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Visual Signs of Ageing : What are We Looking at?

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Abstract

Consumer culture has placed the ageing body in a dilemma of representation. Physical appearance has become increasingly important as a symbol of identity, and at the same time society idealizes youth. This study explores visual ageing empirically. By using photographs of older persons (70+) as starting point, it is explored how visual age is assessed and interpreted. It is shown that informants read age in a spread of stages and categories. Main age indicators are biological markers: skin, eyes, and hair colour, but supplemented by vigour, style, and grooming. Furthermore, in-depth interviews indicate that visual age is mainly interpreted into categories and moral regulations rooted in early modernity. Subsequently the question of a postmodern perspective of visual ageing is discussed in this article. The empirical findings in the study question a postmodern fluidity of visual signs – at least when the concern is signs of ageing.
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 2007 2(1): 61–83. © The Author
61
Visual Signs of Ageing:
What are We Looking at?
BY HELLE REXBYE
1
& JØRGEN POVLSEN
2
Abstract
Consumer culture has placed the ageing body in a dilemma of represen-
tation. Physical appearance has become increasingly important as a sym-
bol of identity, and at the same time society idealizes youth. This study
explores visual ageing empirically. By using photographs of older per-
sons (
70+) as starting point, it is explored how visual age is assessed and
interpreted. It is shown that informants read age in a spread of stages and
categories. Main age indicators are biological markers: skin, eyes, and
hair colour, but supplemented by vigour, style, and grooming. Further-
more, in-depth interviews indicate that visual age is mainly interpreted
into categories and moral regulations rooted in early modernity. Subse-
quently the question of a postmodern perspective of visual ageing is dis-
cussed in this article. The empirical findings in the study question a
postmodern fluidity of visual signs – at least when the concern is signs of
ageing.
Keywords: signs, ageing, appearance, age assessment, postmodernity,
body.
1
Helle Rexbye, Ageing Research Centre, Epidemiology, Institute of Public Health, Univer-
sity of Southern Denmark
2
Jørgen Povlsen, Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of South-
ern Denmark.
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
62
Introduction
It is generally agreed that certain people lookold for their age or
“young for their age”. In older persons, “looking old for one’s age” has
been considered an indicator of poor health within the medical world,
and a recent study has proved an association between “looking old for
one’s age” and mortality (Christensen et al.
2004). However, “looking old
or young for one’s age” is not merely a medical issue. Postmodern cul-
ture emphasizes surface and looks. Visual representation(s) and physical
appearance have become increasingly important cultural markers as
symbols of identity (Bauman
1998; Giddens 1999). As the elderly genera-
tion is integrated in consumer culture, the body becomes a cultural focus
for adults of all ages. Gilleard and Higgs point towards the ways in
which the ageing body in consumer culture is increasingly presented
with different ways of “being old”, but at the same time the ageing body
suffers from “ageism” in a society that idealizes youth (Gilleard & Higgs
2000). Thus, aesthetically, the ageing body is positioned between the op-
portunities for self expression provided by consumer culture, and the
visible nature of biology. This article seeks to explore visual ageing, and
outlines some of the cultural and semiotic tensions generated in the field.
Others have focused on tensions generated between public images of
ageing and the personal perceptions of the ageing body, and found them
echoed in a more widespread tension existing in society between images
and social realities (Featherstone & Hepworth
1991). In relation to the
ageing body, it may therefore be theoretically relevant to distinguish
between three different levels of meaning, as suggested by Öberg and
Tornstam: a) the images of the ageing body in popular and consumer
culture, b) individuals’ subjective experiences of their own bodies, and c)
meanings attached to individuals’ bodies by other people (Öberg & Torn-
stam
1999). Most research into the appearance of the ageing body has
been carried out within (a) popular and consumer culture (e.g. Feather-
stone
1982/1995; Bytheway & Johnson 1998; Gilleard & Higgs 2000), and
(b) subjective experiences (e.g. research into the areas of “felt age” and
“ideal age” by Öberg & Tornstam
1999; Öberg & Tornstam 2001). The
empirical part of this paper focuses on the last aspect (c): How the ap-
pearance of older persons is perceived, and whether certain cultural
meanings are attached to the reading of ageing signs. We hypothesize
Visual Signs of Ageing
63
that the postmodern theorising of images and visual representations of
the ageing body in consumer culture might not be expressed – or might
be different – at the level of meaning examined here.
