Posts Tagged ‘aging’

The other day, in the midst of a meeting of my paper’s editorial staff, I found myself waving my Feminist card in a manner reminiscent of when I used to referee kids’ soccer games, and had to deploy the whistle-yellow-card combo. (More often than not, the recipients of said cards were not kids at all, but the grown-ups coaching them. But I digress.)

Anyway, back to the meeting: that week’s cover story was about the local congressional race, which is hotly disputed, and heavily watched, as recent redistricting means the seat is decidedly In Play. The longtime incumbent is a woman, a Democrat, in her 70s. And the race has been a slugfest. Thanks to the flow of cash from corporations — um, I mean people? — special interest groups, the national parties, and the campaigns themselves, one can hardly catch a post-season baseball game (go Giants!) without being subjected to a slimy back and forth of ads. (Is this what it’s like to live in a swing state? My deepest sympathies.) So, long story short: this particular cover story was about this race, and the cover design, in lieu of photographs, used an illustration — two toylike robot bodies throwing punches at each other, with caricatures for heads.

Stay with me: point coming soon.

We were discussing the story when an editor, a man I deeply respect and tend to agree with on most issues, said, “I have a problem with the cover. She looks so young! It’s like we’re showing favoritism.”

It was at this point, dear reader, that the whistle was deployed. “Would you say that about a man?” I asked — at which point a chorus of rabble-rabbles erupted, ultimately resulting in my never getting around to making my point. (I should add: I enjoy a hearty rabble-rabble session as much as the next editor. In fact, I brought it up precisely because I love a good rabble-rabble. You know, and because I did have a point.) The caricatures made both candidates look cuter, more cartoonlike, and yes, younger, than their real selves (such is the destiny of a caricature), but what bothered me was the implication that to make a woman look younger is to give her an advantage. Not an actress or model, mind you: a politician. (Nor, I suppose it’s worth saying, a woman in a political battle against another woman. Her challenger is a man.) That, for women, what trumps everything is appearance. That age can only be a disadvantage; that to look old is the worst handicap of all. And that, if one wants to help an older woman out, give her the proverbial leg up, the kindest thing one can do is to deploy Photoshop’s airbrush tool.

Now, I don’t think this editor was actually saying any of those things, but I do think that within his off-the-cuff remark was crystallized the message women are getting, at all times and from every conceivable direction. There is an entire industry devoted to the “fight” against aging. (As though there’s a chance of winning that battle. And when you consider the alternative–um, death–do you really want to?) And that industry is a big one. And it is aimed at women. (For aging men, marketers offer Viagra, and pretty much leave it at that.) And it is insidious. Because, for all the newfound opportunity and the plethora of options women now have open to us when it comes to answering the rather significant question of “What Do You Want To Do With Your Life?” (a bounty which, as we’ve written, is generationally new, leaving us without much in the way of roadmaps or role models), we are left to figure it all out against what amounts to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. (Ask any game show or action movie producer how to create suspense, and the tick-tock is it. In real life, instead of suspense, we get stress. Which, you know, leads to premature aging. But I digress. Again.) As I’ve written before, I believe it all comes together in a most counterintuitive way: our fear of aging is almost worse the younger we are. After all, when we’re told that our value does nothing but go down as our age creeps up, every day that passes is a marker on a road to invisibility. Irrelevance. Tick tock.

Is it any wonder preventative Botox is a thing?

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, who was talking about how she’s taken to pointing out men who are aging badly–“dumpy looking dudes,” I believe were the words she used–to her husband, because it irked her how much pressure women are under to look good and “age well,” and she wanted him to share in the misery. While I wouldn’t say that’s the best strategy I could conceive of, it’s certainly… a strategy. But I’m not sure a redistribution of the pressure to Anti-Age is the best we can do. What is the best we can do? I’m not sure. None of us wants to look old; and I have no doubt we all appreciate a photo–or drawing–of ourselves that makes us look younger than our years. But it’s worth thinking about why. And surely blowing the whistle every once in a while can’t hurt.

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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, while I was playing armchair fashion police during Sunday’s Oscars, “Private Practice” actress Kate Walsh was tweeting. And into the umpteenth hour of statues and montages and Cirque de Soleil, she dropped this twitbomb:

…dear Hollywood actresses, stop fucking up your faces, it’s looking the the bar scene in Star Wars.— Kate Walsh (@katewalsh) February 27, 2012

Kapow! There’s a whole lot going on in that 140-character-or-less sentiment.

