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Why Are Old Women Older Than Old Men
and How Can We Fix That?

by Suzette Haden Elgin

In the November/December 1999 issue of Modern Maturity, the magazine AARP provides to its members, Mark Matusek writes: "When we see an old wall, an old teacup, an old tree — we appreciate these things precisely for their oldness, the increased beauty of their years and the memories they contain. Things seem to gain in value when they get old .. but we deny this same appreciation to old people."

I agree with most of what Matusek says here, but he misses the mark when he uses the phrase "old people." A man obviously in his sixties, or even older, can still appear in our media and in public and be accepted as "distinguished" and vibrant and desirable — even when he has wrinkles and lines and a paunch and has lost all his hair. Telly Savalas was an excellent example; try to imagine Madeleine Albright or the late Bella Abzug being allowed to play the female equivalents of the television and movie roles that Savalas played! When you look at advertisements in medical magazines, you see plenty of old people, but they're mostly male. You see the silver-haired professional at the wheel of his speedboat or his Mercedes or on the back of his splendid horse. The wives of these old men appear in the ads, to be sure, but they're not old people — old women in these magazines are tearful and trembling and feeble and confused, and they appear in ads for tranquilizers and antidepressives. There are no ads — not in medical journals or in the journals of the other professions, or anywhere else — showing wrinkled silver-haired women flanked by adoring young husbands.

It's no accident that before George Bush, Sr. became President, making his family members universally recognizable, people who saw him with Barbara Bush assumed that she was his mother. Aging men in our culture don't have a negative image until they are literally in the last stages of decrepitude. Aging women, on the other hand, are perceived as undesirable whiny nuisances that nobody wants to look at or spend time with — and that image gets attached about the time a woman looks older than forty. When the media profiles an old woman who is still perceived as beautiful — Sophia Loren, for example — the emphasis is always on how she manages not to look like an elderly woman.

In 1998,  I went on tour for my book on grandmothering, The Grandmother Principles, and talked to aging women all over the country. Every group of women  I spoke to included a sizable number who not only weren't thrilled about being grandmothers but were horrified. The problem wasn't that they disliked babies or thought their grandchild's parents would turn them into free babysitters. The problem was the negative image our culture has of old women and the fact that grandmothers are assumed to be old women.

This is absurd. There is absolutely  no logical, or even coherent,  reason why wrinkles and lines and paunches should be considered beautiful or ugly depending on the gender of the human being who has them. There is nothing inherently unattractive about old women and nothing  inherently attractive about old men.  We perceive what we are taught to perceive, and right now what we're being taught is that the appearance of age is okay for men but not for women. This is a sexist party line that contributes massively to the problems of women of every age; it holds up the infamous Glass Ceiling. Only women can turn this situation around, and I think they should get started before the beauty bar is lowered another notch and women are perceived as old and undesirable the minute they turn twenty.

We have to start modeling — for young people and children all around us — the behavior that goes with treasuring and admiring old women instead of  rejecting them.  We have to publicly admire old women, and I don't mean Sophia Loren when I use that phrase. We have to say of old women who look their age, "Look at that woman, how beautiful she is!" We have to learn to say "What lovely wrinkles and lines she has .... what a wonderful texture her skin has!" We have to delete from our speech forever such sentences as "She must have been gorgeous when she was young!" and "Don't let the way she looks fool you — she's very sharp." We have to openly and publicly admire the physical characteristics of normal female aging, so that a new generation won't grow up believing that they are the identifying characteristics of human ugliness. We have to stop treating the phrase "old woman" as if it were an obscenity and start using it positively. We ourselves — we women who are growing old or are already old — have to flatly refuse to support the negative image of old women by devoting our money and energies to a struggle to look young. As long as we support it, it will flourish;  it's time we gave that up.


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