In order to explore meanings attached to the reading of ageing signs,
we need first to define “what age looks like”, and hence to examine: How
is age assessed in older persons? What specific signs (biological? cul-
tural?) are emphasized in the assessment of age in older persons?.
Apart from work in a medical context, most research into visual
signs of ageing has been undertaken in social psychology. Here the focus
has been partly on age appearance and specific biological features (e.g.
babyfaceness or face shape) in younger or middle aged persons (e.g.:
Berry & McArthur
1985; George & Hole 1998 or Burt & Perrett 1995), or
partly on age-related stereotypes. For example, the study by Wernick and
Manaster (
1984) finds that unattractive faces are consistently rated as
older than attractive faces (see also Hens
1991 and Deffenbacher et al.
1998); and Hummert shows that the older the person the more negative
the stereotypes associated with them (Hummert
1993; Hummert et al
1995).
With this study we wish to investigate age assessment in older per-
sons (
70+ years of age), and to employ a cultural perspective to the read-
ing and interpretation of ageing signs.
Material from empirical investigation of age assessement will be pre-
sented in the “Results” section, followed by a thematic analysis, and sub-
sequently a cultural analysis. Finally, our empirical findings will be re-
lated to postmodern themes, and to major theories of the ageing body in
consumer culture.
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
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Material and Methods
As part of the 2001 and 2003 waves of the population based survey The
Longitudinal Study of Aging Danish Twins
1
comprising elderly twins 70+
years of age the participants were asked to have their face photographs
taken (
2001 and 2003) as well as a full length photograph (2003). The fact
that the older persons on the photographs were twins is of no importance
to this particular study.
For the face photographs a distance of
0.6-meters was used with a
neutral background, if possible (photo examples no.
1 and 2).
Photo 1
Photo 2
The older persons were not all photographed with neutral facial expres-
sions, but according to Sheretz & Hess (
1993), this has no effect on age
estimation. The full length photographs were taken with the older person
standing (if possible) in the home or at a place of the person’s own choice.
Distance in the full length photographs varied (photo examples no.
3 and 4).
1
The population based Longitudinal Study of Aging Danish Twins started in 1995. It
comprises Danish monozygotic and dizygotic twins
70+ years of age. In 2001
2,448 twins participated. See Christensen et al. (2004), and Rexbye et al. (2006) for
further information on the survey and selection of photos.
Visual Signs of Ageing
65
Photo 3
Photo 4
A computer set-up with
774 face photographs of single twins (shown
independently in random order) was made. Forty persons (informants) of
various age, gender, and background:
20 female nurses (age 25 to 49
years), ten male student teachers (age
22 to 37 years), and ten elderly
women (age
70 to 87 years), assessed the visual age of each single twin
from the photographs. Additionally, a computer set-up with
1,420 full
length photographs of single twins was assessed by
11 nurses. The infor-
mants did not have any knowledge of the twin’s age or age group
(Christensen et al.
2004; Rexbye et al. 2006).
In connection with the age assessment, all the informants were inter-
viewed concerning their assessments, and asked to fill in a written form
stating which signs they emphasized during the assessments. Nine in-
formants were further interviewed in-depth: Five female nurses (age
30 to
49), two male student teachers (age 33 and 37), and two elderly women
(age
77 and 79). They were shown 12 full length photographs of the older
persons (individually), and asked to elaborate on their age assessments,
and to openly describe the photographs. These interviews were taped
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
66
and subsequently transcribed for coding and further thematic analysis
(Kvale
1997/2002).
Results
Age Assessment of Face Photographs
(774 photographs, 40 informants)
All 40 informants assessed the face photographs. Even though the infor-
mants did not ascribe the same age to the older persons – they could, for
instance, differ by five years in their assessments of the same person –
they still agreed on the ranking i.e. who looked younger or older (in sta-
tistical terms Chronbach alpha =
0.93).
Informants assessed age stepwise, and read the signs in “layers”.
