ugly. Kern argued that this can be especially the case within adolescence and early adulthood, when ‘the gift of good looks or the curse of ungainliness can dominate entirely our image of ourselves.  (Kern, cited in Dutton, 1995, p 170). Kenneth Dutton in his book ‘The Perfectible Body’ talks about the preoccupation with our own physical appearance and how we need to feel ‘socially acceptable’.  The cosmetics industry appear to be obsessed with the affirmation of visible beauty amongst the young, whilst at the same time encouraging the denial of visible degeneration amongst the old. Dutton suggests that this preoccupation in modern society persuades us to overly focus on our outward appearance, as opposed to the control of the inner body, which was more prevalent in earlier centuries. Dutton states that there has become a ‘bodyist’ obsession within contemporary society; the fixation with slimming, cosmetics and plastic surgery are becoming increasingly dominant within our culture. On our television screens and in the media it is commonplace for celebrities to ‘change the way they look’ through surgery.  As a society we don’t want to be seen to have grey hair, so we change it’s colour; we cover up our body parts that are not thin or ‘toned enough’; we cover up our face with make up to hide natural lines and wrinkles associated with age; it appears that we are in danger of becoming fixated with our size and how we look and appear to others, perhaps in disregard of whether this is in the best interests of our health. According to Dutton in recent years Japan has seen a growing increase in cosmetic surgery amongst women, where women have the shape of their eyes altered to give them a more ‘Western’ appearance. This desire  for transformation corresponds to a socially recognised norm reflecting status, beauty and power. Dutton however goes on to say that interestingly, in some African cultures such as Bangwa, the plump, unfit woman is a desirable woman, associated with ideas of royalty and maternal abundance. In certain parts of the country, predominantly among the wealthier members of the community, young girls are in fact ‘fattened up’ prior to marriage. This represented the ideal of affluence and the ability to enjoy a rich and substantial diet without feeling the need to undertake any hard physical labour. Here the ideal is being fat or plump, as opposed to being thin in the West.   In our contemporary western society being slim, or thin, reflects our preoccupation with athletic competitiveness, ‘keeping youthful’ and focussing on the fit, individual body and material achievements.     
We are living in an ageing population with more and more people surviving into their 80’s and beyond. According to Healthspan magazine, April 2005, by 2050 it is estimated that 43% of Europeans will be over the age of 60. The Times newspaper (11th January 2005), further states that ‘grey power’ is on the rise. Reflecting on this I was interested to note that the beauty products company Dove are seeking to address the idea of old and beautiful. The company have introduced a policy of actively promoting women to feel good about themselves, disregarding their age or dress size.  Their philosophy is one of understanding that women should not be made to feel inadequate by the narrow, unattainable versions of beauty that bombard us everyday.  The aforementioned company Dove caused a sensation when they used Irene Sinclair, a 96 year old woman, as the poster image for a recent advertising campaign. The campaign was in fact challenging accepted notions of beauty and proved to be a huge success, seizing the imagination of the mass market in a way that exceeded their wildest expectations. The poster, displaying the blown up, full-faced wrinkled pensioner, had the words Wrinkled? Wonderful? followed by the slogan ‘Will society ever accept ‘old’ can be beautiful?’  Rankin, the celebrity photographer and publisher who selected Irene for the poster from thousands of mature faces, stated in the article that character was as important as the visual impact. Rankin went on to say “she was very elegant, very funny…I knew that I could make her laugh, her eyes were beautiful…she was proud of the fact she had aged and wasn’t embarrassed….she had such dignity”.  The article spoke of a new wave of acceptance in which older models are beginning to finally come into their own in big-brand advertising.  They reported that in 2004 the agency MOT Models had an increase of over 49% for their bookings for 50 plus faces. It is this breaking of boundaries within the politics of advertising that I hope will be seen to increase within the dance profession.  
