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Opinion: Ray O'Neill

Body Shame

They say that there are only two guarantees in life: death and taxes; but the aging process is something else that isn’t just waiting, but is always already happening. Yet our society still carries such anxieties and discomfort around aging.

In traditional Eastern cultures, older people are more valued than their Western counterparts, for their life experience, their wisdom, for what they have done over their lives for a family, a community. In our western cultures, aging is something to be ashamed of, to be denied and repressed, something to be concealed, botoxed, spray-tanned away, or worse yet, shunned, discarded, consigned to a nursing home, or exiled to Jurassic.

There’s a quote from CS Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books that reflects how we waste most our life trying to be some other age rather than the age we are: “She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Nothing I will write will change this anxiety we hold around aging, but what is truly daunting is what is now deemed old or older in our culture. I was recently working with someone aged 32 who struggled with the common anxiety we all share about being single, alone and unwanted. He told me he could not afford both therapy and botox, so he chose the botox. Online, I noticed a school peer of mine who is now profiled as 36. I don’t remember him being seven doing the Leaving Cert.

One of the strengths of the LGBT+ scene and community in its ‘older’ days was its embracing and celebration of transgenerational collaboration, friendships, and relationships. Amongst gay men there is, and always has been, an enjoyment of ‘daddy sex’ as a desire, a sexual fantasy. Maybe this was the advantage of being a relatively small, proud, marginalised group – we had to stand together, recognising what we had more in common than our differences, especially in the losses around HIV and our fight for legal and social recognition. It is so powerful to live through this time and see and share in the achievements LGBT+ folk have made, but in the powerful normalisation and homogenisation of LGBT+ culture, something is lost, even in the something’s gained.

I was fortunate, in my heyday, to have been mostly attracted to older men, because I saw (or imagined) them as being more together, cannier, roughened around the edges in all the best ways. Of course, there were times I was disappointed, but other times I shared something with different men which demonstrated the potential and gifts that can only come with age; and these were imparted. And so, for me hitting 40 or approaching 50 has had less anxiety because I was lucky enough to experience and hold role models of older gay folk I admired, respected, loved and coveted.

And yes, the material realities of aging suck. Greying hair is a luxury when you’re losing your own hair, never mind the irony of continually finding new hair where angels fear to tread. Sexuality ebbs and flows in different cycles, with other energies, though hopefully in newer yearnings. The body ages, physical recovery takes longer, your peers are struck with and lost to cancer with growing regularity. But even if aging is this very real shedding of skin and hair, there is hopefully something more that can emerge through experience, learning, living that life. The quantity of the experiences may be less but their quality, depth, and girth, can be more fulfilling, substantial, rewarding. Only living a life fully can allow you to fully live life.

So much of contemporary LGBT+ representation focuses on millennial lives, appearance, bodies, social scenes, technologies; a virtual Tír na n-Óg. You could be forgiven for thinking that older LGBTs had all been rounded up and shipped offsomewhere west of the Aran Islands. We once fought together for visibility as LGBT+ folk; could we now fight to celebrate the visibility of older LGBT+ folk, if for no other reason than this is all our destiny, to in time, with time, become older ourselves?

We once fought together for visibility as LGBT folk. Could we now not ght to celebrate the visibility of older LGBT folk, if for no other reason than this is all our destiny?

Maybe the next time millennials see an older member of the LGBT+ community they could be polite, inclusive, friendly, rather than dismissing them or slagging them offin front of, or behind their backs. And maybe we older folk might not go so gently into that good night, but claim back the night, the dancefloors, our community, our lives and sexualities; not sit at the back of the bus, even if we have our free transport.

It is not just cheaper car insurance and potentially more disposable income that older LGBTs can have. In the words of gone too young George Michael” “Strange baby, don’t you think I’m looking older? But something good has happened to me. Change is a stranger you have yet to know.”

I have no idea what the future holds, but I know there still is a future, for me, for us. And my wish is to keep meeting strangers, to keep meeting change, to not be so strange to myself and others, and to keep changing. As long as we are alive, we have a future. Don’t fear it, just maybe look ahead to someone a little further down the road, and you might just find a hand reaching back to you.

Ray is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist specialising in individual and relationship counselling. He can be contacted on 086 828 0033

This article appears in the 341 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 341 Issue of GCN