I want to shreik, Hell to the yeah! You tell ’em! But also, it’s not that simple.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event at an art gallery with a couple of friends. Beautiful friends! Talented friends! Interesting friends! Smart friends! Friends who are (damn them) just a bit younger than I! And the subject turned to wrinkles. One poked at an imaginary line between her eyes, while the other espoused a theory having to do with the idea that horizontal lines (i.e. crows feet–to which I am no stranger) are okay, while vertical ones (the eye wrinkle the first friend was obsessing over) were not. In a feeble attempt at a conversation redirect, I said, “Hey, what about cleavage?” (due to the fact that I have none, and therefore think it is wonderful), but they were not taking the bait. There was no lightening of the conversation; for more than a couple of minutes, there was no changing the subject. During a fun night out and surrounded by interesting art, my very intelligent girlfriends and I were talking about getting old.

And I was pissed.

But why? Was I pissed that my super smart and beautiful friends were talking about superficial things… or was something more sinister at work?? I mean, why should that make me angry? Bored, sure; annoyed, that would make sense too. Upon closer (and  unflinchingly, unattractively) honest examination–I think it made me angry because they were voicing my own fears, the ones for which I have a stable of rational, enlightened, stock replies at the ready. Replies I’m happy to bandy at anyone else. Ones that go, “Oh, but the lines on your face tell the story of your life!” or “We only fear getting old because society tells us we should, and forces this unrealistic ideal upon us!” or “Old women are so beautiful!” or “Only shallow women buy into that crap.”

As I wrote some time ago, the internal debate goes something like this:

If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick … but there’s no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?

They’re questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you’ve forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn’t felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you — enlightened, intelligent, feminist you — shelling out way too much money for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are vanity and empowerment mutually exclusive?

Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we’d never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it’s our forehead that’s lined, our jawline that’s softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent.

I know I should know better, and yet, deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties (art openings being, apparently, another story), I fear getting older just like everyone else. Just like, I would guess, Kate Walsh does. There’s an “It’s Not Fair” element to it, too–especially, I’d imagine, in Hollywood. When everyone else is doing whatever it is they’re doing, the un-done are left to stick out like sore thumbs. They may look awesome for their age, but that’s only awesome for their age.

Maybe the knife (or the needle, or the laser… or whatever) is the coward’s way out. But, who am I to judge? The pressure is powerful, and it’s oppressive–we wouldn’t react so strongly if somewhere pretty tender weren’t being poked. It seems to me that opting in and making fun are two sides of the same coin. But, when it comes to aging, it’s not like we have a choice. I guess the kindest thing we can do–both to ourselves, and to other women–is to approach it with an open mind, and an open heart — and not to worry about what everyone else is doing.

Worrying, after all, causes wrinkles.

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If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick… but there’s no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?

They’re questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you’ve forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn’t felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you–enlightened, intelligent, feminist you–shelling out fifty bucks for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are a touch of vanity and an ethos of empowerment mutually exclusive?

Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we’d never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it’s our forehead that’s lined, our jawline that’s softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent. As Anna Holmes, founder of the pop-feminist website Jezebel, wrote in the Washington Post:

‘Wow. You’re really looking older,’ says the voice in my head as I peer into the bathroom mirror. Then another, this one louder and more judgmental: ‘Who are you that you care?’

Who am I indeed. The fact that I can be so profoundly unsettled by the appearance of a few wrinkles on my forehead doesn’t say much of anything good about my sense of self as a whole. In the same way that I’m sort of horrified at the increasingly unrecognizable face that stares back at me in the mirror, I’m equally unsettled that I’m horrified at all.

Who couldn’t relate? Internal debating (and berating) aside, though, the thing I’m left thinking about is how much this sounds like yet another false dichotomy. Virgin/whore, pretty/smart, plastic/natural, young/irrelevant. As though a woman can be either a gray-haired intellectual frump or a Botoxed blond bimbo, as though there were nothing in between. As though any person could be so simply defined. One or the other. If one, then not the other.

While my fear of needles (and, well, poison) precludes me from even considering Botox, I have no problem admitting that some of the hairs on my head have gone rogue (by which I mean gray)–and that I pay someone good money to make it look otherwise. I happily incur the expense of continued education, and of shoes. I giggle, and I engage in heated intellectual debates. I spend time pondering the meaning of life–and the size of my pores. I proudly call myself a feminist, and, yes, I shave my legs. What box do I fit into?

