DH Kelly discusses the sexist ageism faced by women at every life stage
At every stage of life, women are treated less seriously because of our age. We have to be adults for several years before we are no longer dismissed as silly little girls: our expertise dismissed, our interests trivialised. Long before that stage has passed, the clock starts ticking. First, we must find a man and have babies ‘before it’s too late’, then we are locked into a losing battle to remain ‘desirable’. Regardless of if and when the menopause hits, there follows a long period where we are considered unhinged by our shifting hormones and roles in life. Then, finally – though often with several decades of life yet to spare – we slip into irrelevance.
I’m 38, so I’m approaching half the average life expectancy in the UK (81.6-years-old), which happens to be about the same as the average age of someone living in UK (that’s 40). In recent years, I’ve become more aware of the ways in which both younger and older women are dismissed, partly because I often find myself with a foot in both camps. If I was murdered next week, I would die as a young woman, whereas if I applied for The X Factor, I would be considered to be firmly middle aged. News coverage and commentary would have me as a millennial when it wants to blame me for some downward economic trend, and middle aged if it wants to shame me for not having children. Even within feminism, I occasionally hear about the naive idealism of one age group, then the short-sighted conservatism of another and find I fall into both.
Meanwhile, over the last few years, I have noticed that many of my peers have become sensitive about the passage of time. I mean the women – if the men are bothered, they’re staying quiet. My granny wears a badge which reads “Made in 1926”, but I’ve noticed a few Facebook contacts shifting their dates of birth from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. I now hear jokes among peers about being old and useless, ironing out their wrinkles, their bodies falling apart and dementia setting in. Compliments friends give one another have begun to shift from “You look so pretty!” to “You look so young!”
A number of friends have undergone a big career change or returned to education. In every case, this has taken a great deal of risk and hard work, but whenever this has happened, I’ve seen or heard comments like: “Just goes to show, it’s never too late!”
Yet most of my peers will be about halfway through our lives. If we’re lucky, we’re not yet halfway through our working lives, let alone our adult lives. There are very few things that it’s too late for at this stage.
I understand how anyone might forget this – we are, after all, older than we have ever been before! But when we talk about ourselves as if we might be past our best, we risk devaluing ourselves and our peers, we imply older women have even less value (in the case of people my age, that’s half of all women) and we risk making younger women feel that they are fast running out of time (a message we are all already receiving from elsewhere).
There’s a ludicrous idea at the heart of the gendered ageism women experience that we have a prime: a brief moment in time during which we are valuable and loveable and must get done whatever it is we’re going to do. Men have plenty of anxiety about their achievements and status, but for women, time seems to play a much greater role. It’s almost as if we want the entire film of our life to be set when we can be played by the same young actor.
I guess this particular angst about women turning 40 comes from historical misogyny that harks back to the feudal system. When aristocratic women were chattel and their chief function was to produce heirs, a woman’s value fell away entirely around this time (non-aristocratic women weren’t seen as having much value to begin with). Babies have always been born to women in their 40s and even later, but through much of history, multiple pregnancies, untreated infection and injury meant that the average women’s reproductive days were over by their late 30s (a fact which continues to inform fertility myths to this day).
In the 20th century, still preoccupied with the habits of powerful, status-anxious men, the argument became that men sought out younger female partners as a biological imperative rather than as an extension of the power games by which a minority of them have always lived. At a time when women and LGBTQ+ people were beginning to assert our rights, we had to be reminded that the sole purpose of sex was reproduction. Thus, we were told a man would seek out fertile soil in which to sow his wild oats, long after most of those oats had crumbled to dust.
According to this model, sexual attraction in a woman was all about having her babies “provided for”. Unlike men, she didn’t need to look for physical cues that her partner was himself fertile, likely to have healthy offspring and strong enough to help fell a few wildebeest to feed the growing bairns. Or maybe survival matters more than sex, we now need money to survive and young women have long been among those least likely to have enough to live on. Maybe relative wealth was never sexy so much as just really useful.
We now know that sex in humans is primarily a bonding and pleasure-seeking behaviour; most human sexual activity cannot result in pregnancy and even the baby-making act doesn’t result in pregnancy most of the time, even among young fertile adults. Aside from the immense cultural pressure to do so, few people prioritise reproductive potential in their romantic and sexual relationships.
Physical appearance matters to most of us, but there are reasons why many of our heart-throbs are actors and musicians of various ages, rather than sports-people in their twenties; sexiness is at least tangential to youth and physical fitness. There’s nothing wrong with age gaps in adult relationships, but most of us find our sexual partners – and especially our romantic partners – within a similar age bracket. This typical bracket narrows in cultures where men and women enjoy close to equal economic opportunities.
Outside the Court of Henry VIII and its modern equivalents, middle aged men who pursue much younger women do not do so because of the appeal of taut young flesh or a fertile womb, as any woman who has had such a partner can verify. Younger partners of either gender are likely to have fewer responsibilities, provide more homosocial kudos, and be both more easily impressed and impressionable. Sexist culture teaches women that looking after inadequate men is the price of happiness and security but experience often teaches us otherwise; as we get older, women tend to become more confident and thus less tolerant of unsatisfactory relationships.
