Women and the Tragedy of Aging

I’ve recently seen two things around aging that made me sigh.

The first is this graphic.

agingThe second was on a Jezebel article where it was revealed that Olivia Wilde, then 28, was “too old” to play 38 year old Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “Wolf of Wall Street.” While that was irritating, that wasn’t it. It was a comment thread that somehow devolved into when women are peak attractive (arguments ranged from 18 to 31. But definitely no older than 31. Because science).

It wasn’t the fact that a nominally feminist space was arguing over when women are the hottest (and that it was taking as fact a paradigm that privileges youth) (okay, it was partially that). It was the unthinking reassertion that aging is fundamentally tragic for women–we will be unfuckable, unlovable, and certainly infertile, and all our worth is found in our fuckability so we might as well just hang it up once we hit 32 (again, science!).

When what I’ve heard from many women (and experienced myself) is that aging is liberating. It seems to me we spend the first 20-30 years of our lives being inculcated by the misogynistic miasma and, if we’re lucky enough, we find a path out of it as we swim toward 30 or so. How many women have you heard say that they started to come in to their own after 30? 40? 50? That they realized what other people think doesn’t matter? That they had far more interesting things to offer than their romantic potential?

It strikes me that there is a double process happening. The first is that age and experience bring knowledge and confidence. The second is that each year after about 18 or so seems to lessen the power of the male gaze ever so slightly (I got rampant street harassment from about 12-18 and then it slowly faded to almost nothing as I’ve aged and come into my own at the ripe old age of 29). And so, toxic as it is, I think the male gaze’s obsession with youth actually provides a path to liberation for us old crones–it is only as we feel less of the weight of it, as we accept the fundamentally heteronormative premise that women’s worth declines with age, that we have the room to throw off the power of the male gaze and recognize our worth and power–and that it lies outside of our desirability.

It also has to be noted, of course, the fundamental power of declaring someone unworthy as they hit their stride. What better way to ensure gender inequality than to prize only youth and fuckability and punish age, knowledge, and confidence?

And so it is not aging that is the tragedy, it is the reality of losing social status while gaining liberation. It is having to navigate what it means to be invisible while finding freedom in that invisibility (I have heard so many women over fifty-ish say that they are literally invisible to society and that it is simultaneously freeing and heartbreaking). It is recognizing how thoroughly society refuses to grant women any type of power beyond fuckability (and, really, what kind of power is that?), while simultaneously recognizing why women gaining power is so threatening to society. And it is being bombarded with the narrative that surviving another year around the sun is not an accomplishment, but a tragedy.


13 thoughts on “Women and the Tragedy of Aging

  1. What’s heartbreaking about the whole rating scale ending at 31 is that so many beautiful women never saw it coming, and are unable to get beyond their gender and sexuality / sex appeal as they internalized the message that youth and beauty were the most essential tools in their arsenal to get through life.

    Plain women, who were never seen as “all that”, learned to develop other skills and talents to get through life, so they don’t care about crossing that threshold as they think they had nothing going for them in that area anyway.

    Those are truly the women you see coming into their own in the 30’s and beyond. You don’t see them getting breast or butt implants as they value their body for its reliability to complete a physical task, not for how much better they will appear to be with a more well-endowed figure or wrinkle-free skin.

    Those are the truly independent women in the world, the ones who can accept the hand they were dealt and make the most of the fact that – not only were they a second class citizen simpky by being born a woman – but they are actually a third or fourth (or more) in total ranking based on beauty, skin color, race (because some shades are more highly prized within a race than others).

    The woman who values herself, regardless of gender or appearance, is the one type of woman that all of the marketing and messaging is aimed to break.

    My mother wouldn’t allow a beauty magazine in the house when I was growing up, as she thought vanity was a woman’s downfall as beauty will always fade or evolve over time. My Mom was a very smart woman, and I thank her to this day for her prescience in how she raised her son and daughters. You don’t take pride in blessings, as that pride can be one’s downfall.

    1. Excellent comment! I was never the beautiful or “hot” girl everyone dreamt about or lusted after, I suppose I was too ordinary and plain looking for that. I was also feisty and argumentative, which added to my being rejected or avoided my most men of my age. Let’s face it, having some extra kilos only made matters worse. I was intelligent, hard working, encouraging, witty, helpful, devoted, passionate, loyal, a great team worker, and, physically, nobody could really call me ugly, but so what? Everyone was happy to work with me and assign me difficult projects because they knew they could rely on me for good results, but that was all. When it came to dating or choosing a partner, I was non existent.

      I learned to live with that. I still built my career and my social life. I never lost my self-esteem or my sense of humour or my values or my hearty laughter or my empathy for people. Last month I turned 50, and you can never imagine how many women–yes many of those women who used to be men’s first choice back in the day–tell me how great I look and how beautiful I am! How well I dress AND, believe it or not, how young I look, although I’ve had no cosmetic surgery whatsoever!

      Aging has really been liberating for me and some of my women friends. Nobody likes to grow old, of course, but at least we’ve never felt that our worth as humans decreases year after year. Quite the contrary!