Perhaps the goal is not to worry so much over what one decision means for the label we’ve happily slapped upon ourselves, but to realize that a label is only part of the story. Maybe the goal is to forego the labels altogether, to open our minds, broaden our thinking, be a little more forgiving of ourselves, a little more accepting of each other–and do something a little more productive with all that reclaimed time and brainspace. Or perhaps the goal is simply to remember to think outside the box.

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This Saturday is my birthday. And while I’ve never been one to turn down a celebration–whether said celebration takes the form of wine, food (specifically the three-course tasting menu at Julienne), or a jump out of a perfectly good airplane–the past couple of years have seen me less and less inclined to announce my birthday. Or, more to the point, my age.

I’ve always looked young, and enjoyed the look of surprise when I’d cop to my age or present an overzealous bartender with my I.D. I never thought numbers would get me down: I’m too evolved for that kind of backwards nonsense! But last year, that number o’ mine hit me like a ton of bricks. It occurred to me that it sounded old. I sounded old.

Shouldn’t I be ashamed of my age? Shouldn’t I be trying to hide it? To defy it? To plump it, color it, tighten it, smooth it?

A lifetime steeped in this culture has me thinking that I should. And yet, those feelings don’t quite fit. I don’t feel irrelevant, invisible, or particularly in need of fixing… But, on a bad day, the crows feet around my eyes make me think not of all the smiles that made them, but that I should feel badly about my age (and maybe start a Retin-A regimen… or start sleeping upside-down to prevent the sag… oh dear gawd, what if things start to sag??), even while the other half of me calls out those thoughts as bullshit. (I’m a Gemini: the twins. I have lots of conversations with myselves.)

So. What gives?

Pondering the true culprits behind the knot that arose in my stomach whenever I considered The Number, a beautiful stroke of serendipity (aka Twitter) delivered to me “A Wrinkle in Time”–Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf’s recent take on the aging myth. Wolf kicks it off with an anecdote about a guy her age–late 40s–who showed up at a party with a 20-something woman on his arm and, in so doing, became an object of not envy nor admiration, but of…pity. Zut alors! What’s this? And Wolf doesn’t stop there:

I had thought that getting older would be harder. The common cultural script tells us that women lose value as they age and that men will trade in their counterparts for younger versions (because, of course, that would be trading up). Middle-aged women are supposed to face the loss of their youthful selves with grief and anguish.

I look around at the magnetic and dynamic women my own age, I look at my own life, and instead that script seems more like a convenient fiction–designed, as so many aspects of ‘the beauty myth’ are, to make women feel less powerful; in this case, just when their power, magnetism and sexuality are at their height.

So true. But the thing is, we can’t really recognize the script as bullshit until we’re actually old enough to know better. Which means that, even when we’re younger–at our alleged ‘prime’–we’re being made to feel less powerful, because somewhere in the back of our minds, we believe that our expiration date is approaching. And, to quote, well, myself, when it comes to our choices, everything becomes that much more stressful, that much more loaded, when played out against the backdrop of a ticking clock. As women, the message we’re fed is clear: Time is short, so you better choose wisely! You’re only going to be relevant for so long! And what’s most unfair about that message is that, by and large, we aren’t aware of the bullshit quotient until later. How could we be?

Here’s a bit more from Wolf:

The fear of aging was certainly bad when I was 26. When “The Beauty Myth” was published, girls were still learning that they would, like hothouse flowers, bloom briefly in their late teens to mid-20s. After that? Well, it was a steady decline, as the power we derived from our physical appearance dwindled. Our only hope to hang on to an increasingly precarious sexuality and sense of self-esteem lay in magical potions and powders, or perhaps in the surgeon’s hands. Older women were encouraged to see their younger counterparts as threats and usurpers, and young women were expected to see the women who should have been their mentors as faded has-beens, harbingers of their own future decay.

I personally expected that when I entered the middle of my life, I would start to mourn my youthful physical self and that, even though I had thought long and hard about the dangers of the beauty myth, I would feel a sense of existential loss of self when my appearance began to change.

But I am coming out with this and hope that many midlife women will join me: Those pangs of loss have largely not happened. Not for me and not for the women I know and admire.

No? I wondered. NO, she said again.

At midlife, the social ‘script’ insists that we’re supposed to adopt a rueful tone–Oh, that first crow’s foot, that first strand of gray. It’s simply more acceptable for women to be self-deprecating about the signs of aging. But when was the last time you heard an older woman say, in public–‘Actually, getting older is more than tolerable–it’s great!’ Let alone: ‘I really like it.’

