Aged by Age-And Culture, Too

By Holstein, Martha B. | Aging Today, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Aged by Age-And Culture, Too


Holstein, Martha B., Aging Today


I did it again-I bought another face cream at my obviously health-giving neighborhood spa. My logic: The weather in Chicago, where I live, is so harsh that my dry (read aging) skin needs extra moisturizing. I am 63 years old; as an advocate for older women, I refuse to color my hair even if I sometimes wish that it were a little less gray and that I wasn't so principled about not coloring it. Along with the graying hair, I see the deepening furrows on my neck, and the fine lines around my eyes and lips. I know I shouldn't care, but I do. As for clothing, it took me a while to realize that there was nothing wrong with my clothes-and that it's me that is different. I no longer look the same no matter what I wear.

Over the years, my lifestyle hasn't changed much. I still work hard, visit with my daughters and friends, read a lot, walk, do yoga, engage politically-all the stuff that we are supposed to do to stay young. But I am not young. When I walk with my daughters, the contrast between their youthful panache and me is striking-and I don't consider myself a slouch. Although I weigh now what I did 30 years ago, I cannot imagine going to those clothes-optional spas that I went to when I lived in Northern California. The most visible difference between then and now is my body-the face that I put before the world. As a product of American culture that attaches all kinds of negative meanings to age and women's bodies, I don't find this face easy to accept. While I don't try to deny the changes that come with age by insisting that the real me is inside, my relationship with my body is still ambiguous, uneasy. It all seems so sudden, this aging self. Will I become a faceless old women among the young on the 151 Sheridan bus?

DISAPPEARING

My friends are mostly open and eager to talk-when we are alone-about their aging appearances. About a year ago, I spent time with two of my closest friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both are politically astute, attractive and professionally successful women - yet, how quickly we started to discuss getting old and what we looked like. Separately they told me about permanent eyeliners-something I'd never heard of before-to give us added color since age seemed to fade our hair and skin. The admonition to be sure to have lipstick on or surely we will disappear underlines a fear of disappearing. It reinforces the feelings of invisibility that older women so often describe when, for example, the department store cashier helps first the man with the briefcase standing next to her because, after all, what does she have to do that is as important as what's in his briefcase-which might actually be a banana and a container of milk.

When I am with my friends, I feel no particular age even when we are talking about aging. I'm just me. I am what I was 25 years ago, although I'm a bit stiffer when I get up from the dinner table after two hours of conversation. Still, when a young woman offered me a seat on the bus some months ago during a fierce Chicago cold spell, I instantly fell like an aging woman, although I knew that she probably wasn't judging me at all, just being polite.

I ask myself, in an intensifying and confusing round of questions, how can I, .who wishes to help transform society's image of older women, not internalize masculine images of beauty? How can I be more comfortable with, indeed, proud of what I see in the mirror? …

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