Looking our age: Maybe we ought to, maybe it’s time?

If a group can’t be seen, they’re invisible. I think that matters and I’ve written about it in the context of bisexuality. (See Fashion and sexuality: Why recognition matters–that link is to the Wiley version but I’ve got a copy on the research repository here at Western–and here as well for my contribution to “Margins within the Marginal: Bi-invisibility and Intersexual Passing.”)

But how about age? I’ve written about midlife invisibility for women before on the blog. Here on the blog we are all about inclusion. Tracy has written, for example, about the importance of fitness imagery including older women. See here and here.

Does it make a difference though if the lack of recognition is because you are trying to hide? What if you’re not seen because you take steps not to be recognized? What if no one wants to represent the group of midlife women because all the midlife women are trying to look young? Sometimes I look around at university meetings and wonder, where are the senior women? Now sometimes, indeed often, that’s because there aren’t very many senior women. But also it’s because the women who are senior, don’t look it. They work hard to look younger than their years.

This issue is partly about recognition but it’s also about representation and responsibility.

I thought about that recently in the context of this article and this one from months ago.

The first, Working to Disarm Women’s Anti-Aging Demon, offers the case for letting go and looking older. “When women compete to “stay young,” we collude in our own disempowerment. When we rank other women by age, we reinforce ageism, sexism, lookism and patriarchy. What else we can we all agree on? This is one bad bargain. It sets us up to fail. It pits us against one another. It’s why the poorest of the poor, around the world, are old women of color.”

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: Activism Against Ageism, writes, “So many women color their hair to cover the gray. Many resent the effort and expense, and it’s a major way in which we make ourselves invisible as older women. When a group is invisible, so are the issues that affect it. Suppose the world saw how many we are, and how beautiful, I mused. Suppose we morphed together, in solidarity: the Year of Letting Our Hair Go Gray! It would be transformative!”

The second describes women in their 40s and 50s and 60s as ageless, as having lots in common with teens and 20somethings when it comes to looks, style, and lifestyles. I think they referred to midlife women as “perennials.” Tracy blogged about the dilemma here. But surely there’s something distinctive about older women? Wisdom? Maturity? Fewer fucks left to give?

Like Tracy, I’m someone who looks younger than she is. Why? Four reasons I think.

I’m chubby and so my winkles don’t much show. They’re all plumped out with fat. See Oh no, skinny face! (I’ve gained weight again so there’s no more skinny face now. Phew?)

I’m an academic and while I like wearing serious clothes to work, I’ve never had to wear make up or pantyhose, or pumps. You know the trappings of gender normative professional middle age. They have passed me by. I’m not about to start figuring out foundation now.

I smile a lot.

And finally, and this connects with the article above, I colour my hair. The thing is, I always have. In the 80s it was short and spiky and blond. Then the spikes were coloured pink and purple. For years, I played with red hair colour. Lots of people even thought some version of that was my natural hair colour. It’s not. Now it’s blonde again. Back to the 80s.

Here’s 80s me (note the typewriter!) and 2016 me! The 80s fauxhawk is the 2016 undercut?

Black and white photo of Sam at CKDU

Sam at CKDU, Dalhousie’s campus and community radio station, 1986

Sam, selfie, 30 years later, 2016

Sam, selfie, 30 years later, 2016

The thing is I come from a long line of hair colouring women. People asked when I started going blonde if I was doing it to match my mother’s natural colour.

She’s not a natural blonde, I replied. She’s been doing her hair blonde until it turned white.

Kathleen, Sam's mum. at Wesley Knox United Church, guessing 2013?

Kathleen, Sam’s mum, at Wesley Knox United Church, guessing 2013?

Sam’s mum, Kathleen, with her glamorous blonde ‘do, 1969?

I come from a line of youthful women. I think my mum looks beautiful in her 20s and in her 70s.

But why do we equate ‘youthful’ and ‘beautiful’? Why do I feel good when people get my age wrong. I’m not happy when they get other things about me wrong.