So, at the risk of sounding socially incorrect, I am going to deviate from that script, and I invite all women of a certain age to join me. A great many of us don’t feel particularly wistful or rueful about our earlier physical selves. A great many of us really like where we are.

I like where I am.

…To anxious young women, I want to say what I wish more older women had said to my generation: Relax, enjoy the journey and do not worry about the future. There are no wicked witches. It is all good. Really, really good.

And it only gets better.

And that may be the antidote: to tell our younger sisters early and often that we’re doing just fine. As for me, come Saturday, the only magical potion I’ll be partaking of will be of the Syrah family, to toast my 36 years.


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Oh, Tina Fey. How do I love thee?

In the current New Yorker, Tina Fey lays it all out there, as only she can. Work. Parenthood. Guilt. Aging. Enjoy:

The writer’s daughter recently checked out a book from the preschool library called “My Working Mom,” which depicted a witch mother who was very busy and had to fly away to a lot of meetings. The two men who wrote this book probably had the best intentions, but the topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?”

No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?” The second-worst question is: “Are you going to have more kids?”

Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty. The baby-versus-work life questions keep the writer up at night. She has observed that women, at least in comedy, are labeled “crazy” after a certain age. The writer has the suspicion that the definition of “crazy” n show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore. The fastest remedy for this “women are crazy” situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why the writer feels obligated to stay in the business, and that is why she can’t possibly take time off for a second baby, unless she does, in which case that is nobody’s business. Does the writer want to have another baby? Or does she just want to turn back time and have her daughter be a baby again? That night, as she was putting the witch book in her daughter’s backpack to be returned to school, the writer asked her, “Did you pick this book because your mommy works? Did it make you feel better about it?” Her daughter looked at her matter-of-factly and said, “Mommy, I can’t read. I thought it was a Halloween book.”

Funny, in an idiot-shivers kind of a way. First: A kids book called “My Working Mom” in which the working mom is a witch was actually published? Just… wow.

Then, of course, there’s Fey’s disturbingly pithy definition of the word crazy. (I read another interesting piece about aging while female in Hollywood this weekend here.) Sure, Hollywood–especially writers, especially comedy writers–is kind of the worst of the worst when it comes to sexist work environs, and it’s a relatively small sample. But. It’s disturbing when you consider what Hollywood writers do. They, quite literally, create the cultural myths that haunt and inspire us. And “they” are over 80% male in movie writing, 75% male in TV. Never wonder again why fat old men are consistently paired with beautiful twentysomethings.

And then, there’s the motherhood question. What will a baby mean for my career? What will another baby mean for my career? We’re often nearing a critical patch, professionally, at the very same time that our fertility takes a dive. Which leaves us with a choice–Ramp down the career?–and, often, a compromise. Questions and choices that are damn near universal for women. But for men… well, not so much. It’s like they wrote the script for corporate culture, too. Oh, wait, they did: they built it.

But, like the rest of it, the question of what’s at stake if we leave is universal. Don’t get me wrong: I realize Tina Fey is Tina Fey, and you and I are, well, not. But, whether we want to see Hollywood’s definition of “crazy” get a makeover, or our employer’s (not to mention our government’s) policies made over to accommodate the reality of working women’s lives, we have to stick around.

Just one more thing to juggle.


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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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This week’s Newsweek poses the interesting question: Is your booty in your beauty? That is to say, do pretty people make more money (short answer: yes), and if so, should women, to quote Ru Paul, work it at work?

An interesting debate, to be sure. Not least given feminism’s real–and imagined–history of trashing (and burning–that’d be the imagined part) their high heels, girdles, and bras in the name of freedom from a sexist culture. In one of the articles, “She Stoops to Conquer,” Jessica Bennett wonders if “real feminists use their looks to get ahead,” and launches the piece with a reference to the so-called “Bo-Tax”–an addition to the health care bill which would have (if passed, which it wasn’t) levied a tax on “injectables” and other elective cosmetic procedures, and the counterintuitive resistance to the Bo-Tax from no less than Terry O’Neill, the president of NOW, who, by way of explanation for her position, said:

“[Women] have to find work… and the fact is, we live in a society that punishes women for getting older.”

