FROM PONCE DE LEON TO GOOP: FOUNTAINS of Youth
It was the Crocs I noticed first. So many feet encased in garishly colored, plasticine horror. What had happened to American footwear while I was living in Europe for five years? And since I’m no fashionista, why did I recoil so violently at the sight of these Swiss cheese-styled clogs? Slowly after my re-entry, the evidence began to assemble. In addition to the Crocs, I noted a proliferation of adult-sized onesies, rompers, and even RompHims; at the coffee shop I saw S’mores flavored coffee milkshakes on offer; even in the drugstore I paused, staring in bafflement at a selection of feminine hygiene products that included radiant glitter tampons and tutti-frutti scented maxi pads. Perhaps it’s simply my own snobbishness that made these artifacts seem alien, but it’s hard to deny that they also share a distinct and distinctly American character. In the crocs and the tampons we encounter the impulse to stay forever young, a consumer culture responding to the refusal to grow up.
The quest for eternal youth is hardly a recent development; nor is it exclusively American. In ancient China, for instance, several emperors sought after the fabled Elixir of Life. During the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huang sent a chemist along with 1,000 young men and women to the eastern seas to find the Elixir. Qin Shi Huang never returned to China—legend has it he discovered and colonized Japan instead. Tales of the Fountain of Youth appear as early as the fifth century BC, in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. The Romance of Alexander, which appeared first in the third century BC and the stories of Prester John, a Christian king who is said to have ruled over the Orient during the twelfth century, both feature mystical springs whose waters bestow eternal youth.
The legend starts to move toward American shores in the 16th century, when the explorer Juan Ponce de León supposedly set out in search of the Fountain of Youth. One popular account of Ponce de León’s travels has him roaming the coast of Florida in 1513 in search of the Fountain that Native Americans had told him was located there. Spotting a good marketing opportunity in 1904, Luella Day McConnell (also known as “Diamond Lil”) bought the property in St. Augustine, Florida where Ponce de León is said to have landed and created the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park—a tourist attraction and great American paradox you can still visit today.
Although the pursuit for eternal youth may be universal, Americans seemed to have cornered the market on its most extreme and perverse iterations. We wear pajamas on airplanes and sweatpants to class; we talk about “adulting” as if it’s a challenging thing we can choose to do, rather than a condition of being. Today’s obsession with youth comes most directly from the post-World War II generation, the baby boomers who wanted to share taste (in music, fashion, and slang) with their children, rather than accept the kind of generation gap they had vis-à-vis their parents.
The boomers’ embrace during the 1960s of rock-n-roll, counter-culture, and even rebellion put the trappings of youth into a state of permanent recycle: whatever the “kids” were doing, soon the adults would do it too. What’s more, the generation of post- war Americans had reached an unprecedented degree of technological sophistication—they could not only desire eternal youth as, perhaps, all humans have; they could work to actualize it with all the force of contemporary science. We may not be searching for an Elixir anymore (though some claim they’ve found it in small-batch kombucha), but the quest for eternal youth is as prevalent and as profitable as ever.
The treatments and technologies available to erase physical signs of aging are endless—they range from hair dye and tooth whitening strips to toxins and fillers we shoot into wrinkles, because what says come hither like paralytic facial muscles? The mandate to stay eternally young is disproportionately gendered: it’s no secret that our culture gives aging men much more leeway than women, whom we expect to look forever young. As just one example, consider the fact that cosmetic vaginoplasty is one of the most demanded plastic surgeries in North America.
A quick glance at a definition of the term reveals just how stringently we police (and proceduralize) the aging female body: “Vaginoplasty is a procedure that aims to ‘tighten up’ a vagina that’s become slack or loose from vaginal childbirth or aging.” Yikes! If surgery’s not your style, there’s always the $66 jade egg “for your yoni” sold by Gwenyth Paltrow’s lifestyle publication Goop, despite vociferous criticism from medical professionals who noted that sleeping with a rock in your vagina might cause infection, rather than youthful rejuvenation or an uptick in “feminine energy.” And, of course, waxing and laser hair removal have helped legions of women turn the clock back on their pubic patterns.
And what’s next on the horizon of eternity? Could digital technologies and developments in artificial intelligence prove the final frontier of forever? One plus of being able to upload your consciousness into the cloud or onto a USB stick is that you won’t need to worry anymore about unwanted body hair. Until Elon Musk has perfected Neuralink, his startup whose goal is to integrate the human brain with Artificial Intelligence, you can always have your body cryogenically frozen by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation for a mere $200,000 (freezing just your brain is a steal at $80,000)! It’s startling to see the financial and physical extremes people go to in pursuit of eternity.
But while it’s human to be anxious about aging and afraid of death, it’s also human to age and to die. And before we invest in another anti- aging supplement or indulge our inner child with a Hello Kitty tattoo, it might be worth pausing to remember that money—like time and youth—is fleeting. Adulting may be hard, but done with confidence, it’s sexier than any forced and fantastical attempt to stop time. So step out of those crocs, forget eternity, and grow up!
Written by Sarah Wasserman
Title artwork by Eduard Veith
Photo by Fine Art Photographic Library/ Corbis