ENJOYING YOUR AGE*
by Caryl Avery
If you read a story today about a society in which only women grew older, you would doubtless regard it as an amusing piece of science fiction. Yet there was a time—not so long ago—when right here in this country the sexes aged differently: men grew distinguished, women grew old. Men developed character lines, women became wrinkled. In fact, almost a decade ago, Susan Sontag wrote an essay about the phenomenon called “The Double Standard of Aging,” in which she examined the social convention that allowed men to age naturally but condemned women to experience aging as a devastating defeat.
Today, the picture is changing. Brooke Shields notwithstanding, feminine beauty is no longer automatically equated with youthfulness. Women have options—in terms of beauty, fashion, fitness—that know no age limits. They are less concerned with youth, regardless of their ages.
Yet to keep this momentum going—to keep from sliding back into old habits and perceptions of ourselves—it is important to understand how this double standard evolved in the first place, what effect it has had on women, and why women went along with it for so long.
In a youth-oriented society such as ours, no one—male or female—likes the idea of getting old. Old means lack of status, old means confronting our mortality. But old means these things equally for men and women. It is an objective “old,” different from the subjective “old” imposed on women by the double standard of aging. When Sontag wrote her article, most women experienced aging as a “process of gradual sexual disqualification.” As she put it in 1972, “A woman hardly has to be anything like what would reasonably be considered old to worry about her age…the crises come at any time…aging is a movable doom.”
Not to say that men didn’t, and don’t, flinch at the first signs of grey, don’t experience crises when mid-life finds them only halfway up the corporate ladder. But they don’t dread aging the way women do because they don’t fear outgrowing their attractiveness. Sontag explains why. “The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks—heavier, rougher, more thickly built. A man does not grieve when he loses the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form of attractiveness for another.”
But until very recently, the only standard for female beauty was the girl. Older women were judged beautiful only to the extent that they defied the aging process. Women were like flowers: they blossomed once (in their early twenties). How did this state of affairs come about?
The birth of the double standard
Practicality, rather than power or esthetics, probably gave rise to the double standard of aging. In the days when men and women worked side by side (before the Industrial Revolution), a man needed a strong, young wife, especially if he wanted to have children. Indeed, the perils of childbirth were such that many women didn’t make it beyond youth, and those who did aged poorly and prematurely.
But the subsequent division of power in our society reinforced the double standard mightily. Women usually stayed home while men went to work. The result: Men came to be valued for what they achieved—power, status, wealth, confidence; women came to be valued for what they “were”—young, attractive, sexy. The implication: Men improve with age (they accrue more money and status); women decline (they get older and less attractive).
Esthetics played a part, too. Western art is built on the Greek notion that everything has an ideal form. Art doesn’t imitate nature, but perfects it. Especially where feminine beauty is concerned, our society has cultivated a taste for perfection—a perfection that doesn’t allow for what Anatole Broyard, book critic and feature writer for The New York Times, calls “the signs of use…the wear and tear of being.”
Most people in our society find the “signs of use” not only unesthetic, but unsettling—a memento mori, a reminder that one has to die. Men and women alike tend to avoid confronting their mortality, but do so in different ways. Socialized to see themselves as old, women have traditionally concealed as best they can the lines of age. Men, on the other hand, have been conditioned not to see lines when they look in the mirror but to see “character.” Convention has done for them what dermabrasion has to do for women. Where a man is apt to be confronted with his years, however, is in his mate. An older woman reflects mortality; a young woman “is an advertisement for eternity.” Hence, the older-man/younger-woman syndrome.
Its effect on women
How did women react to the societal imperative that they remain forever young? Defensively.
They hid. Behind makeup, face-lifts, rejuvenating creams. But hiding had hidden costs. Too often, the woman who managed to look younger than her years chalked it up to luck, “good genes.” When she began to look her age, she blamed it on herself. Many women have a tendency to accept responsibility for their failures but not to take credit for their successes. This reinforces the feeling that they are not in control of their lives, which leads to a sense of helplessness and diminished self-confidence.
