Sitting in a deck chair beside the pool on the cruise ship, I made a comment to Susan about some of the very fit seniors running on the track on the level above the pool. The running track circled the pool and there were all manner of silver haired walkers and runners.
There are also people on this cruise younger than us, in their twenties and thirties. We are 53 (me) and almost 53 (Susan). I’m still thinking of us in the middle years, not seniors yet.
Still, Shoppers Drug Mart here in Canada starts seniors discounts at 55. I’m 54 this summer so cheaper shampoo and toothpaste is within sight. A few years ago when we were on sabbatical in Dunedin, New Zealand I was slightly alarmed to see that the seniors price at the movie theatre started at 50. I wasn’t yet eligible but it was close. Likewise, my favorite local swimming pool sets the seniors discount at 50.
Prior to this I had thought there was a hard line. When mandatory retirement was the law in Canada you worked until 65 and then retired. I thought the move was from working person to senior citizen. That never did fit everyone. Some people retired young. Others, like stay at home parents, might not have worked for pay outside the home.
Now though with the end of mandatory retirement, retirement ages are all over the map.
I remember, years ago in my bike racing days, debates about who counts and who should count as a master’s athlete. Likewise with rowing. In some sports it’s quite young, after 35 you’re a master. Other sports such as laser racing have added extra categories like grand master.
Where do you draw the line? Who is a senior citizen and who is not? Do the labels matter to you? Why/why not?
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.
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?
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.
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.
I texted that to my business partner earlier this week, and from what I can see of the world around me right now, I’m not the only one feeling this way.
Last month I wrote about yin yoga, and how when I laid down in silence, I suddenly felt my body ache and tug at me. How had I not noticed that I was powering through my workouts and workdays so hard that I was actually physically hurting? At the end of that post, I wrote something about needing to slow down and listen to my body. A friend read the post and texted me “I think it’s unfinished — I think you are saying listen to your body when it whispers.”
She was right, and for the past month, I’ve been trying to really listen. The yin class reminded me of how important it is to do the basic guided meditation thing of body scanning — what does your big toe feel like? the front of your shin? — and even more, to scan what’s happening all over for me.
Physically, the scan turns up a lot of reasons for my bone weariness. I had a flu-cold thing, and am traveling for work a lot, and had a stretch of time where I didn’t have a day off from work for 22 days. And like Susan and Sam and pretty much everyone else in the known universe (except Tracy,!) I find the darkening days mean I just want to hole up in the blankies. In fact, I did just that last Sunday — tucked the kitten under my knees, made a bowl of popcorn and binged several episodes of Outlander without moving.
As I keep scanning, there’s another layer. The work stuff that feels hard feels like one of those watershed moments — where I’ve reached a threshold of what I can do, and there are opportunities for deep learning. If I fight it, everything gets scratchy — and if I listen hard to what it’s teaching me, my work moves to the next level.
When I scan again, I also realize the obvious: I’m having what is something like my 490th period of all time. I started in October when I was 12. I’m 52 and have never had a baby. At roughly 12+ periods a year for more than 40 years I have menstruated… well, probably more than 99.9% of the women in all of history.
I keep trying to act like this cycle of night sweats and frequent periods and surging PMS doesn’t phase me. But it does. I’m almost 53. I’m tired. It’s wearing. And when I listen, I know that’s it’s part of why I feel so slow, so heavy, so constrained. (And cranky. Don’t forget cranky).
Right now, my body is just not supplying the boundless energy that makes my neighbour — a yoga teacher — shake her head and say “you work out more than anyone else I know.” I really don’t — but I’m usually pretty consistent. But in the past few weeks, I haven’t had a single vigour-ish workout that felt good — the few short runs I’ve managed to force myself into are plods, and I find myself slowing down in the middle of the weekly spin classes I’ve made it to. I renewed my membership at the Y in September and I’ve been exactly twice. Last week, I signed up — and paid for — two classes that I didn’t even go to. My body is telling me SOMETHING.
What am I hearing when I listen to the whispers? Slow down, move differently, listen to the invitation to learn something, make something new.
Slowly, I’ve started to accept that there is something about the current hormonal and cyclic flux of my body that craves vitamin B and sleep and rest and fresh air more than sweat and deep exertion. I heard a CBC podcast a couple of weeks ago about a Chinese tradition of “sitting the month” after giving birth — basically, giving yourself the space for your body to truly recover from birth, to transition to the next phase of your life. I took that as another invitation to recognize that there is some kind of transition happening that I need to listen to.
Right now, I’m giving myself permission to do things that aren’t running and pushing myself hard, finding different ways to move, being open to things that feel like mystery. A few weeks ago, I spent 2 hours “ecstatic dancing,” moving my body in yoga clothes and my bare feet to an eclectic blend of music, ranging from bhangra to thrash to classical orchestral to tinkly sitar music. A week later, I went to a yin workshop for a friend’s birthday that included live music whose vibrations were intended to attune us to the vibrations in our bodies as we held deep connective poses. Both of these things sound “flaky,” but they connected me to my body again.
Ten days ago, I embarked on a 21 day challenge with another friend, to each change one habit. He’s limiting his sugar intake to one thing a day, and I am trying to shift my habit of mindlessly snacking after 8 pm. Unless I’m eating out with people and we’re eating late, I ingest nothing but water or mint tea after 8 pm. It seems simple, but the number of times I’ve almost put leftover dinner in my mouth when I’m cleaning up the kitchen, or felt the impulse to make popcorn or eat crackers and butter after 930 is… well, every day. But I have adhered to it, and I feel better every morning.
Scanning and listening.
Last Saturday, I went to an all day meditation workshop with my cousin. She lost her young son a year and a half ago and has been on her own transition journey of living with grief, creating her next self. We spent a long time talking about what happens when you start to listen to what’s aching under the surface — in your soul and in your body. Most meditation practice teaches you how to be both present to and not pushed around by pain — sitting with it, it flows through you. When you don’t acknowledge pain — physical, fatigue, emotional — it persists until it breaks you.
I’m letting myself acknowledge fatigue, and the effects of darkness and hormones, and letting myself dwell in it. Not to hide under the blankies, but to listen for what it’s offering, what the transitions are leading to. And it feels right to nest in it.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto. Cate blogs here the second Friday of every month. And other times when she has something to say.