Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fear and Aging in America . . .

Note: I thought, as we all age and more than half of us are women, these thoughts might be fun!

American culture’s message to me as a sixty-two-year-old professional woman is pretty unambiguous: Be afraid—be very afraid. Why? Because un-enhanced as I am, people are going to know I’m sixty-two.

Let me be very clear about exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t mean society’s message is that I should be afraid simply because I am sixty-two—growing old is grudgingly accepted as the tatty, but inevitable, result of not dying young. What I should be afraid of is looking my age. Professional marginalization, I am told, is only one more wrinkle away. It is foolish of me to thumb my nose at Botox and remain my un-enhanced self.

Of course, I do eat right, get plenty of sleep, observe daily sacred gym time, but that only helps keep me healthy. It is not the same as cosmetic enhancement, and so—according to prevailing American cultural attitudes— it is not enough to escape the professional (and probably personal) dust bin.

You know, no matter how many times I’m preached the gospel of cosmetic enhancement, I just don’t buy it. I view American culture’s alleged worship of youth—before which so many of us tremble—as a myth created to sell wrinkle cream and hair dye. Yet even I have to admit that it’s a myth with teeth, because it’s gobbling up the self-image of millions of us boomer women. The male in our society, of course, has his own struggles with aging, but I would posit they are pretty thin gruel when compared to a female’s. All you have to do to see the sad results of boomer women cosmetic efforts to retain their self-images as babes is turn on the television. Most females over a certain age look like their own ghosts of Christmases past.

So why is my generation of women doing this to ourselves? Why are we so terrified of launching ourselves on the inevitable adventure of looking older? What makes us so afraid of becoming marginalized by our wrinkles?

I have most of my epiphanies (such as they are) in the shower. And one morning, I had this one: Sadly, dear sisters, we have met the enemy; and, in the matter of dealing with our fading plumage, it is—at least to some extent—us.

Here’s the deal as I see it.

I’m a boomer, honed by the second wave of feminism that flourished from the mid-Sixties to the early Eighties. I came of age demonstrating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, refusing to take up residence in society’s designated box for girls. I've always seen the women of my generation as unafraid to change, as people who viewed life as being about more than conforming to some cookie cutter norm. I—along with most of my good female friends—worked alongside men in competitive professions, stoutly resisting all attempts to patronize, underpay, or harass us because of our sex. Along the way, we raised children, loved men (and each other), played hard, and generally tried to be both productive and kind.

Then, around forty, we began losing steam. Looking back, I can see that my generation had confidently rebelled against others viewing us as sex objects up until the point in our lives when we stopped being viewed as such. At that point, a lot of us became obsessed with trying to look as though we still were viable sex objects. It was as though by focusing so hard on reformatting how others thought of us, we’d neglected to figure out ways to think about ourselves; we’d failed to come up with a gender self-image that went beyond rebelling against society’s categorization of us by our looks and sexual attractiveness.

The big biological difference in me now from when I was a babe of 30 is that I can no longer produce children. This makes it only natural that whatever plumage I had to attract mates has faded. The rest of me, however—brain, heart, sense of humor, ability to get good work done—is all still going strong. In my experience, that is still how my colleagues, friends, daughter, and mate think of me. Shouldn’t that have also been how I really thought of myself in the past, think of myself now, and expect to keep on thinking of myself into the future?

What I’m suggesting here is that we women don’t fear aging as much because we’re worried about how others will think of us, as because we don’t know how to think of ourselves—we are still not confidently in touch with what it means to be a woman beyond an ability to attract mates. Or if feminist theorists, operating in the rarefied air of academia, have figured it out, nothing useful has trickled down to the rest of us. Most Boomer women still struggle with intuiting a lifelong continuum of gender-based self-worth.

Of course, the saddest part of this struggle is it’s not just about us. What kind of a message are we giving our daughters by buying (literally) the fairytale that a man’s societal worth endures, while a woman’s fades with her looks? Because isn’t that what we’re saying with every gray hair we cover and every wrinkle we chemically plump because we’re afraid not to cover and plump?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with bedecking yourself. I know this glorious woman who went gray very young and then suddenly, in her fifties, dyed her hair bright red. She did it, I’m convinced, to have fun, to decorate herself. The problem, as I see it, comes when we dye our hair because we fear our gray-haired selves. The sticks and stones of others' opinions have long been flying at us. It’s our post-forty selves who have given them the power to make us fear who we are.