The fitness obsession
Thinking about notions of agility and fitness, I have noticed I am far less agile than a year ago.  If I do not exercise on a daily basis, my body struggles to keep up with the demands of teaching, choreographing and performing. In view of this it is essential, in my view, to keep up with the physical demands and challenges my work brings, to work out in the gym at least three to four times a week. This I do to maintain levels of fitness and to keep the body in a state of ‘readiness’ to work. If I do not attend the gym for a few days, my body responds accordingly by decreased energy levels and tightening of muscles and joints.  From my own experience I would go as far as to say that attending the gym and maintaining a certain level of fitness has become an obsession. If I do not ‘work out’, dance or run on a daily basis, my body feels sluggish and I feel tense, anxious and frustrated. I sometimes wonder just how much it is the secretion of chemical endorphins, the hormone-like substances manufactured in the brain, being released through the body when undertaking exercise that brings about the pleasurable ‘feeling good’ factor, or how much this might be perhaps psychological? ‘I feel so much better’ when I’ve run for 30 minutes, but could this be, at least in part, simply ‘knowing’ that I’ve run for half an hour?  Like eating disorders such as anorexia, an excessive need to exercise is a form of compulsive behaviour which can take hold of some individuals. The person becomes ‘fixated’ on the notion of cardiovascular fitness promoted by exercise such as jogging, running, cycling, aerobics, etc. Similar to the anorexic who can never be thin enough, the chronic exerciser can never get enough exercise.  According to Kenneth Dutton, in extreme cases, some individuals experience a pathological need to exercise six hours a day or more. Even when injuries occur, which is inevitable with this level of activity, the individual continues to exercise despite strains and sprains, being unable to bear the thought of others exercising more than themselves. In such cases, exercise takes precedence over other people impacting upon stable personal relationships.
The major physical changes that occur in the body as part of the inevitable ageing process are generally a slowing down of our physical capacity, the muscle tendons lose their strength and a general deterioration of muscle tissue and bone density takes place. However, according to Professor William Evans from the University of  Arkansas, the wasting away of muscle tissue and bone density is not, as many people believe, an unavoidable part of the ageing process, but rather it is the result of muscle atrophy and inactivity. He strongly believes that through regular progressive resistance training the bodies’ degeneration process can be significantly slowed down.  He further contests that it is actually possible to rebuild muscle mass, muscle strength and even bone density.    
It is clear that exercise promotes fitness, therefore the more one exercises the fitter one will be. In the aforementioned cases of individuals over-exercising, Dutton suggests that goals which may in themselves appear harmless and beneficial to the body, can take such a hold that they can dominate, and in some cases, define the personality. The same can be applied to the obsessive weight-trainer, who believes that the bigger and bulkier the muscles develop the more attractive he or she will become. Like running or aerobic exercise, this can become an addictive or compulsive form of behaviour. The weight trainer becomes fixated with the ‘more is better’ syndrome and spends more and more hours training, Extreme cases of can this result in both physiological and psychological dependence, bringing about a distorted self-image.  Arnold Schwarzenegger described his physiological dependency  with the use of weights:
‘It is the greatest feeling I get.  I search for this pump because it means my muscles will grow when I get it.  I get a pump when the blood is running into my muscles. They become really tight with blood, like the skin is going to explode any minute.. It’s like someone putting air in my muscles – it blows up and feels fantastic. A good pump is better than coming.’ (Schwarzenegger, cited in Dutton, 1995, p 277)
Dutton went on to say that our obsession with taking part in aerobics, jogging and the use of cardiovascular machines at the gym, is part of the syndrome of ‘healthism’  where the preoccupation with ascetic practices brings about the maintenance and appearance of health, fitness and youthfulness. The media and the cosmetics industries promoting their products and services encourage  an unhealthy concern with appearance, which tends to overshadow reality. This fixation with being thin, muscular, with perfect skin, hair and fit, promotes the idea that the thinner and fitter you are, the better.    
Talking with older members in our society, whose childhood, home and working life did not involve computers, leads me to consider the technological advances within the last 25 years. Compared to the generation born prior to the 40’s, we have become increasingly sedentary in our places of work and notably more physically redundant.  Children as young as five turn increasingly to computer games, DVD’s, internet chat rooms and ‘game boys’ when once they would play in the fields and parks, climb trees, jump rope, skip and play tag etc. This surely has an impact upon our young people’s physical development. (diet is of course a significant factor to consider also, however this is not for discussion in this article). In line with this, I was interested to note a passing comment from my daughter’s dance teacher, how adolescent girls appear to have significantly tighter hamstrings, are less flexible and generally possess less than supple limbs, compared with her students from 15-20 years ago.  
