I recently saw a picture of a very famous pop star (who shall remain nameless because this is not about shaming anyone), and I only knew it was her because the caption said so. Had it not, I might have guessed anyway but with fairly significant dollops of incredulity, because this particular pop star looked so completely alien to me, to her former self, that she was nothing like the sassy chick she’d been in the olden days of our mutual young adulthood. And not because she’d gotten older, but because at some point while getting older she completely re-manufactured her physical visage.
Which was sad. Because I liked her face. Now I can’t find it.
Let’s assume her cosmetic transformation was by choice — because it’s doubtful anyone could get this particular woman to do anything she didn’t want to do. But let’s also admit that the choice was likely pressured by the fact that she’s in an industry and at a time when youth and beauty are vaunted above all else, and her having the audacity to do that unthinkable thing — aging while woman — would surely have made the world stop spinning and fans fall to their knees in wailing protest had she not put herself through the plastic factory.
Which is also sad.
I’m not picking on this particular woman specifically. I could have just as easily seen a snap of any one of the preternaturally glacial mugs of any number of A-list actresses, singers, influencers, etc., and felt the urge to scream, “We are allowed to grow old, dammit!” Except… we’re not really, are we?
I read an InStyle article recently in which Sarah Jessica Parker, getting rightfully defiant about the sexist, ageist “chatter” of fans disturbed by her visible aging in recent photos, brilliantly remarked, “I know what I look like. I have no choice. What am I going to do about it? Stop aging? Disappear?”
Exactly. Though, given the ageist bent of the American zeitgeist, it’s likely a good number of people would have answered, “Yes. That’s exactly what you should do. Disappear.”
But they’re wrong and she’s right. Her defiance, her willingness to continue putting that lovely, aging face forward to continue doing her excellent work is quite applause worthy. That takes courage in today’s climate. And I love her aging face. I understand her aging face. Because mine is aging too. As is yours. We’re all aging, every day, every one of us, whether that cherry-cheeked three-year-old or the spry twenty-something over there smirking. We’re all in this together, just at different points of the ride.
Sadly, there’s another response to Sarah’s question, one that’s being articulated by many, many woman who don’t have her (or Helen Mirren’s, or Judi Dench’s, or Catherine O’Hara’s) confidence to boldly embrace their age: “What you’re going to do about it, you ask?? You’re going to get thee to a cosmetic surgeon tout suite, and do any and everything possible, imaginable, available to remove all evidence of your natural age, cuz, sister, we will not be defined by our lines, wrinkles, droops, sags, and gray bits!”
Though it seems we can be defined by our willingness to manufacture youth at any cost. I’m convinced it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
I’m not only seeing older women, particularly in the media though certainly not exclusively, succumb to this tortuous, expensive, sometimes self-mutilating response to aging (see Linda Evangelista, amongst others), I’m seeing younger and younger women jump on the train as soon as a line shows up on their face, leading to a strange demographic of attractive women who start early to resemble large, lovely, plastic dolls.
I’ve taken to watching international television these days not only because their series tend to be very good, but because I relish the opportunity to view men and women of certain ages being allowed to actually look those ages. That’s a revelation, really, considering that every FBI agent, doctor, cop, teacher, nurse, or firefighter on American TV looks like a model, something I noted in a Huff Post piece I wrote a zillion years ago called, Why American Women Hate Their Faces and What They Could Learn From the Brits.
As for that aging three-year-old: the difference between her and your fifty-something cousin Mary is that Mary is considered on the downslope of life and, therefore, she reminds us of death. We don’t like death, we don’t like being reminded of death, so we don’t like Mary. And even if we can put aside death as a trigger, we also don’t like Mary because she’s not as sexually appealing as Americans like their women, and once that happens, she’s of no particular value. Kind of like Tudor queens who lost favor and ended up losing their heads. We don’t behead our women for aging out, we just shame them into surgery.
We need to stop that. We need to evolve as a society past this sexist, ageist, self-flagellating attitude. Because it’s only perception, not reality. Once it’s been decided (as it has) that the only face of merit is a young one, we’ve demonized and made terrifying one of the most inevitable, unavoidable, and universally shared experiences of human life: aging. Certainly we women have it within us to reject that script.
As one commenter, Lucy Fox, so beautifully put it in our Twitter conversation on the “aging while woman” topic: “I embrace it, as I’ve known a few people who would have loved the chance to get wrinkles but they didn’t get enough time to. People need to recognise the privilege of aging rather than vilifying it.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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