Tuesday, April 2, 1996
Old age is a new wrinkle for boomers

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As you know, this is the year the first round of baby boomers will turn 50. Expect that we will be utterly fascinated by ourselves as usual.

Look for plenty of riveting discussions about menopause and prostates and dental implants. And plenty of ads for Miracle Ear and bifocals and hair dye and Rogaine. Couples probably will give each other designer blood pressure cuffs for special occasions. I only wish I had the bran and stewed prune concession for this decade.

One writer described us as sort of a demographic pig working our way through the python. But I think that's unkind, don't you? We can't help it that almost from birth we've been the target of somebody trying to sell us something.

Here's something I wish we would buy: There's nothing wrong with getting old.

You may be among those dismayed to find yourself on the brink of your first complimentary copy of Modern Maturity and an offer to join AARP. If so, try to plan a trip downtown to the YWCA at Walnut and Ninth streets. There are some old women there you ought to see.

It's a photo exhibit with models mostly in their 70s and 80s, posed as their favorite hero. Their jawlines are blurred, their upper arms sag. They are unretouched and uninhibited. It's a festival of wrinkles, a celebration of cellulite.

They are gorgeous.

Called The Stuff of Dreams, the exhibit is by photographer Elise Mitchell Sanford, 66, who says, ''I live in a culture that denies age and values youth . . . that surrounds us with media that constantly fills our eyes, ears and minds with the need to stay young and beautiful. It's a wonder that we can lift our collective heads off the pillow in the morning.''

Well, if anything can get your head off the pillow, it would be an 82-year-old vamping it up as Betty Grable. Successfully, I might add. Or a woman posing with stolid dignity as Thurgood Marshall.

Ms. Sanford, who has lived in Athens, Ohio, for 35 years, went back to school at Ohio University in her 50s, finishing with a master's degree at the age of 60. ''It was as an undergraduate student in photography that I began investigating the signs of aging in my own body. I wanted to look carefully and unemotionally at the wrinkles, the lines, the varicose veins, the effects of gravity. I wanted somehow to consume the symbols, to come to terms with them.''

I'm not sure I want to really become as chummy with my wrinkles as all that, but I don't think I want to have all the life nipped and tucked out of my face either. I sure don't want to end my life looking startled and perpetually alert with a mouth like an open purse.

Have you seen Carol Burnett lately? Or Mary Tyler Moore? I bet she smiles when she sits down. This woman is taut. The women of the photo exhibit are not.

''I didn't doll anybody up. I just hoped I could make aging visible,'' the photographer told me. ''I wanted to make people stop and look at these women.'' You can stop and look through April 19. It's free to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

It will be interesting to see, as we boomers age, what we'll choose to do. And how we'll choose to look. Will our ears get bigger and our noses longer and our eyelids droopier? Or will we keep carving away at them?

Just as we thought we invented sex during the '60s and divorce during the '70s, we are now going to be discovering age spots and jowls. I wonder if we'll keep them.

There are 76 million of us, and someone will celebrate a 50th birthday every 7 1/2 seconds for the next decade. We've been trained to expect that whatever we want will be waiting for us. So, what do you suppose will happen as we get grayer with, shall we say, more lived-in faces?

Will we want to go out looking like Gloria Swanson or Jessica Tandy? We'll either lead the charge for drive-through cosmetic surgery and wrinkle cream by the vat or we'll make aging look good.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.