  2. Copd4real: Something bothers me about how you dismissed old women who get body modifications as somehow frivolous, or lacking in “independence.” I love a “natural” look on older women, too, but it isn’t inherently any more liberating than making modifications that you are in control of. For instance: My mother hit 60 before she unburdened herself of having to be a “perfect” mother and wife and was free to go to the gym, lose weight, and start new relationships. no longer under the thumb of her previous restrictions, she could literally and figuratively shape herself she wanted. I am sick of the paradigm that says beauty=youth. And this paradigm to at pits “attractive” women against “plain” women.

    1. I wasn’t dismissing those women with body modifications, as there’s often a very good reason to do so. What I was dismissing was the woman who had her body modified because of societal pressure to stay young / beautiful, and who felt that was her sole worth in life, Betty Boop.

      I had my first surgery at 6 months old, and my last surgery at 9. If I’d let them continue to try and “improve” my body simply for appearances sake, after the required repairative surgeries, I know I would have had another chest surgery at 14, and a jaw surgery at 16. However, I put my foot down and said, “Enough. No more”.

      I can pass for normal with my clothes on, however, society now seems to only want to see women half dressed or artfully draped in shadows while posing naked, adding to the pressure on women to be perfect. I am glad your mom got the surgery she felt she wanted, as that was her business and not mine.

      I fully embrace my scars as the “survivor” reminders of life and death battles that they represent. However, I also find it anathema that a woman would go through blood, pain and healing simply for a minor appearance issue. And, knowing that any tweaks made today would have to be redone over time, if she developed the viewpoint that she wasn’t good enough just as she was made? Beyond my ken.

      Whether we accept it or not, there is always going to be a beauty “pass” for the pretty people of the world to jump ahead in line, regardless of skills or talents. As my mother often reminded us, though, “when the bill comes due for you to deliver on the opportunity you’ve been given, or you’ll be kicked back to the end of the line, with your beauty fading just a little more with each year that passes”.

      Just so you know, my bother was “Golden Boy” in the family, turning down scholarships and other opportunities that were regularly handed to him simply because people liked him. He was beautiful and kind, and they really, really liked him.

      Mike had carisma and a good brain, he married well, and was Mr. Mom to two fine young men before his time in this world ran out. None of us ever gets enough time, so we don’t want to waste it staring in a mirror when there’s so many more important things to be doing like building a life, building a family, find one’s innate creativity and talents while finding a way to finance the rest of their life while juggling the truly important things where one finds life’s meaning to themselves.

      You Mom was under the thumb of self-imposed restrictions based on what she felt was Society’s expectations of her, its social pressures, and I’m glad she’s found the strength to try her wings to do what she prefers for herself.

  3. Liberation comes with old age. Invisibility is a choice. One can, chameleon like, be both an observer and a participator as the whim seizes her. I embrace the crone!

  4. This is EXACTLY what I’ve often wanted to say. Everyone should read this and then women should stop accepting it. Excellent! !!

  5. Your hypothetical woman in the graphic is really an airhead, isn’t she? That’s a misogynist view of women, implying that all we care about is our appearance. And most people don’t hit their peak until their late twenties, anyway, with maturity and professional accomplishments. My friends and I at twenty-five were starting careers or planning for graduate school; I don’t think any of us were peering into the mirror and shrieking “oh god make it stop!” I don’t think I’ve ever known any woman who got fussed about hitting a particular birthday. There’s no tragedy here. People cut down by angry losers with guns, or getting diagnosed with cancer, or having to flee their country with nothing but the clothes on their backs–those are tragedies.

    Knowledge and confidence “punished”? Marketing and messaging are aimed at “breaking” a woman who values herself? Ignorance and social awkwardness are somehow preferable? Crap.

    I’m now past fifty. I don’t feel any more “invisible” than I did at twenty! I don’t feel I’ve lost social status or anything else but a bit of skin elasticity and perhaps the ability to do all-nighters.

    1. I’m glad this hasn’t been your experience. Your experience is not universal. In fact, from both the feedback I’ve received on this piece and a larger critical look at how society treats women, I’d say your experience is probably in the minority.

  6. Well, I’m not a “critical theorist,” thank goodness. I ran this graphic by a few female friends and they all thought it as ridiculous as I do. My hardworking Lutheran grandmother, who raised five kids and helped run a small farm, would have considered this obsession with looks and youth to be a sin.

    Worth declines with age, I suppose, if one is a model or an actress. Or a prostitute. I really don’t think that there is a cabal of advertisers sitting around plotting to “break” brilliant geneticists, basketball coaches, and MacArthur Fellows.

    Did you never realize that you don’t have to pay attention to advertising? Or to popular culture, in general? It’s not worth your time.

    This summer, two of our undergraduates were murdered. They’ll never get to look in a mirror and fuss about sun damage. How dare you refer some airhead’s twenty-fifth birthday as a tragedy? How dare you?

    1. While I am very sorry for the loss you’ve experienced, I really don’t appreciate your condescension. Nor the fact that you either didn’t read beyond the graphic that I clearly disagree with or utterly missed the entire point of this post.

      Not only did I not refer to some “airhead’s” (nice misogyny there) twenty-fifth birthday as a tragedy, I unpacked the entire idea that aging should be something to fear while noting the cultural forces that prize youth. And while it’s nice to ignore pop culture in practice, in reality, what the mainstream culture thinks about women, aging, and social capital very much impacts women’s lives.

  7. “Airhead” is not misogynist. It applies equally to men and women, and I’m sure that the proportions in both populations are the same.

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