About a fortnight ago, my friend Joe, always a font of good ideas, suggested I write something on a topic we often chat about, namely being an aging gay male in a youth oriented culture. While I tend to think that I am not too impacted by all the palaver about this, I am hardly immune to it. Maybe I have not been as much bothered by the youth focus because my main attraction is to men around my own age. Having said that, you can be assured that eye candy of any age will make me look twice – maybe even entertain a quick fantasy. But does my predilection make me immune to age discrimination? No, in fact I find myself subtly screening out guys who are just a little older than myself. Why, I wonder, and what’s a guy to do?
As is commonly stated, the problem is mainly about perfection and the impossibility of living up to an ideal. We live in a time of a powerful mass culture that has the ability not only to create perfect body images but to splatter them over a large part of the globe. What we tend not to see is that perfect as the images are they are nonetheless lifeless – and yet we go trotting after them like sheep in a pasture. And, this is not just about the fashion industry or visual images. It is a pervasive problem. Take a look at pop music. I confess that I am disturbed by live concerts in which the lead musicians lip synch to their own recorded songs simply because they think they cannot afford to have the inevitable imperfections of live performance taint their totally perfect studio images. Although classical musicians produce the same kinds of recordings with blemishes engineered out, at least they do perform live on stage and do not hide behind the veil of perfectly manipulated recordings. People, this is a sad state of affairs. And, is it any wonder that there are so many people suffering from the likes of eating disorders or of shame over an aging body?
Maybe we have forgotten that there is such a thing as stages in a man’s life, and that each one has something to teach us. How else are we to grow if we cannot let go of one stage of life to embrace the next. By not being able to do so, we run the risk of becoming like Aschenbach, in Mann’s Death in Venice, who tried to arrest the aging process with dyed hair and makeup, but whose body gave out anyway while gazing on the youth Tadzio. In the film version, this scene is portrayed with mascara running down Aschenbach’s face as his mask dissolves. Because his life was not authentic, there is neither beauty nor vitality. My feeling is that these qualities come from being true to whatever stage of life we are in and embracing the bodies that we have and affirming them – especially as we enter our “mature” years. To embrace the power of eros is to be one with our most powerful life-giving force, and this cannot be done hiding behind a mask. Don’t misunderstand, I am not at all against surgical procedures that can enhance one’s physical appearance, or of taking pride in one’s physical appearance. It’s all a matter of degree. Manscaping is fine, trying to look good is great. I am all for it. But, if these things become a blockage to self-acceptance and growth, then that is another issue.
Having reached the middle stage of my own life’s journey, I can appreciate how much the erotic in myself has been transformed. There are times when I mourn my lost youth, yet I am comforted by the fact that I still have the same powerful urge for living, for being sexual with others, and for orgasmic journeys with friends. In the midst of all this, I continue to struggle with having to overcome my imperfections and the image I have of myself. Masking my flaws is hardly an answer, and that leaves me with the only answer to my question that I can come up with: somehow learning to embrace imperfection and getting on with the joy of living a vital and erotic life.