Culture  Aging Gracelessly

Exploring the business of not getting old in South Beach

I became an adult too quickly, certainly quicker than most. I spent the first two decades of my life aching to be older. In the tourist utopia of South Florida that I call home, it was all too normal to impersonate an older self with a little plastic card, and heedlessly pursue a freedom that was not yet my own.

Only in retrospect have I been able to feel the stunning irony of such youthful restlessness. After all, it was not only I who embraced this distorted notion of age: while young people conjure up a past that is not yet their own, the aged run from their years with a voracity that I have yet to discover elsewhere in the world.

My experience with the former became far too personal when, while taking a year off before university, I took a job at the front desk of a South Beach salon-spa. Perhaps the experience would have been less poignant had I not taken a nearly two year hiatus from life in Miami to attend boarding school in a small town in the Northeast. During this period away from home, my distorted perceptions of age, beauty, and superficial upkeep became grounded in a much more wholesome reality. Returning to Miami was a disorienting wake-up call, to say the least.

In many more unfortunate ways than one, Miami Beach has earned its stereotype as a playground for the wealthy and beautiful to flaunt everything from bodies to jewelry to freshly-built mansions. I had always been somewhat conscious of the insincere nature of places like this, where women too-often turn to plastic surgery, and men handle midlife crises by purchasing fancy cars. However, it was not until my time at this beauty and pleasure oriented establishment that I was truly awakened to my city’s sad relationship with aging.

I became complicit in the daily avoidance of age. By working at the spa, I endorsed a lifestyle that required devoting a steady supply of one’s money and time to superficial self-improvement. The strived-for standard of beauty was, needless to say, narrowly defined. It left no room for wrinkles, or graying hair, or ridged fingernails, or any other signs the body exhibits with more years on earth. The rhetoric of rejuvenation was espoused to the point of exhaustion. Even worse, it was encouraged for employees to carry out these standards of youthful attractiveness by wearing makeup and receiving the treatments offered by our employers. The age-phobia manifest in these treatments – such as the facial that claimed to “counter first signs of aging and discourage maturing skin” or the chemical peel that is described as “the facial that if you’ve had everything else before a face lift you will see instant results.”

It did not take long for me to cultivate resentment for this emphasis on youth. One shift in particular is isolated in my memory as a breaking point of sorts. A thin woman stumbled up to our reception desk in high heels, her gaudy jewelry hanging unflatteringly off of her withering wrists. I had made the apocalyptic error of double-booking her blow-dry and manicure appointments. As she unleashed her wrath at my relatively minor error, I couldn’t help but recoil.

In Immortality, Milan Kundera characterizes his elderly female protagonist as beautiful – possibly even sexual – despite her charmless body. He insists that humans are ageless, existing outside of time with the exception of a few key moments throughout life. In that moment at the salon, I felt the heartbreaking shame of age-denial in such a visceral way that I was disgusted by not only my workplace but by the society that created it.

The establishment where I worked, as well as the much larger system that it is lost in, has effectively turned youth and beauty into an industry. Americans alone spent $10.7 billion dollars on cosmetic procedures in 2010. It’s obvious that issues of class are reflected in the avoidance of age. My experiences with the clientele of my former workplace are certainly not indicative of the city of Miami at large. The salon was the realm of the privileged, a place for moneyed housewives and their all-too busy husbands. It was where those on the advantageous side of capitalism could empty their swollen pockets. Perhaps it seems petty – it was just a beauty salon, after all – but I came to see it as merely an element in a much farther-reaching and profound predicament.

Despite festering feelings, I finished out my time at the spa-salon. My clash with this culture of anti-aging, first in my childhood and then somewhat abruptly as an adult, was not without consequence. It remains a central concern of mine to not perpetuate a baseless, negative attitude toward age. I don’t see youth as some unattainable goal for which I should endlessly strive. The ethereal dignity that strikes me as beautiful today is entirely detached from one’s stage of life. Youth – and the supposed beauty that accompanies it – cannot be found in an appointment.