Academic journal article Generations

Ageism, Gravity, and Gender: Experiences of Aging Bodies

Academic journal article Generations

Ageism, Gravity, and Gender: Experiences of Aging Bodies

Article excerpt

The quest to be 'not old.'

Ageism differs from other forms of oppression in two significant ways. First, it is the one source of disadvantage that we will all face, should we live long enough, though when and how depends upon a number of factors. In addition, because our culture is ageist, we learn this form of bigotry from the time we are born. As a result, we ultimately oppress ourselves: Either we try to avoid the aging process or we lose self-esteem because of the selves we feel we are becoming.

This attempt to distance ourselves from those who are old and from our own aging often centers upon our bodies. In this article, I explore the connections between ageism, how bodies are experienced, and the anti-aging industry


Ageism includes categorization, stereotyping, and prejudice, but the most crucial aspect is exclusionary behavior. In Butler's (1969, p. 243) original formulation, ageism is the "systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender." Individuals may or may not act in accordance with their prejudices. Thus, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally forbids some forms of race-based discrimination regardless of individual prejudice, so too does the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 outlaw age-based discrimination in the workplace regardless of employers' ageist beliefs. A focus on exclusionary behavior highlights societal characteristics that help explain the persistence of ageism in the United States despite changing values and beliefs. This focus pushes us to explore how, for example, ageism can be embedded in institutions such that simply following "normal" procedures or behaving in taken-for-granted ways can exclude old people, even if individuals do not harbor ageist attitudes.

Ageism is founded in age relations. Societies organize on the basis of age such that different age groups gain identities and power in relation to one another. Thus, membership in age categories shapes our self-concepts and carries material consequences that influence our life chances. This arrangement means that some age groups benefit from ageism at others' expense. Those who are "not old" escape stigma and feel included. They face less competition for valuable resources, such as jobs, wealth, or other sources of status.

And particularly because age relations have implications for power and life chances, people will avoid identifying themselves as old (Minichiello, Browne, and Kendig, 2000), whereas younger people tend not to avoid the fact of their age. Despite the physical changes that occur across the life course and negative stereotypes that can accrue to other age categories, it is only old age that we attempt to purge from the developmental landscape (Andrews, 1999). Negatives that accrue to other ages, such as young people's lack of experience or maturity, are seen as being offset by positives; but the same is not true of old age.

Throughout this article, then, when I refer to ageism I will be referring to both attitudes and exclusion. I will have in mind the age relations that underlie ageism and the ways that bodies may come to signify old age.


Bodily signs of old age can serve as physical markers for those who will be excluded. The ways in which bodies-broadly understoodcan be differentiated as "old" and "not old" thus bears further exploration.

Typically, scholars have taken two general approaches to the topic of bodies. For some, the most important aspects of bodies are the biological, material bases that they form, upon which individuals and societies are founded. Bodies are "real" and constrain or provide people opportunities that are reflected in social relations and lifestyles. For other scholars, the important aspects of bodies are our social constructions of them, the fact that they are "shaped, constrained, even invented by society" (Laz, 2003, p. …

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