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.
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.