Physical Simplification, Part I: Appearance

This post is part of a series on simplification in late life. The series is inspired by twentieth-century theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill, who proposed that the most important psychological task of late adulthood is simplification, by which he means “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action.” (from The Struggle of the Soul, p. 130) One area where we face the prospect of having to distinguish the important from the less important is in response to the changes that take place in the body in late life. Sherrill describes the challenge that physical simplification entails:

“In Western life when an individual receives his first signals of approaching age, one of the major tests of character is upon him: to reject and deny it, or to accept and affirm it.”

Our bodies change in many ways. The topic of this post is dealing with the changes in our physical appearance as we age. Skin wrinkles and sags; hair thins and grays; trunks thicken while arms and legs thin. Simplification regarding appearance consists of accepting such changes and placing less emphasis on maintaining the youthful features that our society most values (for example, smooth skin and thick hair). We’ve been the recipient of countless direct and indirect messages that looking young is important, so accepting an older-looking body can be difficult. Two years ago, blogger Ronni Bennett, then 72,  wrote about her habit of not looking at her naked body in the mirror despite regularly passing her reflection on her way to and from her bath:

“Do you have any idea how difficult that is with mirrors on two sides of you every day? It takes a lot of shame to work at it that hard.

“For me, elder advocate that I am, there is a strange division in my mind about this. On the one hand, I unshakably believe – and have done so for many years – that there is nothing wrong with old bodies. I find photographs and paintings of old bodies to be fascinating and attractive.

“On the other hand, I have not liked to see what time has done to my own body.”

Ronnie decided to overcome her avoidance by standing naked before her mirror “for a good, long time,” noticing all the sags and wrinkles. Facing herself in this way did bring about acceptance:

“The more I looked, turning here and there, adjusting the mirrors to try different angles, the more I became okay with me.”

So, if any reader over 50 or so is avoiding the mirror, do like Ronni did; look at your reflection for however long it takes to accept your looks (and thereby simplify your physical self by discarding your mental baggage about perpetually looking young).

Let me conclude this post with a bit of what Dr. Bill Thomas (in What Are Old People For?) thinks about face lifts, Botox, and other wrinkle fighting methods:

“We are asked to unmake what we have spent a lifetime making. What do we receive for this sacrifice? Not youth. Instead, we are given, at best, the facsimile of youth. Expressiveness, passion, and history are pillaged in the pursuit of youth’s fresh blankness.”

What good is youth’s blankness? Simplify your physical appearance! Enjoy your wrinkles!

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family. I maintain a part-time therapy practice in Grand Rapids. I currently worship at Monroe Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at
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