When assessing age in older persons (
70+), there appears to be a bound-
ary around
80, as most informants said they would first place the person
in the photograph to be either over or under
80. Similarly the data analy-
sis revealed that assessed age was closest to chronological age in the per-
sons around
80 years of age. There was a tendency for those over 78 to be
assessed as slightly younger than their chronological age – and for those
under
78 to be assessed as slightly older than their chronological age (re-
gression towards a mean of
78). After placing the photographed person
either under or over
80, the informants would gradually estimate age on
a scale commencing from ten years (e.g. is the person closer to
70 years?),
five years (is the person
75 years?), and finally by single years (e.g. 77
years). Almost all informants emphasised biological age markers such as
the eyes and the skin when assessing age. Most informants assigned im-
portance to both eyes and skin, only one emphasised hair colour, and one
facial expression. Concerning the eyes, the informants would note eye
surroundings such as wrinkles, bags under the eyes, sunken and “watery
eyes”, but just as importantly they would notice the gaze, e.g. if the eld-
erly person’s gaze towards the camera was firm, if the person had a
twinkle in his/her eye, showed signs of mental presence/ absence etc.
They would use expressions such as “being present” and “contact. Also
vigour was ascribed to the eyes. Concerning the skin, wrinkles on the face
and neck were seen as most important – especially loose skin on the neck
Visual Signs of Ageing
67
was noticed – secondly pigmentation, colour and sagging tissue. Even
though only one informant saw hair colour as the most important age
marker, it was commented by all informants as they described hair col-
our, volume, and quantity as co-factors in their age assessments. Espe-
cially women’s hair colour was noted (grey?, dark?, dye?). Hair quantity
was noted both in men and women. However, as previously published
our data analysis showed that hair quantity has little impact on age as-
sessments in older men (
70+) (Rexbye et al. 2005).
Of the external (non bodily) age markers, clothes and make-up were
important factors. The informants would for instance use expressions
such as “grandmother style” orstrong colours make younger” concerning
the clothes. Style and grooming (or lack of) was seen as an indicator of
how well the person was keeping up mentally and physically.
Age assessment was made in a number of stages. The informants
agreed that bodily age markers indicated the main age classification, and
that external markers gave slight distinctions, and could dislocate age
assessments a few years in either direction. Age assessment was de-
scribed as being most difficult when the signs “contradicted” each other,
for instance if a person had younger looking skin and old-fashioned
clothes/hairstyle. All informants agreed that there was a difference in
assessing men’s and women’s age, but they did not agree on which was
the easiest (not within gender either). Similarly, the data analysis showed
no difference between how men’s and women’s ages were assessed. As
reference persons for age estimations, the informants used family mem-
bers or friends. Even the nurses (who all had geriatric experience) would
relate to family members rather than to patients when assessing age.
Preliminary analysis of an inter group comparison of the informants’
age assessments of the older persons showed close mean values of:
nurses
76.6 years, male student teachers 75.9 years, and women (70+) 77.5
years. Mean chronological age of the older persons was
77.7 years (2001).
Assessment of Full Length Photographs
(1420 photographs, 11 informants)
The full length photographs were assessed by 11 informants (nurses).
Even though the informants still emphasised the face, the full length
photos added several dimensions to the sign reading and age assess-
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
68
ments. First of all the older person’s bodily stature and posture were
noticed. The clothes were now fully visible, and again style and groom-
ing were seen as indicators of mental and physical condition. The style of
furniture and the decor of the home was noticed with equivalent inter-
pretation. Last, but not least, it was noted whether the home looked as if
it was the person’s own home or a nursing home.
Most informants found it easier to assess age from the full length
photographs, as the quantity of information was much richer – even
though the signs did not necessarily point in the same direction, and the
interpretation was more complex. Preliminary data analysis showed that
mean age was close – but approximately one year lower – in the assess-
ments of all full length photographs from
2003 (75.6 years), compared to
face photographs from
2003 (76.4 years). (Figure1). Mean chronological
age of the older persons being
79.1 years (2003).
Figure
1. Assessed age in face photographs and full length photographs.
0 .02 .04 .06 .08 .1
Density
60 65 70 75 80 85 90
Assessed age (Years)
Face photos Full size photos
Density distribution of assessed age
Visual Signs of Ageing
69
Thematic Analysis
In-Depth-Interviews (12 full length photographs, 9 informants)
In the analysis of the in-depth interviews especially two key themes oc-
curred: “activity” and “dress code”.
