Authenticity and Masquerade in Late-Life Identity Development

My colleague sent a 10-year old article that captured several issues I’ve been grappling with in my research and in my life. (One of the great advantages of a career in gerontology is that the two converge as we grow older!) The article is quite dense, with fabulous theoretical twists and turns, so the bit that resonnated for me might not even be the central thesis from the author’s (or your) perspective. Still, here’s what I got. Masquerade is essential and constant throughout the adult life-course, and particularly in later life (?) . Partly we’re forced into it by the ageism that surrounds us as, for instance, when we disguise our sexuality to conform with normative expectations or when we dress or behave in ways considered “age-appropriate.” And partly it permits a bit of experimentation – a playful trying-on, as it were, of diverse options or “masks.” But to the extent that a social (or physical?) environment requires disguise it impairs the development (? or at least the expression) of authentic identities. This is no surprise, really. But I think it’s interesting to ask ourselves as we navigate our social environments to what extent each setting permits congruent expression of both our surface and our deep selves. We must also consider the cost of incongruity. When we crossed our eyes at the teacher she used to stay, “Stop that or they’ll get stuck that way!” Might the same thing apply? Even as we are consciously playing made-up roles might we get stuck that way? A good part of my life has been the search for settings and relationships that permit me to be authentically myself. Sometimes I think it’s not about the setting, but my own cowardice.If only I were stronger, braver,smarter, more sure, I would just BE MYSELF. So for me, this article brought a key insight – it’s not all about me. The social environment, or at least some settings and relationships, demand duplicity in exchange for security, acceptance, acclaim. Maybe one gift of old age will be the opportunity to transform or exit these settings.

Biggs, S. (1999). The “blurring” of the life-course: Narrative, memory and the question of authenticity. Journal of Aging and Identity,4(4), 209-221.

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