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Posts Tagged ‘Ticking clock’

I don’t know about you, but I am unbearably tired of phrases like “aging gracefully.”  Or worse yet:  “Embracing your age.”  Define please, could you? And while you’re at it, please tell me why such phrases are often accompanied by a photo of a woman with white hair.

It seems the last bastion of socially acceptable stereotyping is Age with a capital “A”.  Especially when it comes to women. You’ll have to excuse my attitude, but today I am wearing some serious cranky pants.

I confess.  I am a baby boomer.  Where once we boomers were stereotyped in terms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, today it’s old age. And what riles me up is this:  Rather than being defined by our birthdays, why the hell can’t we just be? Whether I look my age, or younger or older, is immaterial to me.  What matters is the way others treat me, and it’s been my experience that older women begin to lose credibility when they hit middle age — an ugly term if ever their were one.

It’s not our age per se that does us in; it’s the expectation of what a woman of a certain age is and is not, can and cannot do, should and should not look like, that gets us.  Age itself may not matter.  But the way we are pigeonholed certainly does.

The other day, a professor friend told me about a comment she heard in class from one young women who declared that a woman’s life is over at menopause, and that starts at 50.  Do we ever speak of men that way. Ugh, right?

For years,  I have set myself up as guinea pig for my journalism students to practice interview techniques. Back when, I would tell them my age — if they asked — and the response was often a gasp.  At first, I thought it was flattering.  But then I realized.  It was all about the stereotypes. I didn’t conform to their image of what a woman my age was supposed to be like. What, I asked them: should I be sporting polyester and humming show tunes?

What I really wonder is why this is predominantly a women’s issue.  Men grow older, more distinguished.  They run for political office.  But women? With a few exceptions, we exhaust our shelf life.  We’re assumed to be no longer vital.  Relevant.  We become redundant.  Invisible.  Not supposed to care what we see in the mirror.  At least that’s what the media, and society itself, tells us.

Today in class, to test a point, I put my students on the spot:  Let’s take our president, I said. He’ll be 51 this summer.  Do you think of him as middle-aged — or four years away from his AARP card?  Most of them laughed.  Now, I said.  Take a woman that age, maybe your aunt or someone else.  How do you picture her?

For the one or two kids who still didn’t get it, I pushed a little bit further:  Name some women actors Brad Pitt’s age — or older — who still get starring roles.  (Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t count.  They are the exceptions who prove the rule.  And Julia Roberts?  America’s former sweetheart is now playing the evil queen in Snow White.)  Silence.

This week I caught a piece in Salon by a thirty-something writer I happen to like.  The essay was about taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA with a bunch of “old women”. She thought they’d love her, embrace her, make her feel young.  Instead, they aimed a bunch of jokes in her direction, laughing like the mean girls in junior high.  Cute story, but what got  me was the description of the women:  

My poolies, the ones at my gym, had necks that had long since defied definition. Massive freckled cleavage became neck became chin became face and so on. They wore bathing caps with plastic flowers and swim suits with pointy foam bra cups. Underneath, their hair was teased and thinning in shades of copper and yellow.

And then, the way she categorized them:  old ladies and elderly women.  But never mind. What had gotten the writer’s goat, she realized, was the fact that these feisty chicks didn’t “fall into the role I assigned them, because they were busy being their own people.” Good point, but what I wonder is whether she realized how she had loaded her piece with stereotypes. Which is, after all, the most insidious thing about the damage they do.

But back to this aging business: The topic has fast become a staple of women’s media – by women, for women, about women.  Surely, for example, you’ve noticed an upwelling of articles and broadcast pieces – many of them just a little smug  — about going gray as a way to embrace one’s age.   Now, don’t get me wrong – if you love your gray hair, more power to you.  I’m certainly not going to judge you for refusing to color your hair.  But please, by the same token, don’t judge me for choosing to color mine.

I started coloring my hair when I was in my mid-thirties, when a much older cousin took me aside and said, “Oh, sweetie.  You’re way too young to have so much gray in your bangs.”  I’ve been coloring since.  It’s not to pass for  young.  Or keep my job.  Or, for the love of God, please the patriarchy.  Nope.  I color my fair for the same reason my twenty and thirty something sisters do:  vanity.   I like the way I look, especially with my copper lowlights.