Activity
When describing the photographs and when elaborating on their age
assessments, the informants would try to visually read the activity level
of the older person. The informants related to “activity” in three terms:
A) physical activity – they would all notice if the person on the
photographs looked as if (s)he was physically active, i.e. if the clothes
reflected activity – gardening, domestic duties, housework, etc. B) Most
would notice signs of social activity, i.e. whether the older person looked
as if (s)he gets out of the house – is dressed to socialize. One informant
said:
She is wearing make-up and lipstick… so I guess she is still going
out…. You could even say that she looks as if she has still got a job.
(Student teacher, 33 years)
And he compared with his own relative:
My grandmother no longer goes to the hairdresser’s [...] It’s not
necessary, because nobody really comes around any more... and
she has also stopped going out. (Student teacher, 33 years)
Finally they would notice signs of c) mental activity, i.e. if the older person
looked as if (s)he was keeping up-to-date – were the clothes up-to-date?,
was there a DVD machine in the home?, etc.
As the above citations indicate the older persons were classified into
two categories: active and non-active. The non-active were read to have
gone on “standby” in life – looking as if they let time pass without in-
volving themselves, as if time had stood still for years. One informant
said the following about an elderly lady:
…but then she must at some point in time have decided that: “from
now on I don’t feel like changing my life anymore…from now on I
just stick to the way things are”[...] I bet that people who know her
think…well, she has been looking like this for the last 15 years… I
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
70
bet she has come to a standstill in her life... nothing to do about it
…she hasn’t had a new hairdo for many, many years... and that’s
the way it is with everything else in her life…. (Student teacher, 37
years)
Non-activity was read off the clothes, the hairstyle, and the home. It was
seen as a sign of ageing and was only expected – and accepted – in the
oldest old. The move between activity and non-activity was seen to be a
gradual process starting with leaving the labour market. The process
could be extended, but the elderly persons themselves were responsible
for keeping active. As one informant said:
… and he could be around 80 years old... someone who keeps well
at the age of 80 because he is keeping himself going and he’s got
this dog… (Female nurse, 45 years)
Another informant says this about a different photograph:
…he has made sure to keep himself going. (Female nurse, 32 years)
Dress Code
As for “dress code” the informants would notice if the older persons
transgressed cultural codes of dressing – especially dressing younger
than their age. The theme was especially prominent in talking of what
could be analytically labelled as the two opposites, “mutton dressed as
lamb” and “growing old gracefully”. An example of the first:
On one of the photographs an elderly lady is wearing jeans, a blue
medium low-cut blouse, black belt and black shoes with fairly high heels
(not pointed toes). Her hair is (dyed?) black. She is wearing gold jewel-
lery. Her posture is straight and she has a smile on her face. Not much of
the room in which she is standing is visible on the photo. She is
73 years
old (which the informants do not know).
2
Most informants reacted on the
photo of her:
2
Unfortunately we do not have permission to publish this photograph.
Visual Signs of Ageing
71
…it is something about the smile, the hair, the whole outfit…
Guess I wouldn’t dress up like that, in jeans and all, if I were
her…but okay, she wants to give the impression that she is still hip,
and she doesn’t want people to think that she is one day
over…70…but….but…I don’t know about that… (Elderly woman,
79 years old)
“Mutton dressed as lamb” has been a well known phenomenon at least
since the eighteenth century describing women who act or dress much
younger than prescribed by the cultural norms for their age (Tamke
1978,
cited in: Featherstone & Hepworth
1991: 321). The metaphor rests on the
idea that lamb is tastier than mutton, which is tougher because of age,
and the former is more highly valued than the latter (Fairhurst
1998).
What seems just as important though, is that the phrase implies looking
cheap – and has implicit references to prostitution (Twigg
2007). In our
material concept of deception expressed by the term “dressed as” is also
important. The “but…but” in the quotation clearly expresses that trying
to look younger than your age is seen as deceiving and cheating. And the
intentions are revealed. Another informant states this about the same
photograph:
I think there is something forced about her wanting to appear
young and this makes her look even older than she actually is.
