While it’s a natural instinct in all of us to seek to beautify ourselves and seek out beauty in others, we live in an age in which there is, as one author puts it, “a profound attachment to looks and aesthetics.”1 Instead of considering our physical appearance as simply one aspect and dimension of our being, we are often told—subtly as well as explicitly—that it should be the center of our focus, and the means by which we value ourselves and others. This is in no small part due to the fashion and beauty industry, a multi-billion dollar global business that churns out products and images that define for us what beauty is, and what we need to buy in order to attain it.
Often, the image of beauty put forward by this industry, and reinforced in many ways in our society, is that of a woman who is flawless in form and feature, and most importantly, young. Any sign of age is considered a defect. Gray hair and wrinkles are unacceptable, and even laugh lines and smile lines are considered repugnant. Many cosmetics are marketed not only as revitalizing and enhancing, but as literally transformative; such products will not only beautify you, but are ‘age-defying’ and ‘age-reversing’, erasing years from your life and making you more like the idealized, adolescent woman that fits this image of perfection.
Studies have found that an aversion to looking older is found not only in middle-aged women (for whom these products have long been targeted) but increasingly in younger and younger women who are turning to cosmetic procedures2 , and also in men, for whom the cosmetics industry is booming.3
What are the effects of this aversion to aging? And what does it mean to live in a society where the height of beauty is looking forever sixteen or eighteen?
The Problem with the Idealized
While there is certainly a fresh-faced appeal in men and women in their teens and twenties, putting such an image forward as the only standard for beauty is troubling on many levels. This narrow standard does not speak to the multitude and diverse ways God has manifest beauty in human beings. It also reinforces the idea that any sign of age is unequivocally tied to ugliness. This and similar ideas lead people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to desperately grasp at a perpetually youthful look, instead of considering that there may be more refined, mature images of beauty that progress with age. Not comfortable in their own skin, they become deeply dissatisfied with their appearance and/or that of their spouses, which can lead to a myriad of issues and problems.
A Broader Perspective of Beauty
Instead of encouraging a robust and healthy conception of beauty, such ideas promote a narrowed and distorted version of it. There is more to beauty than the particular, exacting (and often digitally altered) images that we are shown again and again by the fashion and beauty industry. We must consider such images in light of the teachings of our religion, which emphasize that God has created us in due proportion and form4 , and the repeated example in His creation of the beauty of variety and diversity:
“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Qur’an 30:22)
A wonderful illustration of this can be seen in the Mothers of the Believers, who were each ‘ideal’ women, but very different from each other, not only in personality, but in age, background, form and feature. It is also a point of reflection to consider that the first love of our beloved ﷺ (peace be upon him) was Khadija, a woman who was many years the Prophet’s senior.
Appreciating Signs of Age
In addition, we should not be repulsed by signs of age, but consider them reminders of our inevitable mortality, and as opportunities for introspection and change. We should live our lives aware that we are constantly moving from one stage to another closer to our death, and conscious of the fragility and shortness of this life. Islam teaches us in so many ways that we should keep this reality in the forefront of our minds; the Prophet ﷺ encouraged us to “remember often the destroyer of pleasures (death)”5 and to “visit the graves, for they remind one of death.”6
Imam al-Busiri, in his famous work Qasidat al-Burda, likens gray hair to a guest that arrives to remind one of one’s mortality:
Verily my soul which is laden evil did not heed advice
Due to its ignorance, from the warning by grey hair and old age.
And I have not prepared of good deeds a feast,
For a guest (that) has lodged on (my) head nor did I honor (him).
The Prophet ﷺ also said, “Gray hair is light on the face of a Muslim.”7 While it is not specifically prohibited to dye gray hair (with certain conditions), one should consider one’s internal state when doing so, and realize that while one can conceal the signs of age, one cannot erase its reality.
Physical beauty must also be put in its proper context, taking into account the reality of the purpose of our lives. Beautifying our inner state and inner ‘image’ should be given critical importance, for “God looks not at your faces or bodies but at your hearts.”8 A poet stated, “Do not be like Iblees (Satan) and see in Adam only water and clay,” meaning we should look beyond mere form to value what is deeper and more meaningful.
Our Attitude Towards Aging
Our culture’s negative feelings towards aging are not only manifest in its obsession with youthful looks, but also in the way it often rewards and idolizes adolescent behavior. Advertising encourages us to preoccupy ourselves with gadgets, toys and entertainment. We find music, television and movies filled with portrayals of relationships in which maturity and responsibility are absent and an objectifying sexuality is key. In many ways, we are being taught that we should not only strive to look like adolescents, but to act with the immaturity of them too. For this reason, we see many grown men and women lacking wisdom, responsibility and maturity in their behavior and displaying a lack of seriousness and purpose.
We must realize that there is a level of dignity and maturity that should come with age and that should alter one’s behavior as one becomes older. A thought-provoking prophetic tradition states, “There are three to whom God will not speak on the Day of Resurrection, nor praise, nor look at; theirs will be a grave punishment: an old man who fornicates, a king who lies, and a poor man who is arrogant.”9
Fornication, lying and arrogance are sins in and of themselves, but when enacted by such people there is an added element of incongruity. A king has no one to fear in this world due to his power, and therefore has no need to lie, and a poor person has little of worldly things for which to feel arrogance. In the same way, for an old man to fornicate is not only something sinful but an act that is unbecoming and ill suited to him. He should have matured and reached a level of self-discipline that would preclude indulging his desires in a prohibited way. The greater lesson here is that we should be constantly developing and growing spiritually, in a way that would lead us from the hot-bloodedness of youth to a more composed, disciplined and serious nature as we age and realize the gravity of our purpose in life. The prevailing attitude towards age in our society is one that undermines this natural progression towards maturity, and we should recognize this and work towards a dignified attitude and behavior that befits our age and experience.
While we may be aware of Islamic teachings on beauty and age, our understanding and feelings about them are often more deeply shaped by the prevailing ideas in our culture and what we see around us. It is for this reason we must turn a critical eye to the ideas that we are being taught and consider whether they are sound, psychologically and intellectually as well as Islamically and spiritually. As the title of this series indicates, we may need to ‘reconstruct’ some of the ideas we hold dear and reconsider how we think about beauty, age and related concepts. May Allah bless us with clarity of understanding, and grant us a deep and profound beauty that makes us beautiful in His sight.
- Ojoma Akor, “Aging Gracefully as a Woman” [↩]
- Use of Botox and Dysport in 13-19 year olds has increased 2 percent over the past year and 100 percent in the past 15 years. Ther has been a 509 percent increase in Botox use by all ages over that period. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/face-it/201102/too-young-look-old-what-youth-fears-about-aging) [↩]
- Male cosmetics sales in the U.K. are growing at twice the rate of the female market.
- Qur’an 82:7 [↩]
- Sunan at-Tirmidhi [↩]
- Sahih Muslim [↩]
- Al Bayhaqi [↩]
- Sahih Muslim [↩]
- Sahih Muslim [↩]