Sorry for getting old

Ageing is a natural process, but capitalism would have you believe that it is not.

Elderly and middle-aged people exercise with wooden dumbbells during a health promotion event to mark Japan's "Respect for the Aged Day" at a temple in Tokyo's Sugamo district, an area popular among the Japanese elderly, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Elderly and middle-aged people exercise with wooden dumbbells during a health promotion event to mark Japan's 'Respect for the Aged Day' at a temple in Tokyo's Sugamo district on September 17, 2018 [File: Reuters/Issei Kato]

In February my friend Michelle visited me in the coastal village of Zipolite in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca state, where I have been semi-residing since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

I had last seen Michelle in Kazakhstan in 2014, when we were still in our 30s and I had descended briefly upon her apartment in the Kazakh capital of Astana before darting off to Lebanon and Vietnam. This pre-pandemic modus operandi of manic international itinerance had been driven by a combination of factors, including an apparent desire to thwart the passage of time by remaining in constant motion and a need to avoid my psychologically destructive homeland, the United States, at all cost.

Time passed anyway, of course. Michelle returned home to Washington; I ended up temporarily sedentary in Mexico, and we both entered our 40s. Our 2023 reunion began with requisite reminiscences of nearly freezing to death in the Kazakh countryside, patronising all-night karaoke bars, and placing our palms in the gilded handprint of then-dictator of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana’s looming Bayterek monument.

Michelle then filled me in on the homeland gossip from Washington – my own birthplace – where, she reported, she had found herself in the regular company of a much younger crowd. And it was in the context of this conversation that she remarked that she sometimes felt the urge to apologise for having wrinkles around her eyes.

This got me to thinking, as Michelle seemed to have articulated something I subconsciously felt – even though I had never considered myself overly concerned with physical upkeep.

I have not, for example, brushed my hair since 2003 in southern Spain, and I wash it with vinegar – when I bother to wash it, that is. Laundry is done in a bucket with dish soap, and my two front teeth are mere replicas of their former selves, having fallen casualty to a Turkish sidewalk where in 2019 I undertook to perform acrobatics after drinking too much wine.

When I thought about it candidly, however, I recognised an arc of guilt that had accompanied the ageing process and realised that I, too, felt reflexively apologetic whenever my gray hairs were too visible or my eyes looked tired.

Then there is the matter of mobile phone selfies, and the perennial temptation to avail myself of all wrinkle-minimising options whenever the image is destined for social media dissemination. While the use of such editing features can easily be ridiculed as an exercise in narcissistic self-delusion and false advertising, it can also be a manner of compensating for an overriding sense of shame and the sense that one is somehow failing at life by getting old.

But given that life consists of getting old, feeling ashamed about it is a pretty exhausting way to live.

To be sure, the age of social media has only amplified stigmas associated with ageing, particularly for the female gender, which has traditionally been disproportionately tasked with being aesthetically pleasing.

In the protracted superficiality that passes for existence in US-style capitalist society, skin wrinkles and other perceived female defects are cast as failures of the individual. And according to capitalist logic, such failures can only be rectified by buying beauty products, paying for cosmetic adjustments, or otherwise contributing to a landscape fundamentally dedicated to corporate profit rather than human wellness.

There are, of course, those celebrities who present their own glamorous trajectories into older age as constituting a stand against age-shaming. But this doesn’t really do anything in terms of fixing capitalism, furthering feminism, or making the non-glamorous population feel any better about our bodies.

A new report from the American Psychological Association (APA) meanwhile notes that “ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices” in the US – with age discrimination “so ingrained in our culture that we often don’t even notice”. Unsurprisingly, ageism has “a host of negative effects, for people’s physical and mental well-being and society as a whole”.

The APA cites research by Becca Levy, a professor of psychology at Yale University and of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, into why it is that the Japanese enjoy the longest life expectancies in the world. One of the first things Levy noticed during a trip to Japan as a graduate student was “how differently older people there were treated … They were celebrated in families, on TV shows, in comic books.”

Indeed, barring any sudden developments in the field of immortality, it would seem self-evident that a positive approach to ageing is the most constructive option on the table.

But it is easier said than done, especially when capitalism wants you to believe that there is always something wrong with you.

This March, the month after Michelle’s visit to Zipolite, I turned 41. The first person to wish me a happy birthday, via WhatsApp, was a young Venezuelan asylum seeker I had recently met in Panama when he exited the treacherous stretch of jungle known as the Darién Gap.

In response to his inquiry as to how old I was turning, I plunged into a preemptive state of massive guilt at having to reveal to this charming young man that I was twice his age, and instead typed back: “You don’t even want to know”. To which he in turn replied: “Why not? It’s normal.”

And the fact of the matter is that, for something as normal as ageing, it should be far more normalised.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.