Even author Yann Moix, who made headlines with his public declaration that women over 50 were “too old to love” admitted that his peers had no interest in him either, saying: “They’ve got better things to do than to drag a neurotic around who spends his time yelling and reading and likes doing things that only excite children.”
But the idea that women’s sexual attractiveness is fleeting remains an immensely lucrative one. Women of all ages are sold lotions, potions and procedures with the promise that they will delay the inevitable. Even the diet industry, which relies on temporary effects and return custom, can’t guard against the occasional customer who manages to keep the weight off, but whatever women do to keep looking young, time marches on and our skin gently slackens.
The idea is also hugely advantageous to unscrupulous men in their private lives, at work and even in politics. However powerful and successful a woman becomes (and of course, few people reach any position of power or authority before middle age), she will still often be dismissed as a worn out, bitter old hag, jealous of younger women who have what she’s lost and resentful of men who no longer want what she’s left with. Middle-aged men who were never blessed with beauty can flatter themselves that gorgeous women with a few crinkles around the edges would be lucky to have them. Whenever men make derogatory remarks about women’s looks, it’s not because they have no interest in us; it is because they want power over us.
Reading my beautiful friend Alexandra’s piece about her post-partum body being much the same as her previous one hit upon another reason this age-angst bothers me. Some of us have very much less to lose if our skin begins to sag and acquires a few wrinkles – some of us are or were already “invisible” and others among us are even looking forward to a point where we might become so. Then again, some of us have much more to lose.
It’s not that women should not speak about age or our concerns about it. Age is real enough; we have a finite time on Earth, various phases of life come and go, our reproductive potential passes away and very gradually our bodies become a little creakier and leakier before finally giving up the ghost. All this is worthy of reflection and that may well involve loss or fears about the future. Gendered age discrimination is also very real; its effects and mechanisms vary dramatically between industries and cultural groups and this is something we urgently need to talk about.
But then there’s ageism which says that, while young women should not be taken seriously, women become less valuable as we get older. Ageism furnishes us with an exaggerated version of the ageing process, whereby our bodies don’t merely soften and crease but become unpleasant or offensive to look at. Ageism teaches us that age discrimination is a rational, inevitable phenomena, that older people should be treated less well because they are objectively less capable, less attractive or less easy to be around. Gendered ageism insists that women age differently to men.
It is not our fault if these cultural messages affect how we see ourselves, but we can choose to discuss age and age discrimination in a way that doesn’t spread the contagion of ageism, reinforcing these ideas in those around us.
Disablism and ageism skip among the bluebells hand-in-hand, with devastating effect to disabled people of all ages. Old age and disability are so closely associated that at the age of just four, my niece believed that her uncle and I – the youngest adults in her four-generation family – were in fact the oldest, because we use walking sticks and wheelchairs. Younger disabled people will often be told that they’re “too young to be disabled”, an idea sometimes expressed as a compliment, but one that manifests itself in the outright denial of essential services, especially in housing.
In a culture that treats health and conventional beauty as the reward of virtuous behaviour, age is something that we are encouraged to battle against along with ill health (and fatness). When our culture celebrates older people, it’s not for their wisdom or expertise, but for how young they look, how mobile they are and whether they have all their marbles intact. Non-disabled people like to imagine that they have remained in reasonable health through stoicism and good behaviour while people who become disabled have somehow given in. Yet disability itself, and the societal exclusion it brings with it, is something that older disabled people are strongly encouraged to accept. Both external and internalised ageism and disablism make it so much harder for older disabled people to get the support and equipment they need, let alone to fight for their political rights.
We are now seeing far more middle-aged and older women on screen than ever before, as presenters and expert commentators as well as more prominent characters in movies and TV dramas, but almost none of these women are disabled and certainly not visibly so.
When non-disabled people my age joke about how they’re getting older, these jokes are often disablist in nature: about decrepitude and dementia, failing eyesight or hearing and deteriorating mobility. These jokes sting when you’ve lived with cognitive dysfunction and chronic pain since your teens, as I bet they do for people coming to terms with similar impairments in their 40s and later. Bodies can be funny –sometimes actions creak louder than words! But jokes about bodies belong to those who inhabit them.
I love being in my late 30s for all kinds of reasons. One of them is that there are now adults who are significantly younger than me and they give me nothing but hope. I was a mess through most of my 20s, but folks in their 20s now are doing important work, way ahead of where I was at that age despite coming up in a less optimistic time.
But it’s a sexist world; being a woman is tough and something that maybe gets easier with age is the realisation that we’re not the problem and that the group of people whose standards we will never meet happens to coincide with the group of people whose opinion is irrelevant. If we’re lucky, experience teaches us to care less about our looks or how we might be compared to other people so we can get on with being ourselves and do more of what we’re really good at. This story is by no means universal, but it is something that I have observed in my women friends and hopefully myself; we are becoming more and more like ourselves and thus all the more fabulous.
Photo by Max Pixel, used with permission, courtesy of Creative Commons.
This is a close-up image of an eye that has been edited so that a clock is superimposed onto the iris and pupil.