Health: Eternal beauty - at a price

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE an image of perfect health: a young woman, sparkling white teeth, thick glossy hair, clear skin, thin and muscular.

This "picture of health" has been produced and refined by my 10-year diet of the front covers of women's health magazines featuring beautiful young women with their flat stomachs and tanned bodies.

No matter what age we are, we believe we could all achieve it. This perfection can be ours if only we drink and eat all the right things, take bags of vitamins, and rub on those expensive creams.

It is also possible to be beautiful and unhealthy, of course, but the links between health and beauty are now so intertwined that it is difficult to distinguish between the two. For many of us going to the gym or attempting to drink two litres of water a day, "to be healthy", is just a cover up for the relentless pursuit of beauty.

"Health" Clubs are a euphemism in themselves. Sweaty workouts may make me feel a bit better but what I am really after is looking good on the outside. I doubt that many people eating "health" foods think "this will make me healthier or stop me getting the flu". It is more a question of "if I eat this, I will look better".

The latest advice to stop yourself becoming a wrinkled old prune at the age of 35 came from a well-meaning professor of dermatology at the University of Manchester. Chris Griffiths said at a recent conference that of the countless anti-ageing creams and lotions on the market, the only ones of any use were sunscreen with a protection factor of over 15 and creams containing retinoic acid, developed for acne.

Retinoic acid is only available on prescription, but a number of anti- ageing creams contain retinol (vitamin A), which is broken down on the skin to retinoic acid, in lower concentrations.

Sales soared as women of all ages clamoured for the miracle cure. I rushed down to the local chemist to get mine, only to be frustrated and disappointed because others had got there first. "When is the next delivery?" I asked hysterically, burrowed brow and bad tempered - both very bad for my wrinkles.

The idea that health and beauty are linked is controversial among scientists and research into the animal kingdom has had mixed results. Sexually attractive and healthy seems to be true for some species and not others. Professor Randy Thornhill, from the University of New Mexico, has shown that people are more attracted to symmetrical bodies and faces, which he claims are an indicator of good health, ability to give orgasms and intelligence.

I know I'm being conned by the advertisements and miracle treatments but it is hard to escape the illusion that with a bit more time and effort, one day, I might get there.