(Student teacher, 37 years old)
When the attempt to look younger seems forced or overacted, the repre-
sentation backfires. He also comments on the same photograph:
…black shoes and high heels…this makes me think of my own
mother and other ladies her age. I mean, nice old ladies of that gen-
eration… they do not wear high heels and jeans…because only the
“cheap girls” of the city did that. (Student teacher, 37 years old)
This shows that “trying too hard” easily gets moral decay attached to it.
By dressing “out of age” the lady on the photo is not trustworthy. Not
only is she perceived to be cheating but also to be cheap – and the two go
hand in hand in a moral downfall. Interestingly, the last quotation ex-
plicitly points towards the moral codes attached to the appearance of
older persons being specific to – and following – the older generation.
The student teacher views the photograph with the “moral eyes” of the
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
72
generation he is assessing (his mother’s), not with the morals of his own
time.
In opposition to this is “ageing gracefully” which means acting and
dressing according to age. One photograph shows another lady standing
in her living room. Her posture is straight and she has a moderate smile
on her face. She is wearing a red turtle neck blouse with a long (ivory?)
necklace, and black trousers. Her hair is blond and curly. Much of the
living room is visible and shows a (tidy) room with a beige couch, a
wooden coffee table and two paintings on the wall.
3
This l
ady is also
73
years old, and the informants talk of her in expressions such as:
She looks neat. (Elderly lady, 77 years old)
Or:
She is well groomed and well-maintained. (Nurse, 49 years old)
And:
…she hasn't put on these clothes because she wants to look
younger; that's just the way she dresses... it's not forced, and it
gives her style, right? (Student teacher, 37 years old)
By dressing according to age this lady is keeping within the norms of
appearance for older women.
Interestingly, the data analysis showed that the mean value of the
age assessments of the full length photograph of the lady analytically
categorised as “mutton dressed as lamb” was
62.27 years, and mean value
for the lady categorised as “ageing gracefully” was
67.91 years. Chrono-
logical age of both ladies were
73 years.
3
Unfortunately we do not have permission to publish this photograph.
Visual Signs of Ageing
73
Discussion
Age Assessment
Our study shows that age assessment is a complex act. In assessing age in
older persons (
70+) the informants read age in a spread of stages and
categories. Signs were continuously weighed against each other and age
negotiated. The main age indicators were biological markers: skin, eyes,
hair colour, but supplemented by vigour, style, and grooming, and re-
lated to accepted codes of appearance. However, though age assessing is
a complex matter, it was striking how similarly the informants described
the process, assessed the age of each older person in comparison to the
others, and categorized the ageing signs. This suggests that their reading
and interpretation of ageing signs were made on a basis of shared refer-
ences.
Activity
When looking at older persons all informants would try to visually read
the activity level of the older person. Signs of physical, mental, and social
activity were noticed and commented on. But why this pronounced em-
phasis on representations of activity? In the following we argue that ac-
tivity possesses a central position in an interaction between three dis-
courses.
The question of activity is central in a health discourse. It is firmly
rooted in our medically and gerontologically founded knowledge con-
cerning the fact that physical and mental activity helps in maintaining
skills in old age. The split between non-activity and activity is also pro-
nounced in the well known disengagement/activity division of social
gerontology concerning older persons’ withdrawal from society. This
division is rooted in disengagement theory and activity theory. Disen-
gagement theory places the reasons for withdrawal within the process of
ageing itself, whereas activity theory emphasises the way societal struc-
tures leave no room for older persons. The consequences of action related
to theory have been, either to leave the older person in peace (disen-
gagement), or to provide opportunities for activity and participation (ac-
tivity). Within the practical care of older persons, ideologies related to
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
74
activity have been far more dominant (Solem 2005). In fact, through the
years, the concept of activity has been consolidated by professionals as a
universal answer to health and successful ageing. As Stephen Katz puts
it:
The association of activity with well-being in old age seems so ob-
vious and indisputable that questioning it within gerontological
circles would be considered unprofessional, if not heretical. (Katz
2000: 135)
“Use it or lose it” has become the message, and this influences the way
the appearance of older persons is viewed. Signs of physical, mental and
social activity are noticed, expected – and inactivity is only accepted in
the oldest old.
