September 9, 2021 • Ageism

Go Ahead, Guess How Old I Am

Katharine Hepburn in ADAM'S RIB, saying 'Tell the truth.'
Who could lie to Katharine Hepburn? (Credit: Adam’s Rib, 1949)

Last week I turned 47.

Friends took me out for brunch to celebrate and I mentioned to the owner of the café it was my birthday. They asked if they could guess my age, and I said “sure, go for it.”

After some pondering, “You’re 33.”

“Not even close,” I said, laughing. “But I’ll take it.”

But even as I said it, it bothered me. I knew it was meant as a compliment, of course. But more to the point, I knew I should take the compliment. What woman doesn’t want to be perceived as younger? What is all this skincare for? What is the entirety of the beauty/health/fashion/Hollywood industry for if not to profit by assuring us that our power lies in youth or at least the perception of it? Even if I do not actually desire to be any young (and I’m not alone here, the activist and writer Mona Eltahawy was reflecting on the same, the other day) I have internalized my worth as connected to my youthful appeal so deeply that it’s impossible not to take pleasure in being told I do not look my age.

Women are punished for aging. We are actively encouraged to feel shame over it (what aren’t women encouraged to feel shame about, really?). As though, the process of growing older is something to apologize for.

The thing is, I feel great. I feel better than I ever have and am enjoying myself more than I ever have. When I stop to remind myself of this, the act of allowing people to believe I am younger than I am feels not just dishonest, but traitorous. I feel like I am betraying myself and the life I have built for myself. I feel like I am taking all my own agency and the intelligence and confidence I have worked hard to accrue and I’m handing it over to the misogynist industrial complex for free.

There is something about feeling this great at an age when we are told there is very little to feel great about, that demands honesty. It strikes me as irresponsible to be enjoying myself this much and not tell people about it. The process of aging for women is comprehensively maligned, and saying, actually, so far, so good, is a kind of necessary, if small, testimonial.

Ageism across genders is a real thing. But we know it’s more real for women. If you are in doubt about this, please take a casual stroll through a magazine aisle, or peruse a Hollywood line-up. The journalist Emily Nunn has tweeted at length about her struggles to get hired for reporting jobs that she is eminently qualified for, something she attributes to the fact she’s over 50. Whereas older men can command respect and are associated with power (our last two presidents were over 70 when they assumed office), women are diminished by their years. And often what we mean by years is, what Amy Schumer famously termed “fuckability.” We connect women’s competence to their perceived attractiveness, and we connect attractiveness to youth.

Schumer was making a sharp point, and the sketch went viral at the time, but even so I recall being saddened and frustrated by it. It might be the truth, but it simultaneously felt defeatist. I don’t make my living in front of the camera, but to me, making the joke also perpetuated the belief system. Give me Cindy Gallop any day of the week, please.

Finally, one of the reasons people keep telling me that I look younger is because we still do not have an accurate idea of what women actually look like. More than look. Culturally speaking we do not have a real sense of women as vital figures over a certain age. This is contrary to my own experience, which is that the people I know who are enjoying themselves the most — and I mean, enjoying themselves — are women between the ages of forty and sixty.This group, as a whole, might still be fighting for visibility on a cultural level, but in real life, at least in my experience, are not lacking for attention; and when I say attention I mean, the sort Amy et al were bemoaning losing. I do not believe I am the outlier; this is just what 47 looks like. But how will anyone know if we don’t say it.