November 28, 2004

Aged By Culture Author ‘Faces’ Children’s Images of Aging

One booth at the secrets of Aging exhibition, which has been touring around the United States since 2000 under the auspices of Boston's Museum of Science, has attracted long lines of children: "Face Aging." Access was forbidden to people over 15 when I visited the exhibition, so I watched from outside. After standing patiently, the youngsters sat down inside under bright light, trustingly positioned their faces in a metal frame and had their portrait photographed. Soon their digitized bust appeared on a video monitor. Then, tapping a button on a video remote, each child rapidly called up simulations of what she or he would look like at one-year intervals up to their imagined 6os. Flipped fast, the stills became a "movie." In seconds the computer added grotesque pouches, roughed skin and blotches to the children's familiar features. Their faces became elongated, then wider, then saggy; lines became heavier year by year. Boys lost hair. Hair turned gray. The heads of both boys and girls grew and then shrank.

The children were almost uniformly shaken. A Boston Globe reporter wrote that an eight-year-old girl moaned, "I don't want to get old!" Gerontologist and writer Richard Griffin heard a boy remark about another child, "He's disgusting at 42." The children came out preoccupied and distracted, some giggling recklessly, most edging away fast, not wanting to talk, not knowing what had happened to them. Afterwards they fled.

This boy is one of thousands of children to "face aging" at the secrets of Aging exhibition.


Everything about "Face Aging" promised children scientific truth- their location in a museum of science, as well as the prestigious technologies involved, including a robot eye with no human behind it, computer-driven graphics and an "interactive" button that produced the aging effect. But there was next to nothing scientific about this exhibit. "It was only an entertainment," said Ron Estey, who developed the software. His company, Core Digital, does TV animation-typically deployed for making cartoons, doctoring fashion photos so models look yet more emaciated and fabricating pseudohistorical documents. "We streamed together six or seven different ideas. We're a special-effects studio," he told me.

What exactly is going wrong in the "Face Aging" exhibit? (Examples can be seen on the museum's website at The software engineers did not ask, "What's the algorithm for making people look more beautiful, expressive or individual as they grow up?" Instead, they worked from U.S. culture's preexisting notions of decline. There were gerontologists on the collaborative panel of experts assembled for Secrets of Aging- people I admire-but they hadn't deliberately asked one another, as age critics should from now on, "What future does this exhibit project for children? What story of aging does it tell?" I'm not saying that these experts believe decline should be the acceptable life-course narrative for the young. But had they been warier about American age culture, the mere taunt of the title- "Face Aging" - might have raised an alarm.

Why weren't the distinguished authorities in aging more cautious? People don't realize that aging is a narrative. Before anything that gets called aging happens in the body, aging is a set of stories about the future, the body, the life course. Stories that children hear and see create expectations, lay the ground rules of life. Prospective age narrative in a normal American childhood is supposed to be about "progress," not about decline.

In the narrative of progress, the implicit meanings of aging run from development to survival, resilience, recovery, and on to collective resistance to the forces of decline. The video monitor in the "Face Aging" booth is a startling example of decline forecasting: a wreck foretold about each and every tender body.


But the image of aging as decline in "Face Aging" -which appeared in the secrets of Aging show as recently as last spring, as well as being available on the Internet-is no exception. Aging as decline infiltrates everywhere these days, overflowing from adults directly and coming to children indirectly through media and technology. What does increasing longevity and improving health accomplish if so many people are afraid of becoming old when they are so young?

The true secret of aging is that we are aged by culture. In the United States, the economy downsizes people at midlife, the Supreme Court has weakened age-discrimination legislation, "antiaging" ads and surgeries are targeted at people in their 405 and 308-all of these developments superannuate us prematurely. Despite the American dream and decades of feminist anti-ageism, despite positive aging and the so-called power of the much-touted boomers, age culture in the United States mostly uglifies time passing, and automatically passes off its disdainful squint as truth. Now it can pass on the underlying national narrative of decline to children under 15, like those who submitted themselves to "Face Aging."

Thoughtful people wonder why we are so obsessed by age in America, why it seems so hard to hold on to respect for aging, to the values that make the life course valuable and worth living to the end. We are losing the progressive narrative of aging that our national wealth, improved health and greater longevity should entitle us to. In my latest book, Aged by Culture, I examine why these losses have been occurring over the past 30 years, and what people can do to resist. I found myself with much more to explain after that afternoon at the Museum of Science. Children felt helpless looking into the crystal ball of "aging" because they don't know that we are aged by culture.

But how much better off are we, the grown-ups, their protectors? Adults, too, are being made to stumble along the life course. The pain of decline, unless we are very privileged, will hit us long before the body begins to fail. We know that sexism, racism and homophobia are devastating, but the fear of decline is also dangerous-emotionally, economically, socially and politically. Worse than ageism, worse than middle-ageism, this fear has backed down the life course to those of ever-younger ages. We must learn to identify the forces that endanger us, even as they grow stronger.

My hope for the future of the life course in the United States is that thoughtful people who care-people of all ages-will learn how to teach imaginative solidarity with the whole life-world to maintain our precious sense of self-continuity and possibility within the dangerous age ideology we confront in the 2ist century. We need to fight wisely against the forces producing decline and the dismembering of the life course. Is it too blissful to imagine, as our goal, our children and ourselves being able to feel at home in the life course at every age?

Adults, too, are being made to stumble along the life course.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. This essay is adapted from Aged by Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004). Gullette is also the author of Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997), which won the American Popular Culture Association's Emily Toth Award as the best feminist book on American popular culture. 2004 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Copyright American Society on Aging Sep/Oct 2004