Apart from a health discourse the activity/non-activity divide also
writes itself into a moral-ethical discourse linked to productivity and the
nature of modernity. Max Weber was the first to point towards a link
between the Protestant Ethic and the emergence of capitalist society, with
its emphasize on the virtues of diligence and hard work that are still
functioning. The work ethic can be seen as having a twofold purpose in
early modernity: as a mean for both disciplining the body and the soul. In
the Calvinist tradition believers held out hope of heavenly rewards, and
toiled for the glory of God.The nineteenth century moralists shifted the
promise towards earthly rewards, and the work ethic motivated the
middle class to toil because it was useful to both the individual and the
common weal (Ekerdt
1986). “Idleness is the work of the devil” an old
saying similarly goes, pin-pointing the fact that indolence and inactivity
are viewed as morally unacceptable. This permeates old age too. Ekerdt
sees the construction of the active “busy ethic” in retirement to be a form
of moral regulation corresponding to the work ethic:
It is not the actual pace of activity but the preoccupation with ac-
tivity and the affirmation of its desirability that matters. (ibid: 243)
(See also Katz 2000: 139)
By transforming the work ethic into an “activity ethic” in later life, the
abstract ideals and moral values of the work ethic are continued. Un-
productivity – now inactivity – has a moral meaning and is unacceptable.
Older persons too feel morally obliged to keep active and maintain inde-
Visual Signs of Ageing
75
pendency (see for instance Hepworh 1995) – and furthermore to be visibly
active (see also Gubrium
1973).
Yet another discourse comes into play here: that of postmodernity –
and with it the value of motion. Zygmunt Bauman writes on the man-
agement of the postmodern identity:
If the modern “problem of identity” was how to construct an iden-
tity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern “problem of iden-
tity” is primarily how to avoid fixations and keep options open.
(Bauman 1995: 81)
The abstract ideals and values derived from the creation of postmodern
identity are those of flexibility, of continuous energy, and being “on the
move”. Fitness is valued as a capacity to move swiftly to where the action
is and to take in new experiences. Never to stand still (ibid). Hence to be
busy and to perform activity is to be successful, and this adds yet another
dimension to the reading of signs of activity.
Thus, activity has become a strong cultural ideal as it coordinates
(and accumulates) gerontological expertise, values derived from early
modernity, and postmodern norms. Visual statements of activity in older
persons have become proof of successful ageing – of health, morals and
managing life.
Dress Code
The other main theme occurring in the analysis of the in-depth-inter-
views was that of “dress code”, especially dressing according to age.
When looking at the data from the actual age assessment, the lady de-
scribed in the analytical category of “mutton dressed as lamb” can be
said to be successful as she is assessed to be younger looking – if that
really was intended. Interestingly, though, almost all informants reacted
negatively to the photo. But why did informants react so strongly? Is it to
what must seem to be obvious signs of vanity? Signs of sexual activity? If
that is so, then one could say that the only sign of activity not permitted
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
76
in elderly is that of sexual activity. This might apply only to women as
our empiric material unfortunately does not give a basis for an interpre-
tation within that area in men.
4
However, clearly women past fertility are
not expected – or allowed? – to show any signs of sexual activity. This is
not new. The very concept of elderly women engaging in sexual activity
has been repugnant to society for hundreds of years – at least back to the
seventeenth century – since the only approved aim of sex has been that of
reproduction (Thane
2005).
The negative reactions to the lady on the photograph show that ap-
parently some very old distinctions between accepted and non-accepted
appearance of older persons still apply. This confirms that, although the
postmodern opportunities of self representation are supposed to be fluid
and flexible, it is still not a question of free choice – when biology hits old
age another set of rules applies.
Signs of Ageing and Postmodernity
The significance of age-related appearance can partly be attributed to
contemporary cultural trends: postmodernity and consumer culture.
