The Other within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging

By Marilyn Pearsall | Go to book overview

1
THE DOUBLE
STANDARD
OF AGING

Susan Sontag

For a woman to be obliged to state her age, after "a certain age," is always a miniature ordeal. . . . Almost everyone acknowledges that once she passes an age that is, actually, quite young, a woman's exact age ceases to be a legitimate target of curiosity. After childhood the year of a woman's birth becomes her secret, her private property. It is something of a dirty secret. To answer truthfully is always indiscreet.

The discomfort a woman feels each time she tells her age is quite independent of the anxious awareness of human mortality that everyone has, from time to time. There is a normal sense in which nobody, men and women alike, relishes growing older. After 35 any mention of one's age carries with it the reminder that one is probably closer to the end of one's life than to the beginning. There is nothing unreasonable in that anxiety. Nor is there any abnormality in the anguish and anger that people who are really old, in their 70s and 80s, feel about the implacable waning of their powers, physical and mental. Advanced age is undeniably a trial, however stoically it may be endured. It is a shipwreck, no matter with what courage elderly people insist on continuing the voyage. But the objective, sacred pain of old age is of another order than the subjective, profane pain of aging. Old age is a genuine ordeal, one that men and women undergo in a similar way. Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination -- a moral disease, a social pathology -- intrinsic to which is the dreary panic of middle-aged men whose "achievements" seem paltry, who feel stuck on the job ladder or fear being

-19-

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