They lied. Sure, men lie, too—Jack Benny died of old age at “thirty-nine”—but not nearly as often as women and more often for business than for social purposes. But women are expected to lie about their age. It’s become a standard joke. And not a harmless one, according to Gloria Title, C.S.W., nonsexist psychotherapist and member of the Advisory Council of NOW-N.Y. “One of the best compliments to most women is, ‘You don’t look your age.’ But it’s really an insult,” says Ms. Title. “It’s like saying, ‘You don’t look black.’ It lets you pass, as some passed for white. But every time a woman lies, the wound to the psyche must be enormous because she is saying, ‘Who I really am is of low value. If they knew, what would they think of me?’ The result is a lowered self-esteem.”
They ran. So convincingly has society created an image of the asexual older woman that many disqualify themselves from the sexual arena as soon as they reach “a certain age.” Says Ms. Title, “The more women tell themselves that they are no longer attractive, the more they believe it and the more they project it.” Another reason some women renounce their sexuality is fear of rejection, says Ms. Title. “Men know they will win some games and lose some, but losing is very damaging to a woman’s self-esteem. So instead of playing the game and losing sometimes, many don’t play at all.”
Why women went along
Given its detrimental effects, why did women buy the double standard of aging? For one thing, they were sold it by the advertising media. Television spots and magazine ads still offer us a dazzling array of products to help us look younger—the implication being that “old is finished.”
For another, they were swayed by the myth of the “menopausal woman.” Recent studies, however, have shown that few women in or past menopause experience it as a distressing or depressing event. And those who do are likely to define femininity in terms of fertility and youth.
And then there is the obvious, that men have done the choosing; and, if women wanted to be chosen, they had no alternative but to meet the standards men were setting.
But aside from what they were sold, could women have had an investment of their own in the double standard of aging? Could they have found some benefit in acquiescing? For some, refusing to grow up was a way of maintaining girl-like irresponsibility. Instead of developing their potential for competence and independence, they preferred to be taken care of by a man.
The aging of the double standard
Recent societal changes, however, are making the double standard obsolete. Demographics are shifting; the country is getting greyer. Today, one out of every ten Americans is over sixty-five, and in another fifty years, it will be about one in five. The baby-boom population that brought us the youth cult of the sixties has now thought better of its slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” (that would rule out over half the population of the U.S., according to the 1980 census) and is subscribing instead to the theory of University of Chicago gerontologist Bernice Neugarten that the United States is becoming an “age-irrelevant” society—that is, one in which chronological age (after twenty) is no longer a reliable predictor of how people live or feel.
With people going back to school, entering the work force, starting a family, taking up jogging at all different ages, there is no longer any such thing as “acting your age.” Indeed, acting forty or fifty today means something quite different from what it did a generation ago. Women and men alike are much younger than their parents were at the same age. Thanks to medical technology, better nutrition, and the new emphasis on fitness, Americans not only look and feel younger but are physiologically younger than ever before. The gap between chronological age and physiological age is ever-widening.
What does all this mean in terms of the double standard of aging? First, there will be fewer young women for men to choose from. Second, women of all ages will be looking so good men won’t care. “It is generally said that women age physically more destructively, more disastrously than men. I don’t think this is true,” says Anatole Broyard. “In the old days, when childbirth was mismanaged, women used to be pulled down. Now, women in their forties look splendid! I don’t think men age any better than women. Somehow it’s a legend they have propagated, and women never thought about disproving it. But now that everyone is running and going to gyms, it’s becoming quite obvious that women are at least as attractive physically and sexually as men at the same age.” Third, older women as a group will have to be reckoned with. Says fifty-year-old New York model Kaylan Pickford: “The youth market was the largest in advertising history. But now that the age of the country is changing, an older market will be the target. Advertisers will no longer be able to play just one song to the whole nation. Youth is one look, but not the only look. There is a tremendous amount of sexuality and sensuality among women in mid-life that has been ignored.”
As women themselves begin to see through the myths that have prevented them from realizing their sexual potential, they are becoming more fulfilled human beings. In fact, women are discovering—and studies are confirming—that their middle years are their best sexually. Freed by menopause from the fear of pregnancy, they are able (often for the first time) to enjoy sex without worrying. In addition, their increased self-confidence and decreased dependency on the approval of others make women in mid-life less anxious about sex and more capable of true intimacy.
Contrary to popular myth, menopause is viewed by many women today as not only sexually liberating but invigorating. Margaret Mead, for example, spoke of “postmenopausal zest.” And one recent study labeled menopausal depression “a social and cultural phenomenon, for which the ‘designers’ of social roles are to blame. We create menopausal depression by not seeing to it that women are armed with more than one justification for the lives.”