You’re too young to be Dean. No actually, I’m not. But these days I’m also finding myself wanting to be seen as who I am, a woman approaching her mid fifties.

About five years ago in New Zealand something odd happened. At the church we were attending there someone mistook me and my daughter for sisters and Jeff, my partner, for our dad. They weren’t joking and it was weird. I kind of liked it and I kind of felt odd about it. We’re only two years different in age. While he’s older, it’s not by much.

But if I look at the two of us, hair colour is the big difference. He’s got greying hair, these days with a white fluffy beard. Mine is highlighted blonde.

Since then I’ve made one concession to hair and age. I’ve stopped colouring the undercut and I’ve come to really like the way the silver looks.

For now, I’ll keep highlighting the top I think.

But I like the idea of going beautifully grey in my 60s. See How This 64-Year-Old Woman Learned to Love Her Gray Hair.

How about you? What do you think about aging and the politics of representation?

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

6 thoughts on “Looking our age: Maybe we ought to, maybe it’s time?

  1. I colored my hair from the age of about 25 to about 45. It was for fun. At about 45 I decided to stop. For several months I just got fewer and fewer highlights until all my hair was its natural color. It looked really natural the entire time and was not traumatic. There are three things I love about my half dirty blonde half grey hair:
    1) My hair SPARKLES in the sunlight,
    2) I am saving a lot of $$$, and
    3) I feel like I am rocking being middle aged.

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  2. Tracy I says:

    This post gave me all sorts of feelings. I first felt defensive — I like my platinum blond hair! I feel like my reasons for wanting to keep it are more aesthetic than ageist. You see, my hair is salt and pepper right now in its natural state, and it just looks drab. But dark roots growing into platinum blond? Not drab at all! Cool even! So there’s that. I also felt kind of put upon. I will happily go grey when my hair is all grey. My mother looks fabulous in her grey hair and I’ve got no quarrel with grey myself. In fact, I even asked my stylist if she could colour my hair so it would stay the colour it is right after she rinses out the toner, which is basically grey. She said she couldn’t (I don’t know — I could have sworn I saw some young people with grey coloured hair). But the put upon feeling comes from the point of always doing something wrong for “the cause.” I look young for my age and always have. Now, it seems, there is a suggestion that in not looking my age I’m betraying older women everywhere. I don’t really think of any of my choices in terms of trying to look younger than I am. Still, like you, I feel good when people say I do. That’s definitely cultural conditioning where in an unreflective moment I think it’s “better” to “look younger.” What if you just do look younger (by whatever estimation)? I actually don’t even know what 53 is supposed to look like? When I see my friends, we all look pretty good and healthy and around the same age. And far from doing something wrong, I think we’re all doing something right — namely living an active lifestyle, doing our best to get enough sleep, and (a common theme among my women friends these days) nurturing and appreciating our bonds with other women.

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  3. Sam B says:

    I was thinking, not of you, but rather of me going through this decision every few months. It’s “cut and colour” day tomorrow. It’s expensive and I wonder sometimes why I do it. Yes, aesthetics and yes, fun. But it’s starting to feel less fun and more required, as I age. And of course you can colour your hair grey. Very trendy last year! I swear half the 20-something women at my salon were getting grey hair. And then I started reading the excellent blog and book linked above…..

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  4. It would, of course, be nice if people didn’t have to worry about looking younger or older than they are, and just be their age. This may be cliche to say, but I really think that there is some form of beauty in each stage of life we’re at (in terms of who we are and how we look).

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  5. marycycle says:

    Platinum, purple, turquoise, orange, magenta–all kinds of women’s hair color on the streets of Berlin where I now live. Made me think about magenta for myself. Then my partner said “you’ll be totally gray in a few years,” and I was shocked! I always think of myself as more pepper than salt. Then she backpedaled and said “you’re only 40%, OK, only 30% gray.” Because I’m too chicken (and frugal) to go magenta, I’ll stick with salt and pepper for awhile. Another great post that voices exactly what I’ve been thinking! Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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