We boomer women stood (and still stand—witness Mrs. Clinton’s campaign) together to push for workplace and political rights, and equal partnership in our homes. Our daughters are better off for our efforts. Don’t we owe those same daughters less desperate role models for how to deal with the inevitability of fading plumage? Isn’t it time we explored who we are beyond our babehood?

It is, after all, who we’ve always been.


  1. Wonderful Martha. I've shared your blog with former UMaine colleague, Margaret Cruikshank, who has a chapter Ageism and Late-Life Choices
    in a new book Final Acts: Death, Dying, and the Choices We Make (Rutgers University Press). Susan

  2. That piece hit a nerve, Martha. Last night I had arranged to meet an old friend from C'ville days (she remembers Martha's Cafe!)in NYC for dinner. For weeks I've been working non-stop on getting ready for production the Jim Thorpe biography Knopf will publish next fall -- which means I've barely gotten out of my pjs or washed my hair, etc. Totally devoted to the cause of the work and my brain and feeling Not Very Attractive, Over the Hill sex object-wise.

    I managed to pull on a dress, boots, flatiron my hair, put on makeup and realized I looked "pretty," once again. Men looked at me when I walked through the restaurant. My friend who, btw, is getting a feminist award in Dallas next month, totally approved. I was back.

    What really surprised me, however, was how happy all that made me, like money in the bank. And I wondered, as you do, with what -- and how -- will I substitute that feeling in the years to come?

  3. Read Marge Piercy's poem, The Woman Who Wasn't There.

  4. Thanks so much for the conversation, folks. And Arnie, I shall read the poem just as soon as Carl Kasell has come and gone! M

  5. A Dorothy Hamill style wedge would take years off your face. As my mother told me all my life, "Long hair is not a style."

    And with your bod, you could wear some really mod clothes.


  6. by the way, "bod" and "mod" tell you how old I am!

  7. Well, I'll have to think about making this 62-year-old bod a bit more mod! Thanks, my fashionista friend!

  8. This is a wonderful post, Martha. I love to hear you talk about women and aging in today's society. Would you mind sending me your essay on that topic that you shared in the writing workshop?

    Aging is such a complicated thing. Growing up, my mother always talked about an inner and outer self; the inner self, she said, I would always have, but the outer self would fade and betray me, so it was important I work on being happy regardless of other people's view of me. So in many ways, that is how I look at, and live, my life now -- I'm involved with the inner self; the outer self has hit its prime and has been on its way out for some time now.

    But there's a problem with this conception: we, as women, aren't two people. We are a whole. Living ONLY a life of the mind doesn't work for me, and never has, maybe because I made my living as a dancer for so long. It is important for me to feel good about my body and my face as I age, and so I ask myself: I'm not what I once was physically and I can never be that again, so who am I? It is a struggle. It's a struggle for acceptance. Fighting it isn't an option for me. I see botox and makeup and hair color as fighting it, even if for many women going down that road is relatively fun and lighthearted. It is not for me.

    On the other hand, I think, if I might actually FEEL better about myself beautifying, then what's the harm? Many women call cosetic enhancement "taking care of oneself." So if they don't look 20, they do look well put together -- as if the goal were not to be young again, but rather to be distinguished or striking. And I guess this is an ideal I would embrace that could, theoretically, entail cosmetic enhancement -- attainment of a true physical embodiment of whoever one feels one is.

    It's interesting that in general, aging is thought to be a process that reveals who you are -- frown lines, laugh lines -- they all tell a story. What story is told if one chooses to hide the story?

  9. Don't feel afraid with those things because all of us have to experiment that process, what you should do is "living la vida loca" as Ricky Martin says I think it could be a perfect way to avid pressures.

  10. Thank you - as a babyboomer just about to enter senior status (age 58) I found your blog insightful and helpful. It is a struggle and some days I just want to give up and go to no makeup, beauty cream, Spanx, etc. But then, I relent and slather it on and cram myself in, and go out into the world feeling like I'm all put together. I don't know how long I can keep this up!

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