Cate and I were chatting the other day about the weirdness of 52. It’s a strange time of life. Consider that person who’s looking at you and talking to you and being really nice. Do they think you’re hot or are they smiling at you because you remind them of their mom? It’s often not clear.
You’re not old enough to be out of the flirting game altogether. (When does that occur anyway? Never, I hope.) But you’re really not sure when you’re included.
Mother and potential object of interest. Those aren’t the only roles for women of course but still those possibilities do seem to colour our interactions with people.
I thought about it the other day when a man offered me a seat on the subway. Really? Should I be charmed? Offended? Amused? I wasn’t sure.
My mind went through all the possibilities. Chivalry? Flirtation? Or plain old deference for the elderly? I don’t think I look wobbly on the subway. But I took the seat, smiled, and thanked him. I’m super nice and polite that way. I joked the other day that I always say “please” when asking Google to find me things. I have to work to stop myself saying thank you.
Back to aging: I’ve been thinking lately about all the lies we tell about aging. According to this chart here, female attractiveness to men peaks at 23.
Women are most attractive to men at about 23. And men’s attractiveness to women seems to get better with age.
We sometimes act as if that’s a number that really matters. But why? Lots of us aren’t that interested in what men think about the way we look. I’m not interested in what strangers have to say about me generally. It’s not a thing that ranks high on my list of things to care about. And I suspect women, even women interested in men, care less about what men in general think, as we get older.
After all, that same chart tells us that life satisfaction peaks at 69, liking one’s body which peaks at 74, and well-being peaks at 82. Things get better, not worse, after 50. See Greetings from the happiness trough.
Why do we make getting older out to be such a bad thing if, from the point of view of subjective well-being, things just get better? Rebecca’s rant which I included in my post about menopause picked up on this same theme. There’s this narrative of misery about women’s lives that we all kind of learn along the way.
Aging is supposed to be horrible. Fading beauty, etc. Even those of us who don’t feel the sting of losing attractiveness in the eyes of random male strangers aren’t off the hook because we’re expected to feel bad. But some of us don’t feel bad at all.
Why might you not care?
A. You never had it in the first place. You’re sufficiently outside mainstream beauty norms that being attractive to generic men isn’t a thing for you. In that case, aging can feel liberating. Now no one your age has it. Finally.
B. You don’t much care what men think. They’re not your thing.
C. You care what some specific male persons think but not generic men on the street.
D. The attention of men has been painful rather than pleasurable on balance (think cat calling and street harassment) and you’re happy to have less of it.
There are many reasons not to care.
All of our lives we’ve been told that aging sucks. But most women I know who are older than me say things are pretty terrific. I keep telling friends in their 30 and 40s that the 50s are so far just fine.
I spent this past week at a conference on Feminist Utopias, in Iceland. While there I got to spend time with a couple of my favourite feminist philosophers, both in their 70s. They’re travelling, doing terrific work in feminist philosophy, and leading lives that seem pretty happy.
Friday night I saw a concert in the series “Music for Lesbians.” It was organized and headlined by Carol Pope. She’s 70 and has a terrific energetic stage presence.
Maybe it’s time we stop telling the sad story about aging and started listening and learning.