A few years ago, I was sitting in a crowded waiting room to renew my passport and I fell into a conversation with a man sitting next to me. He had immigrated to Canada from Chile in the 70s, and told me a little bit about his life here. “Then suddenly one day, you’re looking in the mirror and shaving the face of an old man,” he said.
I had my moment where suddenly felt I “looked my age” a couple of weeks ago. I looked in the rearview mirror of my car on a grey dim November day and thought “you don’t just look tired, you look middle-aged.” Followed immediately by the thought, what the hell does that mean, anyway?
It was actually a complete coincidence that Sam wrote about this the same week — I’d been mulling over aging and looking one’s age for a while. Like Sam, I have generally tended to not “look my age” — which I think is usually shorthand for “you have funky shoes and you look fit enough and still somewhat fuckable and not like the toll of your years is really showing on you.” But over the past year or so, I’ve realized that “don’t look your age” is a concept that only exists when people are thinking “oh, I know you’re a middle aged woman but you look pretty good… considering.” Which is… very different … than a simple “you look GOOD!”
A younger (female) colleague recently commented that my arms and my other colleague’s arms “looked so toned.” (Implied: for women in your 50s). My aunt told me I looked good because I have “kept my figure.” Yoga teachers and massage therapists frequently compare me to their mothers. One of my students told me recently I reminded her of her bubbe.
I don’t really know what I feel about this or what it means. There is a wide spectrum of the meaning we make of aging, from seeing it as inherently carrying deficit (I can’t do things any more! I am closer to death, which terrifies me!) or as a natural shift, possibly even one to be savoured (I have so much more wisdom and know the value of slowing down! I feel good about what I’ve accomplished in my life!).
I think, culturally, we are in a significant shift around aging. There is still a deep undercurrent that Aging is Scary and Bad — in a quick scan of most birthday cards commercially available, at least half of them are mired in deficit (“Fifty — the new F word!” “”Don’t sweat turning 50 — no one likes a sweaty senior citizen!“). Lifestyle magazines are constant reinforcing the desirability of looking younger, and ageism is still very much alive, in many contexts. I had a colleague tell me a few years ago that she found a teaching job because she thought her years as a consultant were limited, because people “don’t take older women as seriously.” Sam and Tracy have both written about midlife invisibility, which like most women my age, I’ve experienced over and over.
At the same time, there has been a strong force for the past couple of decades or so to redefine aging as a zone of vitality. There is what scholars would call an emerging discourse about “successful” aging — i.e, aging as an opportunity to respect and revere natural life stages, live every decade as fully as possible, destigmatize old age. This blog is part of that movement in many ways: the very premise is about recognizing that aging doesn’t mean being unfit, acknowledging that it’s a powerful stance to claim our strength and agility and physical ambition — whatever that means to us as individuals — as middle aged and older women/non-genderconforming people.
This shift in the social construction of aging is emblematized most memorably, perhaps, by Gloria Steinem resisting being told that she was “aging well” by stating “this is what 40 looks like — we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” She repeated that kind of assertion at 50, 60 and most recently, 80.
Being 50-something meant something very different when I was a kid. This is a picture of two of my great aunts in the 1960s. They would have been in their late 50s or very early 60s at the time.
They are old ladies. Below, this is me at almost 53. I have visible crow’s feet and a certain softening of my features, but I don’t think I look like an “old lady.” I look like me, but a bit softened, a bit weathered, fatigue registering on my face more quickly and eloquently, thicker around the middle than I was a couple of years ago.
Feminist-ily (it’s a word!), though, this claiming-of-vitality is a bit of a double-bind. Looking to Julia Roberts or Gloria Steinem as the avatars of “what 50 (or 80) looks like” might not be the most self-preserving stance. Bodies DO start wearing out in our 40s and 50s, and knees and hips and metabolisms can be stubborn and uncooperative. A lot of my peers are wading through thick pools of stress and loss — empty nest transitions, ill parents and spouses, deaths, work pressures, loneliness, existential questions about the impact of what exactly our sense of purpose is here on this earth — and it shows up in their bodies and on their faces. Placing emphasis and value on “looking young” could easily become a way to avoid integrating and being comfortable with the inevitable changing experiences of aging.
My life doesn’t have built in transitions at middle age — no kids to wave off, and I don’t have the kind of career where I’m counting down the years to a pension in single digits. But I’ve experienced that growing invisibility, the pragmatic clarity that some doors are just firmly closed now (I will never go to medical school, or be a mother, or celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary, or ever again run sub 5 minute kilometres as a matter of course) — and there is a trickling fear of irrelevance that comes along with the closing of doors.
One of my colleagues, a geriatric psychiatrist who works with people in their 80s and 90s, says that all of them talk about feeling like themselves, like the people they have always been. The New Yorker piece linked above notes:
The young can’t grasp that most older people don’t feel so different from their youthful selves. When Florida Scott-Maxwell was living in a nursing home, in 1968, she wrote in her journal “Another secret we carry is that though drab outside—wreckage to the eye, mirrors a mortification—inside we flame with a wild life that is almost incommunicable.” She felt like the person she’d always been.
That’s the fear, I think, that continually pushes us to wanting to look younger — the fear that the things we value about ourselves the most will disappear, will become invisible, will be rendered undesirable. That we will suddenly look in the mirror and see someone we don’t recognize, whose body doesn’t match how we feel inside. And realize that others can’t see anymore the us we feel inside.
I keep coming back to the word “congruence.” Equanimity comes when we feel some congruence between what we yearn to do, our ability to do it, what we feel like, what we look like. Aging is a biological process, yes, but I think it also should be a reflective practice of finding a way to live comfortably in the tension between continuing to pursue strength, dreams, fitness, agility, learning new things — and accepting the inevitable changes in our biology, our life circumstances, not as losses but as natural shifts, opportunities to re-engage with what it means to be ourselves.
Like Sam, I think I’m okay to “look my age.” I’m not quite ready to go grey gracefully, but I won’t sweat the wrinkles.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, and who regularly blogs here on the second Friday of every month.