11th January, 2019
One of my favourite psychological theories and practical approaches is Personal Construct Psychology created by Psychologist George Kelly (‘The Psychology of Personal Constructs’, 1955 published by Routledge). I’ve drawn on this comprehensive and holistic way of thinking about and working with people’s behaviour and issues for many years and it has proven useful in helping them to effect positive change. The three key ideas of this approach are:
1. Individuals have their own unique and personal view or beliefs about the world and themselves in the world, upon which they base the way they behave
2. Every person is constantly trying out different ways of behaviour in order to meet their core needs and to function effectively
3. Individuals’ beliefs (constructs) can be drawn out and understood through a particular way of questioning
Kelly developed his theory mainly with and for individuals but also acknowledged its possible application to groups, organisations and even society as a whole. This brings me to the main reason for writing this piece; the notion of ageless beauty. Here is an example of what I believe is a massive social construct, i.e. a belief or set of ideas held by many across society that a negative correlation exists between age and beauty. In other words, the more an individual ages the less likely they are to be beautiful, or rather, to look beautiful. Certain desirable physical aspects are inextricably linked to youth. I don’t need to elaborate; we all know what they are. What is less obvious and is certainly less articulated, is that the criteria makers for physical beauty are invariably motivated by money and the values for this are rarely given voice. “So”, I imagine readers say, “ever was. We all had our time in youth’s sun. Get over it and accept it is necessary for the survival of the species.”
I understand this biological or evolutionary rationalist point of view and I agree up to a point but what I don’t support is the way journalists manipulate and parody the kinder, more balanced and inclusive idea that age should be embraced and has its own special beauty. What I’m referring to here is the sort of article that claims, on the surface anyway, to be encouraging its older readers to recognise and celebrate their ageing looks and seems to be saying all the right things until you consider the piece more critically. The first clue that the journalist’s message is empty rhetoric is that the piece is illustrated with conventionally youthful images of beauty, i.e. glow-y, bright-eyed, smooth-skinned gals who look nearer to twenty than forty; my own measure of mature, starting-to-age womanhood.
Take this exploration further, flick through the whole publication and count all the images of people according to age and the publication’s commitment to ageing beauty is truly revealed. I did this with my copy of a recent edition of Holland and Barrett’s Healthy’ magazine and the implicitly ageist ethic was obvious. Of 116 photographs of people 100 were of young adults (95 women and 5 men) and 16 were of older adults (14 women and 2 men). These figures include 40 photographs used by advertisers and the vast majority feature young women so although the argument is sometimes made that only images of youthful beauty make commercial sense it is obvious that not just advertisers but editorial boards are choosing certain images. This is all the more ironic in a publication devoted to ‘health’; an important topic for all ages.
I studied research methods over many years and apart from gaining various letters after my name and a doctorate title I’ve learnt to think critically and to formulate questions as well as understanding how to go about answering these and an appreciation of the importance of questions. It really is true that very often the best answer is a better question so going back to the subject of this blog I’ll finish with a question:
“How can those who make their living from writing about beauty and health be encouraged to not just talk the talk but walk the walk as well and abandon their implicitly ageist and excluding ideas?”