With these trends visual images and choices of life style have become
increasingly dominant in expressions of individual identity. The post-
modern perspective of age and ageing has been characterized in terms of
cultural bricolage: diversity, fragmentation, blurring boundaries between
young and old in a dechronologized life course (Cole
1997; Powell &
Longino
2002); and hence the absence of clear guidelines through the life
course, and increased flexibility in the negotiation of self-representation
(Biggs
1997). With cultural primacy put on visual statements, one of the
pivotal points of postmodernity is the question of representation and
referentials. From a semiotic perspective the relation between signifiers
and signifiéds are loosening. Baudrillard (
1983) even talks of a semiotic
excess that has turned reality into a meaningless hyper-reality, and he
4
For feminist research in this area, see for instance Hockey and James (2003)
(overview), or Schwaiger (2006).
Visual Signs of Ageing
77
refers to a “liquidation of all referentials” (ibid). The concept of a hyper-
reality seems exaggerated, but it points towards the field of visual repre-
sentation – and visual communication – undergoing radical changes.
According to Baudrillard the changes implicate an overall referential shift
from “productivity” in the modern era, to “simulation” in the postmod-
ern – supposedly resulting in increased possibilities of visual self-repre-
sentation and performance. However, when it comes to old age, visible
age is not appreciated in a consumer culture that values youthful appear-
ance, and hence negative language and images of later life tend to be
reinforced (Powell & Longino
2002; Bytheway 1998). Thus age-related
appearance has become a field of conflicting matters in consumer culture.
The question of the ageing body’s status and limited possibilities of
visual identity statements in consumer culture have been subject to theo-
rizing within the last decades. For Featherstone and Hepworth (
1989) the
question of ”mask of ageing” arises as diverse lifestyle choices are made
available through consumer culture, and by the fact that the ageing body
becomes increasingly unresponsive to consumer opportunities as others
attribute negative qualities to physical signs of ageing. Woodward (
1991)
argues that our own fear of dying is mirrored in the cultural representa-
tions of old age. In her study of representations of old age in twentieth
century literature she finds that our culture’s representations of ageing
are predominantly negative and inextricably linked to our personal
anxieties and fear of death (Woodward
1991). “We are”, she writes, “un-
able to adopt a position of pure social constructivism” to the ageing body
(ibid:
18). Following Woodward, our own personal anxieties and fear of
dying cannot be neglected when looking at older people. We cannot de-
tach the body in decline from the meanings we attach to old age. Hep-
worth underlines that at the present time (
1995) the social construction of
positive ageing both in everyday life and by professionals’ attempts, is to
transform later life into an extended middle age terminating in a quick
and painless exit: dying on time (Hepworth
1995). Biggs and Powell (2001)
point towards the co-existence of established and emerging “master nar-
ratives” of biological decline on the one hand and consumer agelessness
on the other, “talking to different populations and promoting contradic-
tory, yet interrelated, narratives by which to age” (ibid:
967).
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
78
Our empirical material confirms some, and opposes other theories.
Following Hepworth (
1995), one could say that – in relation to the theme
of activity – the informants are looking for visible signs of activity in older
persons, and that older persons are not expected or allowed to “let go”
until late old age: until the time of dying. Older persons were not read to
perform “agelessness” or “extended middle age”. However, the process
going from “activity” to “inactivity” works equivalently and was ex-
pected to be prolonged at the older persons’ will. Activity is “life” and
inactivity is “death”. Hepworth also stresses (inspired by Gubrium
1986
and Woodward
1991) that in order to cope with old age we transform
images of decay into images of disease. Behind this lies the belief that if
ageing is transformed into illness, then it is not the biological ageing that
is to be feared but illness and the failure to combat it (Hepworth
1995).
Here we see that images of old age and biological decay are transformed
into images of inactivity, and hence approached accordingly.
Dress and clothing could provide an arena in which a postmodern
blurring of boundaries between young and old could be recognized. In a
postmodern context the former pattern of age-ordering in dress is sup-
posed to give way to a new fluidity, in which clothes can be chosen with-
out consideration of, or in counter-valance to, considerations of age
(Twigg
2007). However, as Twigg also stresses, voluntarism in relation to
dress (and identity) might not be as great as claimed by postmodernists
(Twigg
2007). This is confirmed in our empirical material. As in-
authenticity and performance are supposed to be the very core of the
postmodern condition (Baudrillard
1983), the woman related to the term
“mutton dressed as lamb” could have been seen simply to have chosen
not to become old, or to be performing a younger age. She is, however,
read to be cheating with her age, to be deceiving and to not be
trustworthy. As her appearance is not accepted, our study yet again does
not confirm a loosening of the relations between signifiers and signifiés of
ageing signs, or a resymbolization of age. According to our empirical
material the appearance of older persons is still defined by quite narrow
margins.
