My wife and I happened to catch programme on TV about facial cosmetic treatments—it was something of an eye-opener (no pun intended).
A beautiful woman in her 30s walks into a room, talks to a middle-aged, slightly overweight man, with a receding hairline. She exits the room, dejected—she has been told her looks are fading, her skin is poor, and her face is in need of filler (whatever that is). She was attractive before she went in, and attractive when she came out, but not according to the money-makers of the world of beauty therapy and cosmetic surgery.
What was eye-opening wasn’t the treatments, although some were weird, but the shameless playing on, and even creating, insecurities in people to promote the treatments.
A 32 year old(!) has Botox to remove a few lines, or rather to paralyse a few facial muscles so they don’t cause lines. She says, “People noticed something was different”. I’d say they did—and it was the fact that part of her face no longer moved and conveyed expression!
A few years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. In part of it he tells of Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. Ekman and a colleague had mapped and analysed the expressions which flicker across our face when we speak, and the muscles used to create them, that they could read people from their micro-expressions. They could tell so much about a person or what they were saying simply by the muscle combinations used to create an expression. We do it all the time—not with the same skill, but such expressions are a key part of our communication. They are part of how we are made, part of what makes us us.
Why would we want to switch them off, and become a talking doll’s head—plastic and immobile—like so many of the faces of ageing celebrities? You see them on chat shows, their face stretched taut, eyes gazing out from a motionless mask.
Are we gerascophobic—afraid of aging? So obsessed with youth that an ageing face, nevermind ageing itself, is increasingly viewed as a chemically treatable disease?
I think of some wonderful elderly Christians I know whose faces tell a magnificent story of life—they radiate kindness, and joy, and gentleness, and hope, and courage, and vitality, and trust. Their lined faces speak of struggles and laughter and joy. Their face is not a death mask from their youth, but a living window into who they are.
Our obsession with youth seems like an avoidance of the inevitable—dying. No-one wants reminded of it, yet there is no sense in hiding from it. The quest for perfection here is a lost cause, yet there is something in us that grieves the ageing process and the loss of youth’s freshness. That something is because we are wired for eternity, where time will not strip us of the beauty God gives to us.
Ironically the quest for eternal youthfulness is a good one—but as usual we’ve focused it in the wrong place. If, instead of seeking our identity in our fading looks, we get our identity from Jesus Christ, the time will come when he will “renew your youth” (Psalm 103:5). In the meantime if we continue to make Christ our identity, our faces will be a window through which others see our trust and joy in him.