7 Lying Lies About Aging for Women
'I am, therefore I age' – Eileen Kilgore takes radical stance in a world gone mad for "anti-aging."
Last week I was talking to a friend – let’s call her Anna – about how she has let herself go. I didn’t say it. She did. Anna is 65 and lovely. Over the last few years, she’s endured a painful, prolonged divorce. Stressed and demoralized, she gained 20 pounds and stopped coloring her hair. Anna said a good friend told her she looked old and needed to do something about her hair. “That doesn’t sound like a good friend to me,” I said. I was surprised when Anna replied, “I appreciate that she told me the truth. I look awful. I need to do something about myself.” Aging for women is no easy feat!
I started to protest, but then I realized that I’ve said the same thing to myself many times. Since turning 50, I have struggled with the aging process. There have been moments when I mourned the loss of my youth. Seeing my younger self in old photos has depressed me.
Apparently, Anna and I are not alone, as the results from the latest "Mirror/Mirror" survey from AARP show. Among the findings, nearly two thirds of women age 50 and older say they are regularly discriminated against, and those experiences take a toll on women’s mental health. The poll of 6,643 women paints a disheartening picture of discrimination affecting women of all ages, ethnicities and races, with significant implications for their health and longevity.
I’m not surprised by these statistics, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. The problem isn’t just the discrimination we experience from others. It’s also what we do to ourselves. When we don’t challenge these negative stereotypes, we tacitly accept them.
I’ve been guilty of this. Without realizing it, I bought into many of the rules we're taught about aging for women. We shouldn’t get old or look old. If we do, we will be diminished, criticized or ignored. The last one is the worst. It’s as if, after a certain age, we are no longer relevant.
It makes me wonder how many other insidious lies I’ve accepted about aging. Here are some – and the truth, at least for me, that rests underneath them.
Lie #1: “You look good for your age” isn’t a compliment.
I used to cringe hearing this, thinking it implied that I’m somehow less now.
The truth: Someone told me something nice. I hear it negatively due to conditioning. Our society is so unconsciously ageist that it equates “beauty” with “youth”. I reject the idea that because I don’t look like I did 25 years ago, I’m not attractive. Now, instead of wincing when someone compliments me, I just say thank you.
Lie #2: Looking my best means looking younger.
Do an Internet search and you’ll see videos like this:
Six tips to look younger.
How not to look frumpy and older than you are!
Anti-aging doctor’s key to looking younger (more on this later).
The message is pretty clear: I can only be at peace with my appearance if I look younger than I am. It begs the question: what is wrong with being attractive in my 50s, 60s or 70s? Telling women we must look like we did years ago perpetuates the idea that only the youthful are beautiful. We need new standards and new role models to show us new possibilities.
The truth: I accept myself as I am, regardless of age. Do I want to look my best? Yes, and I’m fine with my best meaning I have lines and wrinkles because I am 58 years old.
Lie #3: Anti-aging products will keep me looking younger.
To reverse the signs of aging, I need to buy expensive skincare products with a pharmacy’s worth of ingredients – or I need cosmetic procedures.
The truth: there is no such thing as “anti-aging.” Despite what cosmetic companies tell us, nothing I buy will reverse the aging process. We are biologically designed to age. This is how the good Lord made us. Can we hydrate our skin and make it look better? Yes. But let’s call a spade a spade. It’s won’t stop aging, and neither will Botox.
Lie #4: Aging for women means wearing “age-appropriate” clothes.
Sounds reasonable, right? How many of us have snarked over middle-aged women wearing midriff tops and miniskirts. “She looks desperate.” Or even worse (gasp), an older woman who brazenly wears a bikini. The horror!
Years ago, I was at the beach with my sister-in-law, then in her late 50s, when a 60+ woman walked by wearing a two-piece swimsuit. No cover-up, bodily imperfections visible. My sister-in-law said, “You know, it’s hard but women need to accept that after a certain point, they just can’t wear a bikini anymore.” My 50-year-old, bikini-wearing self thought, “Shoot. I probably only have a few years left.” And later I told my husband, “I think your sister took a shot at me.”
The truth: I can wear whatever I like. One of my favorite sayings is, “What you think of me is none of my business.” I can make my own choices, even if you think they’re inappropriate.
Lie #5: Menopausal women are a good punchline.
Hot flashes are hilarious, the fodder for comedies. (The Golden Girls made a whole show out of it.) Our real, often debilitating symptoms are dismissed by many doctors with a shrug as “menopause.” There is such a stigma to the word menopause that some women, me included, will do anything to avoid it. I was once in an important business meeting when I was flooded with intense, horrible hot flashes. I felt my face turning red and sweat trickling down my sides. I scurried to the bathroom, took off my shirt and doused myself with cold water.
When I returned, a female coworker asked me if I was ok. I felt… ashamed. “Oh yes, I’m fine.” I said. “Just felt dizzy for a minute.” No way was I telling this 30-year-old pipsqueak about my hot flashes.
The truth: Menopause is a life stage like any other. It’s no better or worse.
Instead of focusing on the downsides of menopause, why don’t we look at the upsides? We are free from periods and PMS. If we have children, they are grown or well on their way. We have 50-plus years of life experience that empowers us to assess where we are and where we want to go. Instead of holding back, we can take chances. Maybe we’ll open a business, take that trip we’ve never gotten around to or try ziplining. We aren’t at the end; we’re at the beginning of unlimited potential.
Lie #6: Men get distinguished. Women get old.
I’ve heard comments like this:
She needs to get rid of that gray. It ages her.
I love his salt-and-pepper hair.
She needs Botox.
His smile lines are so attractive.
What is she doing with a guy 10 years younger? She’s trying too hard.
His wife is so young and pretty.
The truth: If it’s ok for a man to age, then it’s ok for a woman to age.
Lie number 7: Never ask a woman her age.
It’s as if a woman’s age is a deep, dark secret. No one should ask because if the number is too high, she might feel bad. Why? The implication is that older isn’t as good as younger. If we pass a certain number, we’re aged out and need to stay quiet about it.
The truth: Aging is not shameful. We don’t need to feel embarrassed about getting older. We are just as relevant at 60 as we were at 30. If a woman chooses not to reveal her age that’s her choice, but let’s stop making a big deal out of it. When we shroud it in whispers and punchlines, we imply there’s something wrong with it.
My list aside, aging women face more than lies about getting older. Ageism is a systemic, subtle form of discrimination, with real consequences. When menopausal and post-menopausal women are portrayed at all, it is often a negative image we see. And men aren’t the only offenders. Women play a part in this too, by being critical or catty about older women.
Unfortunately, I’m no exception. Many times, after seeing an older woman taking a no-frills approach to her appearance, I’ve had to rebuke myself. My first thought was she should “do something about that hair” or something equally snide.
I may not be responsible for my first thought, but I am for the second. So I’m trying out a new one: if she is confident and happy about her looks, why do I have a problem with it? Good for her – and good for all of us.
Eileen Kilgore writes about faith, family dynamics, and women’s issues. She grew up in Anchorage, AK and is fine with never seeing snow again. She and her husband live in Louisiana with their three pampered dogs.