You might expect the National Organization for Women to have better things to do. You might expect them to look down upon things like injecting one’s face with a known toxin. But no. And you know, she has a point. Here’s a bit from Bennett:

Women may have surpassed men as the majority of American workers, but they’re no less slaves to the beauty standards of the day than they were during the Mad Men era. So while feminists of the past may have blasted plastic surgery as shallow, today even Gloria Steinem has admitted to an eye lift. Of course, buying into the belief that we must keep up with the Joneses brings with it a double bind: at work, women can be too attractive, and whether it’s by natural or artificial means, studies show they are faced with resentment, envy, often viewed as less intelligent or vain. In a corporate hierarchy still largely dominated by men, this is all the more exaggerated: women who reject the idea that they must plump and pull to get ahead resent the women who accept it; those women then resent those who don’t need surgical enhancement. And many women who indeed benefit from looking good face their own cycle of self-doubt: Did I really deserve that raise/promotion/recognition, or did he just like the way my legs look in that skirt? Is that what the rest of the office assumes? It’s insecurity at its worst, but it’s surely not for nothing: as one male Newsweek reader told my female colleagues and me, after reading our story on sexism: “No matter how much I respect my female co-workers, I eventually think about putting my hands on their chest.”

It’s hard to eradicate sexism; but in the face of it, maybe there really is a case to be made for using what we’ve got. That’s not to say we should tear off our tops in the name of “empowerment,” or bat our eyelashes at every middle-aged male manager who hovers over our cubicle… But making an effort to look good, because we know it helps us out professionally, and, well, maintaining that look, shouldn’t necessarily be shunned, nor should we be plagued by personal guilt. This is a conscious decision–and in an age where looks matter more than ever, it can be an economic one. Look at it this way: if you’re doing your job, who cares if your boss wants to promote you because he thinks you’re pretty? So what if you invest in a round of Botox because you believe–like 13 percent of women, and 10 percent of men–that it will help you in the long run?

Well, sure, so what? If you got it, flaunt it (and if you don’t anymore, umm, fill it?)–we are, after all, still paid only 77 cents to the man’s dollar, and there’s fewer of us at the tops of the ranks, so we might as well. By any means necessary, right? After all, a pretty woman earns a reported 4% more–and gets more attention from her boss–than her Ugly Betty counterpart. And then, there’s this: I think it’s safe to say that many of us prefer to look well-rested and perky than like we’ve been run over by a truck, so while the numbers show that pretty people do get ahead, getting ahead is likely not our only motivation. If we’re honest, I’m sure we’d all confess that a certain measure of our desire to look our best has to do as much with turning heads–not least the one who’s looking back at us from the mirror. And hey, what’s the matter with a little vanity? More power to us! But the one thing I do wonder about is this: Do you think your male coworkers ever worry about this stuff?


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Here’s a little good news for anyone who’s getting older (yeah, Peter Pan, that includes you): a recent Gallup poll has found that as people get older, they get happier.

You read that right. And I know, such a finding runs counter to the results of countless other studies and anecdotal asides. Not to mention the stereotypes of lonely spinsters, desperate housewives, cosmetically-enhanced cougars, and grumpy old men who have nothing better to do than lament the passing of the “good old days” and talk about the state of their prostate.

Researchers are equally baffled, according to a piece in the New York Times:

‘It could be that there are environmental changes,’ said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study based on the survey, ‘or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological–for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.’

The survey involved more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18-85, and basically found that people are pretty happy around age 18, but then get less and less so, until about the age of 50, at which point,

there is a sharp reversal.

And then, as everything else begins to sag, happiness starts to climb. Really. Equally surprising is the finding that happiness levels had very little correlation to any of the life biggies you’d think might affect our emotional state: the results held regardless of sex, relationship status, employment status, and whether or not the respondent had children.

‘Those are four reasonable candidates,’ Dr. Stone said, ‘but they don’t make much difference.’

So what is going on, then? Well, our pal Barry Schwartz, he of The Paradox of Choice, has a theory. Talking to him recently for the book, Schwartz posited that what’s happening here has a lot to do with expectations, choices, and the freedom that comes when we’re able to let go of the notion that, because there are so many options out there, there must be one that’s Perfect-with-a-Capital-P… and that it’s our job to find it. Here’s some of what Schwartz had to say:

I think the fact is that you need to learn from experience that good enough is almost always good enough. It seems like settling, as you put it. Why would anyone settle?… And this is something that’s been coming up in the last few weeks, starting at age 50, people get happier. And I think a significant reason why is what you learn from experience is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best and life gets a lot simpler. And I think it’s very difficult to convince a twenty year-old that that’s the way to go through life.

Difficult if not flat-out impossible. But I guess there’s a silver lining to this self-induced suffering, this lesson that only experience can teach us: We may never find perfection, but we will surely get older.

Not the best news, I realize, but certainly, it’s good enough.


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