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Anti-Ageing and the Portrait in the Attic

Dorian Gray Syndrome or Legitimate Science?

Dr. Gwen Bingle
December 20, 2020

The Quest for Eternal Youth

Myths and stories that revolve around ageing and eternal youth characterise the literatures and religions of many cultures. After all, a central existential theme – literally life versus death – is at stake here. Most stories stage a frantic striving for immortality, youth and beauty, a kind of holy grail quest for esoteric knowledge or magic remedies such as plants, elixirs and fountains of youth to slow down or even reverse the course of time. To this end, reckless heroines and heroes are even prepared to seal shady deals and thus potentially lose not only their goal, honour or sanity, but even their souls. In these narratives, the human desire for immortality appears akin to blasphemy since in most cosmologies only God or goddesses are endowed with this attribute.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Even in the modern age, the moral turpitude of such an aspiration never lurks far below the surface. In this regard, few stories are as impressively threatening as that of Dorian Gray and his portrait. The famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde's only novel, which was published in the late 19th century, depicts its hero's slow decline after he experiences a fervent desire for his portrait to age instead of himself. Spurred on by narcissism, a fascination with aesthetic sensuality and a certain "fin de siècle" decadence ruthlessly distilled by his mentor, dandy Lord Wotton, Dorian Gray realises that the portrait captures not only all the traces of his physical deterioration, but also those of his moral degeneracy. Both fascinated and terrified, Dorian decides to hide the picture in the attic. As his life unfolds, the portrait becomes more and more terrifying while he himself retains his flawless youthful appearance. An increasingly remorseful and desperate Dorian only experiences redemption from his life of vice when he ends up stabbing the portrait in a fit of rage – killing himself in the process. His servants then discover an unrecognisably disfigured old man in the attic and, beside him, the originally perfect portrait of the beautiful young man.


But what is it like in the early 21st century? Do people still sell their souls when they crave or even pursue effective anti-ageing? Or has it finally lost its infamous connotation in a largely secularised and scientific world?

Interestingly, although the desire for immortality coupled with good health and timeless beauty is perhaps as old as human history, science-based anti-ageing is still a relatively young and controversial endeavour. Admittedly, the field of gerontology emerged in the mid-20th century, in parallel with increasing advocacy of early medical prevention – especially in internal medicine. Also, around the same period, concepts such as fitness or wellness spread in the North American context as preventive approaches in both public and corporate health. But it was not until the 1990s that anti-ageing medicine was able to gain a modicum of professional credibility.

The Twilight Zone of Anti-Ageing

Until then, anti-ageing had been mostly the province of traditional empirical herbal medicine or folk medicine – with recommendations based on personal or traditional experience, such as those found in the works of the medieval Benedictine Hildegard von Bingen. This popular current was never completely able to shed its associations with superstitious or magical rituals, quack doctors and their snake oils as well as, from the 19th century onwards, dystopian visions emanating from the fantasy or science fiction genres. Thus, prescriptions against ageing or rejuvenation cures had to persist in a kind of grey zone – eagerly but discreetly pursued within a web of societal fascination, economic interest and moral taboo.

Even the supposed rationality of the new, science-based medicine and pharmacy was not entirely immune to spectacular aberrations. Popular magazines of the 19th and 20th centuries were already filled to the brim with advertisements for scientifically developed anti-ageing products. For instance, Edina, a radioactive face mask, was advertised as “*natural, harmless skin rejuvenation. *suitable for any skin and any age. *striking success even after the first application. *Tested by scientific authorities and deemed ‘outstandingly good’.” Unfortunately, no reports have survived about how long test subjects thrived before being beset with skin cancer thanks to this amazing product...

The Body, Anti-Ageing and Identity

Nowadays, the problematic excesses of anti-ageing have not entirely disappeared. Witness, for instance, the still dizzying and often dubious variety of cosmetic anti-ageing offerings… Nevertheless, the increasing medialisation of the body and commodification of health do not occur in a meaningless vacuum. Rather, they are the product of an age of upheaval: when all traditional certainties begin to totter – be they metaphysical, ecological or political, the body and its preservation are endowed with an entirely new function. Suddenly, it becomes not only a tangible refuge, but also a bearer of identity and an indispensable vehicle of experience. When the outside world can no longer be rationally interpreted, I can still invest in my body: I feel/sense therefore I am! This bodily, or rather incorporated subjectivity of late modernity not only justifies the search for strategies against ageing, it legitimises them. For as long as I inhabit my body, I require it to perform and be pampered: I want to feel comfortable in it for as long as possible, it should always reliably convey my identity and, last but not least, I should be able to fully enjoy life with it and through it until the very end.

Hence, in the 21st century, even if the Dorian Gray syndrome has been proposed as a new psychological diagnostic category involving dysmorphophobia, a self-perception disorder, as well as a pathological rejection of ageing or a pursuit of eternal youth, you no longer need hide in the attic if you want to confront ageing. The sobering image in the bathroom mirror, the backache when getting up or the liver spots colonising the hands can now be confronted calmly and openly. Indeed, increasingly proven and harmless strategies have emerged to help you age better, more beautifully and even... less.


Wild, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oxford: Oxford’s World Classics, 2008 [1891].

Binstock, Robert H., Anti-Aging Medicine: The History: Anti-Aging Medicine and Research: A Realm of Conflict and Profound Societal Implications, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 59, Issue 6, June 2004, Pages B523–B533, (last accessed: 13.12.2020)

Trüeb, Ralph M., Anti-Aging: Von der Antike zur Moderne, Darmstadt: Steinkopff-Verlag, 2006, 91-92.

Bingle, Gwen, Under the Sign of the Body: Technology, Commodification and Embodied Consciousness in Late 20th Century Germany, online-dissertation, Technische Universität München, Fakultät für Wirtschaftswissenschaften, 2012, (last accessed: 20.12.2020).

American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (founded in 1992):

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Prävention und Anti-Aging-Medizin [German Society for Prevention and Anti-Ageing Medicine] (founded in 1999) (last accessed: 20.12.2020)

German definition of phytotherapy: (last accessed: 20.12.2020).

Advertisement for Beier’s Edina radioactive face mask, Figaro Magazine, 2/1951, 41.

On the body and perception, cf. i.a. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (Phénoménologie de la Perception, Paris: Gallimard, 1945).

Dorian-Gray Syndrom: see e.g.: (last accessed: 14.05.2021)

Picture: © Suzy Hazelwood (last accessed: 21.01.2021)

Dr. Gwen Bingle
epiAge Deutschland Content & Customer Relations
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