To age or not to age? That is the question

Here’s a recent kerfuffle: an article came through social media about women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s as “ageless,” calling them “perennials.” “We” are very different from “our” mothers, this article said:

In short, women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond no longer associate themselves with a life of lawnmowers and Rotary Clubs, cheese and wine parties, elastic waists, river cruises and walking tours of Madeira. Even the term ‘middle aged’ is fast becoming obsolete.

That quote especially got under the skin of some of my friends. As several said, what the heck do they mean about a life of “lawnmowers and Rotary Clubs”? Whose world is that — certainly not the world of my mother. And some questioned what, exactly, is wrong with “cheese and wine parties, elastic waists, river cruises and walking tours of Madeira”? I could see the point. I don’t care how old you are: you own at least some leisure wear with an elastic waist (yoga pants? leggings?), right? And they’re comfy all as all hell, aren’t they?

But let’s get back to the perennials:

Everywhere we look, highly visible older women are rewriting all the rules. From JK Rowling to Nicole Kidman; Michelle Obama to Anna Wintour, they are at the peak of their power and creativity.


They are engaged, influential and often increasingly political.

There’s even a new term to describe people with this no-age mindset: ‘perennials’. It was coined by US internet entrepreneur Gina Pell, 49, who explains, ‘Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.’

Despite this new-found confidence, however, of the women in this age-group who were surveyed, 48% said “they felt less confident in their appearance than they had a decade ago, citing pressure to stay young looking.

Some of my friends chimed in with comments about how they are happy to “look their age.” Sam has written before about not aging gracefully. It’s just another kind of pressure on women to conform. More of the same expectations to look a certain way if we are to remain acceptable.

Like the other day when I was traveling through Heathrow Airport, the thirty-something male customs agent looked at my passport and said, “You look very well for your age.” Literally. That’s exactly what he said. I think it was meant as a compliment.

Sam pointed out that willingness to “look our age” is a collective action problem. If we oppose the demands of normative femininity to keep looking young for as long as possible, we can shift expectations but only if enough women do it. Outliers who go it alone will face a social cost. But if a critical mass of women say “forget it! We’re aging and that’s okay!” then attitudes about what is acceptable will need eventually to shift. As quoted from this NY Times article:

“If [a] woman ignores the process of aging and eases more honestly into her inevitable wrinkles, belly fat and gray hair, she is liable to stand out as an anomaly within her personal and professional circles.”

After witnessing the discussion on my Facebook timeline, a friend sent me a link to Sarah Lesko’s article, “I Believe in Getting Older.”

Lesko says:

Well, I have a new grey stripe right over my forehead, and since I’m almost 50 I think I’m done dyeing my hair. And I love being in the sun (especially at track meets!)… I try to be responsible with sunscreen, but I know it ages my skin a lot. The idea of injecting neurotoxins into my face gives me the willies. And I feel like I’ve earned my wrinkles and saggy skin spots the old-fashioned way: with hard work and worry, lost sleep, excessive smiling and laughing, and carrying 3 babies in my body. Life. So, I look how I look.

The “I look how I look” refrain came loud and strong in response to the perennials article.

I felt torn. To me, the idea of women as “ageless perennials” has more to do with attitude, activity level, and self-perception. How we think about ourselves matters in the face of research that says that in lots of ways “aging” is a choice.” Sam blogged about that way back in the early days of Fit Is a Feminist Issue. I didn’t take offense when I first read it. At the same time, this type of attitude doesn’t set me and my mother apart. She still really active and has been an excellent role model for me in so many things, including how I want to enjoy my later years.

Tracy in Edinburgh last week, age 52 years and 10 months!

And yet I understand the “I look how I look” idea, while still feeling the pressure of wanting to look vibrant and, yes, “ageless,” for some time to come. While I don’t appreciate a random official thinking he has the right to comment on my appearance, even if it’s meant as a compliment (even a compliment of the dreaded  “for your age” variety), I do still like hearing people say I don’t “look my age.” Superficial? Maybe. Not that I even know what it means to “look 52” or, for that matter, what it means to “feel 52?”

I am quite familiar with what it means to be 52, since that’s how old I’ve been since September 24th. Not a secret. Not a thing I lament, feel in any way bad about, or need to apologize for. And above all, not a thing I dwell on. If you ask me how old I am I won’t hesitate to tell you I’m 52 (almost 53).

It’s that no-age attitude that resonated with me in the perennials article, even if I have no clue what the Rotary Club is. And the “no-age” attitude isn’t so far off of the “embrace aging” attitude. Both “angles” on what it is to be a woman of a certain age shake off stale stereotypes about aging women.

What’s your attitude about aging in your own life?

The Castle in Edinburgh, as seen from Princes Park. Edinburgh wears its age well.




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