One could argue that the older dancer should perhaps bow out gently and exempt themselves from the physical and emotional struggles to make room for the younger aspiring professionals being trained in their hundreds from   vocational dance courses and now, increasingly, from dance programmes within Higher Education. But I believe that there is a case for promoting dance by and for older people in our communities; as Lerman contests, the older dancer can possess great aesthetic power and has the ability to tell so many poignant stories which are written in the body. So this being the case, why  should the mature dance artist feel marginalised due to their age?  A notable example of this is when a 68 year old friend of mine was recently prevented from leading a dance exercise class at the Leisure Centre, on the grounds that she ‘was too old’.  The fact that she regularly teaches at the local college, has over 40 years teaching experience, is a qualified instructor and member of the Keep Fit Association, surely this is blatant age discrimination? The friend in question is an agile and fit person; she was very angry to be humiliated in this way, has written to the local newspaper and lodged a complaint to the management at the centre in question.  Age should never be seen to be discriminated against, whatever end of the age spectrum. Interestingly, according to a major study into age discrimination conducted by Professor of social psychology Dominic Abrams, (Independent, September 2005) ageism, affecting both the young and old, is the most widely experienced prejudice in Britain. The survey found that ageism now eclipses racism, sexism and discrimination based on disability.  Findings reported that 65% of participants surveyed stated first-hand experience of age discrimination; and the sample surveyed included respondents across gender, ethnicity, religion and disability.  ‘Government legislation on equality and human rights needs to ensure that ageism is treated at least as seriously as all of the other forms of prejudice that its tackling.’ (Abrams, 2005).  According to the survey, the only group not to experience ageism are people aged between 35 and 44 who are too old for negative youth stereotyping and too young for prejudice based on advancing years. Thinking about this, it is  always a great delight when our audience members span an age range from young to old;  this was the case in a performance of ‘FastTrack’ in my home-town Salisbury last year. Respondents of our audience questionnaire demonstrated the youngest being seven and the eldest 78 years.  They both wrote articulate comments describing what they had seen, how they felt and what the work communicated to them.
Thinking about Lerman’s contention that the older dancer has something more to say, this could be applied to that of my approach to the work that I am interested in creating. The subject matter, ideas or content that I wish to explore have been significantly informed by my life experience during the past 12 years. For example, the sudden death of my mother, in the same year that I gave birth to my daughter; followed by my fathers long suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease, where for the last 2 years of his life he did not recognise his family; the adolescence of my daughter; the tragic suicide of my sister-in-law in 2004, losing two close friends to cancer within the last five years, spiritual growth; all these things - apart from all the physiological and biological changes in my body taking place as I approach the menopause, have brought about different perspectives in terms of my priorities within dance and have encouraged me to interrogate further my place in the world. I am concerned with creating work that explores the human condition; it is the ‘felt’ response from the audience that interests me, which is not always something that can be articulated.
Life begins at 50
Due to medical advances, an increasing number of gyms and health spas opening, and a wide range of sporting activities and opportunities more easily accessible, many older people are just as fit and active in their fifties as when they were younger, undoubtedly perhaps making 50 the new 40.  Comparing the 21st century with our grand parents generation, 50 plus year olds are no longer wishing to work their entire lives. Taking up a ‘sedate’ hobby is fast becoming a thing of the past.   The trend now is that people are opting for a second career, or retiring early to spend time travelling, writing, following creative interests or pursuing a long desired sporting activity. It is clear that youthful vigour will not last forever, one has to be realistic; from my own experience I can honestly say how insidiously the ageing process has crept up on me.  However, it is important for our long-term physical, mental and emotional well being to regularly take exercise.  The most notable benefits from undertaking regular exercise, whether that be a belly dancing class, walking, jogging or swimming, etc., are reducing anxiety and tension, improving energy levels and quality of sleep, strengthening bones, lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure, reducing risk of developing a stroke, heart attack, certain cancers and the releasing of endorphins that promote relaxation.  According to Dr Sarah Brewer being physically active on a regular basis prolongs life.  A study of 10,000 men showed that regular exercise prevented age-related deaths by 25%, and, surprisingly, even if regular exercise was not started until middle age. Dr Brewer went on to say that one of the most significant findings was the reduction of deaths from coronary heart disease, this being reduced by 40%.
So to conclude, it is clear that continuing to dance and exercise into our senior years brings tremendous benefits in terms of general health and well-being and contributes to a regeneration of muscle tissue and bone density.  It is however important to keep a perspective when it comes to undertaking exercise and fitness programs.  The chronic exerciser needs to reassess their compulsion, as it is clear that having a fitness fixation can become an ‘unhealthy’ obsession and, in some cases, can impact upon stable personal relationships. Perhaps we should be less concerned with denying the physical degeneration of our bodies by having cosmetic surgery, ‘covering up’ age-related wrinkles and changing our physical appearance to look younger. Instead, a genuine celebration of the body, our age and life experience – written in the body.   
Debbie Lee-Anthony MA,  2005
Abrams, Dominic, Professor (2005) The Independent 7th September 2005
Brayfield, Celia (2005) The Times 11th January 2005
Dutton, R Kenneth (1995) The Perfectible Body.  Cassell, London
Evans, William (2004) Slowing The Ageing Process
Sieghart, Maryann (2005) The Times 6th January 2005  accessed 19/05/05 accessed 04/05/05 accessed 21/11/05 accessed 4/5/2005

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