Physical Appearance

Throughout life, appearance is an important part of the self-concept. Physical attractiveness is a highly valued social asset. This is particularly true for women, for whom the sociocultural link between youthful beauty and sexual attractiveness is stronger. The "looking-glass theory," according to which people's view of themselves is the result of their perception of how other people view them, emphasizes the importance for social acceptability of looking good and behaving appropriately.

Physical attractiveness is, of course, not a simple matter of body symmetry, cuteness, curvaceousness, or muscularity. Many people possess excellent physical attributes but are not perceived as beautiful or handsome because they do not feel or act that way. Thus, beauty is not merely "skin deep." As seen in the fact that the perception of it varies from culture to culture, beauty is "in the eye of the beholder." Traditionally, our own culture has emphasized a more Anglo-Saxon concept of female beauty—blond, blue-eyed, and busty, but this has changed to some extent during the past three or so decades. Dark, emaciated women are now viewed by a large percentage of Americans as paragons of female attractiveness.

Whatever the beauty ideal may be, relatively few people can live up to it—at least, not for very long. Beginning at around age 30, greying hair and facial wrinkles—the two physical features that are most highly correlated with chronological age—appear. Actually, the hairlines of men with male-pattern baldness begin to recede in the early twenties. And after age 40, the beginning of middle adulthood, numerous age—related physical changes be— come visible.

Many of the changes listed in Table 2-1 occur gradually and not at the same age in everyone. For example, men of Asian ancestry do not show greying hair as early as men of European ancestry. Age—related differences in physical appearance also occur between the sexes: Women tend to lose more height and show more facial wrinkling than men.

Not all physical changes associated with aging are caused by the aging process alone. For example, squinting, smiling, frowning, and other repeated facial expressions can increase furrowing and wrinkling of the face; contin— ued exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays causes the skin to become dry and less flexible, and to develop spots and growths; lack of exercise can cause muscles to atrophy; and scalp disease can cause hair loss. Be that as it may, many of the physical changes listed in Table 2-1 are inevitable. Moisturizing

Table 2-1 Common Age-Related Changes in Physical Appearance

Skin Wrinkles Rougher Drier

Less elastic Paler

Sags into folds and jowls Bruises and blisters more easily Slower to heal Small growths or spots Dilated blood vessels Varicose veins More likely to itch


Grayer, whiter Less lustrous Sparser, balding

Hairs in nostrils, ears, and eyebrows dark, coarse, and long Patches of facial hair in women Less hair in armpits and pubic area

Nose and mouth

Nose gets wider and longer

Lines from nostrils to sides of mouth

Loss of teeth

Gums shrink

Wrinkles around mouth

Double chin


Eyelids thicken and droop

"Crow's feet" around eyes

Eye sockets develop hollow appearance

Cloudy or opaque areas in the lens

(cataracts) Cornea often loses its sparkle

Other parts of face and head

Jaw recedes

Cheeks sag

Forehead lines

Ears longer

Earlobes fatter

Head circumference greater

Body shape Height reduced Musculature reduced Middle—age spread Hips broaden Waist broadens Shoulders narrow Curved or stooped posture Height shrinks Widow's "hump" Sagging breasts

My Athletic Aspirations

As farback as I can remember, I wanted to be big and strong. Unlike my sister, who always desired to be pretty, I didn't care how ugly I was as long as I could be tough enough to compete in athletics and defend myself. Because I weighed 11 pounds when I was born, I had a good start on the "big" part. Unfortunately, I was so fat as a baby that my mother called me "Jiggs" after the comic strip character. My paternal grandmother was somewhat kinder in labeling me "Junior,"but that name carried the implication of smallness or inferiority.

Somehow I made it through elementary school, being referred to as "Jiggs" in Florida and "Junior" in Georgia. My size was unremarkable and my athletic prowess average or below. Desperate to grow, I measured my height and weight frequently, even when my mother assured me that I was normal and that a "watched pot never boils." On occasion she confessed that she wished I would stop growing so the clothes and shoes she bought for me could wear out before she had to purchase new ones.