As more and more women enter the work force, however, they are finding new justifications for their lives. And those lives are becoming happier. A recent Brandeis University critique of research done about women aged thirty-five to fifty, written by psychologists Rosalind C. Barnett and Grace K Baruch, found that women who had the ability to support themselves and juggle several roles—i.e., mothers working outside the home—were by far the happiest.
Indeed, a major mental-health study, conducted originally in 1954 and repeated in 1974, shows a substantial improvement in the psychological well-being of women in mid-life. According to the Midtown Manhattan Longitudinal Study, directed by Leo Srole, M.D., and Anita Kassen Fischer of the Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Columbia University Faculty of Medicine, in 1954, 21 percent, or one out of every five women aged forty to fifty-nine were psychologically “impaired,” compared with only 9 percent of men of the same age. In 1974, only 8 percent of women in their forties and fifties were impaired, compared with 9 percent of the men. Thus, the group of women who twenty years ago felt “finished” in their forties and fifties made way for a different group who were experiencing a new sense of well-being during these years. Says Mrs. Fischer: “Many women in their forties and fifties are entering the job market and becoming economically more self-sufficient. Those who are working for career purposes as well as for money are finding greater opportunities for self-expression and self-acceptance. We believe this has a positive effect on mental health.”
Their new economic independence has a positive effect on women where the double standard of aging is concerned, too. When women had no income of their own, they had to date men with money, which usually meant older men. Who else would pay for dinner? Now that women can pick up the tab, they invite whom they like to their table.
Indeed, the fact that women as well as men are now doing the inviting augurs poorly for the survival of the double standard. Given the opportunity to choose, many women are choosing younger men, just as men have traditionally chosen younger women. It has always been acceptable for a man to marry a woman twenty or thirty years his junior. Says Robert J. Gaukler, M.D., psychoanalyst and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Temple University Medical Center, “It goes back to the incest taboo. In our society, father/daughter incest is a lesser taboo than mother/son incest.” Although some women still feel uncomfortable about going out with a man who is much younger, more and more are adopting the attitude, as one woman put it, that youths shouldn’t be wasted on the young.
Undoing the double standard
Grandma Moses started painting at seventy-six; Georgia O’Keeffe is still painting at ninety-three. Ruth Gordon, a thriving actress at eighty-five; Eudora Welty, an active author at seventy-two. It’s for sure none of these women is depressed about her age—or concerned about concealing it. But what about younger women? More and more of them—Candice Bergen and Cheryl Tiegs in their thirties, Jane Fonda and Judy Collins in their forties, Lauren Bacall and Anne Bancroft in their fifties—are coming out of the closet about their age. There is a movement afoot. You can be part of it.
By establishing your own values and priorities, by practicing good nutrition, and by attuning yourself to your body’s needs for exercise and relaxation, you can make your age work for you. By being aware of the myths that have prevailed in the past, you can prevent yourself from perpetuating them in the future. Says Felice Gans, Ph.D., New York psychologist and expert on women in the middle years, “Awareness is always the first step toward change. I am fifty-two and have been taught to value youthfulness. For example, I am much more conscious of the lines in my own face than in my older brother’s, and when I walk into a restaurant and see a woman with a much younger man, I am likely to assume they are mother and son. But I recognize that these feelings are irrational. The more I become aware of the double standard, the less I participate in it.”
According to Kaylan Pickford, the key is to forget about looking young and concentrate on looking good. “Comparing yourself with the young is the kiss of death,” she says. “Youth has a look of its own and you can have a look of your own. It simply involves taking your life style into account, staying in shape, and taking advantage of anything that makes you feel comfortable with yourself. If that means cosmetic surgery, fine. As long as you view the change as something that might help you look better—not younger.”
Anatole Broyard suggests that women can take a lesson from novelists. “When a novelist is developing, the most important thing for him to do is to find a voice that is natural to him. Once he finds it, almost everything works. A woman has to find a personal voice, too. When she finds a voice natural to her, then she’s at her best. She develops confidence, poise, a kind of grace. The confident woman has a kind of sexiness.”
As women become more confident, more fulfilled, less dependent on approval from others, fear of aging falls away. We are starting to appreciate ourselves for how we are, not how we age.
*Originally published in Vogue Real-Life Beauty Health Guide, 1981/1982.