Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Unlikely bedfellows - Arab, German, Japanese social constructions and ageing

At first glance, nothing obvious ties these things together. And yet, a single thread does connect distinct geographies, across seemingly inconsistent time frames, to the overarching reality of an ageing world.

Last week, I was on a panel at the UCL (University College London) Festival of Ageing. This panel included Aaron Parkhurst, PhD candidate/Research Fellow in Anthropology and expert on skin-whitening practices across the Emirates, Ulrike Neundorf, PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology, expert on surveillance techniques of the Stasi secret police in the GDR(German Democratic Republic) through its abolishment in 1989, Jesse Bia, MPhil/PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology, expert on organ transplantation practices in Japan, and myself on longevity in the 21st century. So what's the connective tissue?

It's the link to our identity. On a superficial but ultimately defining level, each topic is or was reliant on the suppression and masking of identity. More specifically, in the case of Japan, the very essence of self as it relates to the complicated definition of "brain death" was explained. Plumbing the deepest reaches of ourselves is fiendishly visceral!

So, I googled skin whitening in the Emirates  and got 11,200,000 results. When I limited it to "in the Emirates", I got 290,000 results. Apparently when using products like "Fair and Lovely" (58,400,000 results in .4 seconds), increased attractiveness to the opposite sex, maximized virility and a pathway to life successes can be yours. Out of curiosity, I next googled fake tanning and got 6,860,000 results and a whopping 14,100,000 for Fake Bake. The opposite desirability is playing out in the west. And we know, this equates to big business, $170B annually of which $48B gets spent in the UK alone. The malleability of identity is laid bare.

The Stasi exploration probes the exacting, seemingly emotionless and institutionalized investigation of persons deemed to have been a threat to the GDR. The very finest minds, including those of PhD students at the time, were directed toward refining techniques of intimidation and sublimation to ensure conformity. Notably, there are faint echoes in the recent NSA breaches of friendliness, between allies. The fragility of identity is exposed.

In Japan, strong cultural views about life and death and a tacit distrust of western medicine is central to this countries skepticism and relatively lower rates of organ donation. Conversely, Japan is a major, world class player in stem cell research, with a permissive regulatory framework and highly experimental environment. The dichotomy is unmistakable and underscores that the socio-cultural construction of identity is fundamental.

Add ageing to this mix, a period of life that so many people have never experienced, at the same time, ever before and personal identity is the linchpin. Given that not a single one of us can know our ageing fate, the unpredictability is real. For those of us who survive into old age the physical is stripped away. In time, we will accept that along with our outer image, every other element of life we have invested in, does not last either. All that remains is the inner self, the elemental identity.

Unsurprisingly, in the 21st C, it may turn out that our instinct for life will allow us to ascribe value to our ageing identity, and the positive acknowledgment of this as a different, rather than a less than time.

Deborah Gale


  1. Lots of disjointed digressions:

    Very interesting to think about the effects of culture and context on identity, particularly if the person seems *willing* to conform (GDR) or dissent (Emirates). Identity surely exists before and after these choices, but in so far as decisions are made due to pressures or fears, how far can our identity post be seen as genuine expressions of ourselves. The individual is never in a vacuum, but some contexts are more powerful than others; identity is fraught with complications!

    I agree that identity is socio-culturally constructed, we draw from or deliberately reject parts of all cultures we are exposed to, be it national, scientific, religious, feminist, whatever you like. This speaks to the idea of identity being voluntary, but don't you think that seems slightly wrong? Since identity is really meant to be consistent, surely it is in some way determined?

    Our physical identity is clearly finite, but I don't understand what you mean when you say 'the elemental identity'. Our minds/ ideas? Is this a religious comment? Or something that we leave behind, earthly contributions? The way phrased, the 'elemental identity' seems like we are all reduced to something exactly the same, and if that's the case, then it isn't really an identity at all!

    To be honest, ageing seems like a heartening reinforcement against youthful (and consequent) ideas of vanity; that our identity is in fact our character, and is built on actions rather than aesthetics.

  2. I think that aging gracefully and as healthy as possible is the best way! No need to go crazy crazy with plastic surgery etc...check out my how to tighten skin that has become loose over the years and let me know your thoughts :) Have a good one!