In any event, to compensate for my physical mediocrity, I studied hard and became a "scholar." Several of my teachers liked me and gave me all sorts of good things to eat and wear, so the consequences of being a "greasy grind" weren't all bad. By the beginning of junior high, I decided that the only way to improve my physique and athletic fortune was to take a Charles Atlas course. The possibility of a 90-pound weakling turning into a muscle man who could kick sand in bullies' faces inspired me. Though I worked hard with "dynamic tension," I ended up looking more like a rectangle with bulges than like the guy in the ad. In any event, the Atlas course improved my self-esteem enough to make me venture to ask a female classmate for a date.

In high school I went out for football and became a first-string bench-warmer and wood collector. I managed to catch a forward pass in one game, but was almost flattened by a goal post while doing so. The resulting laughter creams, cosmetic surgery, exercise, special diets, or even laughter and a positive attitude cannot ward off the "ravages of time" forever.

Whether they like it or not, middle-aged adults look different from young adults, and older adults look different from middle-aged and young adults. Older adults may not feel any older in a psychological sense and are often taken aback when they catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror. As one 80-year-old man expressed it, "I don't feel like an old man. I feel like a young man who has something the matter with him" (Cowley, 1989, p. 4). And some older people react quite negatively to their changed appearance:

I loathe my appearance now; the eyebrows slipped down toward the eyes, the bags underneath, and the air of sadness around the mouth that wrin-

caused me to conclude that I would be more successful in show business than sports, so I acted in a couple of plays and even wrote one. One musical play, sponsored by the Latin Club, brought the house down when I, playing the role of Caesar, rose up after being stabbed by Brutus and his co-assassins, and burst into singing. Before the play was presented, the class prodigy recited the Lord's Prayer in Latin. However, he had to keep his eyes open while doing so because he couldn't remember anything with them closed.

By the time I was 18 I weighed 175 pounds and was an inch over six feet. That should have been sufficient for almost any athlete in those days, but, as one coach revealed to me, I was deficient in muscular coordination. I did learn to skate, ride a bicycle, and play a passable game of tennis, but I frequently hit bloopers in baseball. My adolescent habit seems to have carried over into adulthood, for I now do the same thing in golf. This aberration may be another example of my always attempting to get to the bottom ofthings.

Despite my lack of athletic prowess, I managed to survive a few pugilis tic encounters in both military and civilian life. Usually, I could bluff my way out of a fight by acting tough or crazy, but my adeptness with the choke hold saved me from a thrashing on one or two occasions. When I wasn't fighting, I flexed mybiceps, squeezedballs, and was never mugged-even in Chicago.

In my twenties I stopped growing vertically, but a couple ofdecades later I started expanding horizontally. Although I never exceeded 210 pounds, adding weight (and hair) in undesirable places was disconcerting. In later years I detected that I was beginning to collapse physically, and jokes about "settling down" and turning into the "incredible shrinking man" did nothing to ease the pain.

It is now pretty late in my life, but I still haven't resigned myself to being average in size, strength, and sports. In my dreams, I imagine that I'm growing taller and stronger than an NBA center. Furthermore, I am absolutely convinced that there is a sport out there in which I can be a champion, and I'll find it or die trying!

kles always bring. Perhaps the people I pass in the street see merely a woman . . . who simply looks her age, no more no less. But when I look I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure. (de Beauvoir, 1972)

This rejection of one's body image in middle- and late life is probably more common in people who have been preoccupied in youth with how they look and for whom looking good had commercial as well as social and romantic value. Unfortunately for them, unlike the protagonist in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, it is the person whose appearance changes rather than just the portrait. Time marches on, and the years will have their due regardless of our piety, our wit, or the care with which we live our lives.

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