As for the sexual activity read into the photograph related to the
“mutton dressed as lamb” phenomenon, there also seems to be some
contradiction. Katz and Marshall (
2003, and Marshall & Katz 2002) em-
Visual Signs of Ageing
79
phasize that the convergence of consumer culture and medical expertise
has led to a change of focus concerning ageing and sexual activity, as
active sexuality is now promoted as a signal indicator of positive and
successful aging. However, as previously shown, the lady on the photo-
graph is not read into a consumerist interpretation of sexual activity as a
signal of successful ageing. On the contrary, she is considered to be
cheap. The terms of “mutton dressed as lamb”, and “ageing gracefully
are old categories linked to ideas and morals of early modernity. Western
culture has a solid historical tradition of moral regulations of old age
(Cole
1997) that is not easily revised. On the level of meaning examined
here, rigid age norms deeply rooted in the past still play a profound role
in the interpretation of ageing signs.
A few remarks on the limitations of our study should be made. As a
result of the specific empirical focus chosen in this study, the older per-
sons’ subjective experiences of their own bodies, e.g. possible experiences
of social invisibility, are ignored. Furthermore, the photographs are of
persons over
70 years old, which is not quite the “baby boomer” genera-
tion. The photographed persons were born before
1933 and hence belong
to an “older” generation. This might influence the reading and interpre-
tation of the ageing signs. No doubt, an ongoing postmodern dechro-
nologization of the life course might escalate and call for further resym-
bolization of age with the “baby boomer” generation, as they have been
socialised in consumption. The strength of the study is that the photo-
graphs are not “postmodern” or “popular culture” but ordinary photo-
graphs of older persons in their homes, thus enabling a reading in this
level of meaning. Another strength is the homogeneity of the informants’
reading of age and ageing signs despite differences in their ages and
backgrounds.
Conclusions
Consumer culture has put an emphasis on ageing appearance. This study
explores visual age and how signs of age are read and interpreted. Ini-
tially the complexity of the negotiation of biological and cultural signs
when age is assessed is described. The main indicators of age are biologi-
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life
80
cal: skin, eyes and hair colour – but supplemented by vigour, style and
grooming.
The in-depth interviews show that activity and dress code are key
themes in the reading and interpretation of visual ageing signs. The in-
formants interpret signs of physical, social and mental activity as indica-
tors of successful ageing – of health, morals and managing life. In this,
several discourses interact: gerontological expertise, work ethics rooted
in early modernity, and postmodern values. The theme of dress code
shows that former patterns of age-ordering in dress still apply, as infor-
mants link clothing and dress to categorizations rooted in early moder-
nity. These findings question the concept of postmodernity. The pivotal
point of postmodernity is the question of representation and referentials,
as postmodernity has been characterized in terms of fluidity of signs. As
a consequence of this, the postmodern perspective of age and ageing has
been characterized in terms of diversity, and blurring boundaries be-
tween young and old. The resymbololization af signs of ageing is, how-
ever, not found in the empirical material of this study, as both activity
and dress code are subject to moral regulations – and linked to categorisa-
tions – rooted in early modernity. All in all, the referential shift from
“productivity” to “simulation”, as indicated by Baudrillard, seems to be
more advanced in the level of meaning of popular and consumer culture,
than in the reading of visual age, in the context we have examined. This
study questions a postmodern fluidity of visual signs – at least when the
concern is signs of ageing.
Acknowledgements
We thank MSc. Dorte Almind Pedersen, Institute of Public Health, Uni-
versity of Southern Denmark, for help with the statistical analysis of data.
As part of The Longitudinal Study of Ageing Danish Twins this study
was supported by the US National Institute on Aging research grant
NIA-PO
1-AG08761, Grete and Sigurd Petersen’s Foundation, the Velux
Foundation and Unilever.
Visual Signs of Ageing
81
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