This piece was published in the San Gabriel Tribune on May 1, 2005.
I belong to a generation of women who broke new ground. We entered law school and medical school in large numbers. We ran for office and won. We got jobs in male-dominated professions. We achieved goals our mothers dared not dream. We were proud and we were strong.
We demanded to be judged by our intellect, not our looks. We took our daughters to work and taught our sons to cook. In just one generation, many of us head corporations, serve at the highest levels of government and are well represented in the legal and medical professions. We have achieved what we set out to do.
Most often when I talk to women my age (50-somethings), we don’t talk about our achievements but about how old we look. I listen to long and loud laments about what the aging process has done to our bodies. We talk about wrinkle creams, exercises for “problem” areas and our terror at being seen in a bathing suit. It seems that as we aged, we took the focus off our brains and placed it back on our bodies – the ones we took for granted in our youth that now seem to be the centerpiece of our self-esteem.
Are we just “girls” at heart – focused first and foremost on our looks as we watch them fade and change in unflattering (we think) ways?
A woman whose son said she “looked like Grandma” was horrified. Why would she not look like her mother as she got older? And even if she did, what’s wrong with that? Had her son told his dad he “looked like Grandpa,” I suspect her husband wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
Growing older gracefully in a youth-obsessed culture could be as big a challenge for my generation of women as competing in a male-dominated world was forty years ago. In this case, we have met the enemy, and it is us. We are the ones who obsess over every pound, stare at the wrinkles, consider a facelift (or maybe just an eye tuck) and try to find clothes that will conceal the inevitable forces of gravity.
It is hard for me to believe that women who had the guts to enter a profession in which they were the only female cannot face an aging body with dignity and style.
My generation showed our daughters that they can do anything they want with their life – except grow old. That, we are teaching them, they must face with dread and shame. What a sad footnote to a brave generation of women.
We claimed the right to use our brains and to be judged by our abilities, and we succeeded. We grew in wisdom and experience as our bodies grew softer and shorter – a natural function of aging. Men are not the ones withholding from us the right to age gracefully and gratefully. The resistance comes from within, not without.
A woman I know recently received a gorgeous bouquet of red roses from her husband for her birthday. Several of us gathered to admire the beautiful bouquet. One woman asked the birthday girl how old she was. She lowered her head and whispered, “fifty-five.” Our group response: “Hey, you don’t look that old.” We quickly reassured her that she didn’t look a day over forty-five.
Never mind that she had a devoted husband, a great job, a beautiful home and three successful and happy kids. Oh, no, we all implied by our tone and our comments – you are old and that fact outweighs all the great things you have accomplished in your fifty-five years.
We have to get over this.
Let’s claim this right to grow old without apologies and regret. Let’s share the wisdom the wrinkles reveal. Let’s look as good as we can, not as young as we can. Let’s cross this self-imposed barrier with our own moxie and style.
Kathleen Vallee Stein