But I digress.  I’ve noticed that a lot of what we read about aging is written by women who aren’t even close to the cut-off line and that the subtext is fear, which seems to be enabled by the messages themselves.  The irony is that the media tell us that younger women are supposed to fear getting older — while their older sisters should put away the women they thought were and just fade to, you know, gray.  It occurs to me: maybe one of the reasons certain milestone birthdays are so scary for younger women is the assumptions they make about the women who have already reached them.

And could that focus on the ticking clock be one reason why, as we found in the research for our book, women agonize over their life choices?

Many smart women have suggested that one way to ditch the stigma is for all of us to claim our age — to show that, no matter how many fingers we are, we are still smart, vital, productive, funny and, what the hell, stylish, too.  I for one would be happy to do it, so long as you promise you won’t frame me in terms of my birthdays.  You know, patronize or marginalize me.  So I’ll do it, pinky swear.

But only if you go first.

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So I was roaming around The Daily Beast yesterday — ahem, looking for intellectual commentary — when I was sidetracked by a Popeater link entitled thus: Betty White: You’re Never Too Old for Sex.

And so of course I clicked.

What I found was a little riff on a cover story from AARP magazine in which, among other things, Ms. White — who at 88 is onto yet another stage of her career as a star of the new movie, “You Again” — talks with her costars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kristen Bell about sex:

I don’t have a fella, but if [her late husband] Allen [Ludden] — or Robert Redford — were around, we’d have a very active sex life.

Gotta love it, right?  All of which made me think of my late Auntie Margie, who was deep into her 80s when she once regaled a tableful of my girlfriends with tales of her love life.  “I don’t really need the sex anymore,” she said somewhat pensively.  “But I do need a man to take me out to dinner, now and again.”

Auntie Margie was always something of a mystery to me when I was growing up.  And in all honesty, sometimes an embarrassment.  In an era when most mothers wore dresses and aprons, she wore wool suits.   She was a single mother — often “between husbands”, as she put it — who worked as a bookkeeper to support herself and her daughter at a time when most women her age proudly listed their occupation as “housewife.”  She drank Manhattans, and she told fortunes with a deck of cards, always predicting that you would meet a M-A-N within three days, three weeks or three months.

The last time I saw her, at a family party, she was sitting on a sofa when she asked me to fetch her purse.  I lugged it over to her — you know the size of those handbags — she fished out her lipstick, and without bothering with her compact, applied those red lips perfectly.  At which point I said I was amazed she could put on lipstick without a mirror.  She waved her hand at me dismissively.  “Honey, if you’d been doing this as long as I have, you wouldn’t need a mirror either.”

Even on her deathbed, well into her 90s, she was still the coquette.  She had been hospitalized for several days, the story goes, when a handsome young resident stopped by her bedside for a quick exam.  “How are you doing today?” he asked.  My aunt, who hadn’t spoken a word to her family in days, looked up at  this dashing young doc, and fluttered her lashes like a teenager.  She looked into his eyes, broke out a smile, and said, “I’m just fine. And how are you?”

She was probably my first encounter with an independent woman, though Auntie Margie never would have recognized the word “feminist,” much less ever used the term.  But looking back, I realize she was something more.  Like Betty White —  Hollywood’s newest “It” girl who hosted SNL back in May and is now costarring in a TV sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland” — Marge was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention.  Who didn’t cave when it came to societal expectations or, more importantly, age.

And bravo for that.

Because here comes the point: How much of our angst and worry over  life decisions relates to the ticking clock?  The idea that there is some iron-clad time line, etched completely in stone, that dictates when we are supposed to reach certain milestones?  That once we hit a certain age, we should not only have checked X number of items off the to-do list — but must eliminate those for which society says we are just too old?  The lesson we should learn from these cool old broads is this:  it’s never too late.

Which brings us back to the words of wisdom Betty White shared with her costars:

“”Does desire melt away with age? I’m waiting for that day to come? Sexual desire is like aging, a lot of it is up here [points to her head.]”

True words, never spoken.  Especially what she says about aging.  Our favorite Golden Girl, like Auntie Margie, is a lesson for us all.  We are who we are:  stereotypes, society and above all, age, be damned.

After all, no matter how old we are, something new and unexpected could be waiting for us.  In three days, three weeks, or three months.

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