A totally adorable child asked me how old I am. His mother was quick to admonish him not to ask women their age. Why not? What makes a mere statistic like age so shame-worthy that it can’t be mentioned?
In 1963, Betty Friedan introduced us to “the problem that had no name”: sexism. Since then we have come to realize how entwined elements such as language and customs make sexism far more insidious than a focus on discriminatory laws alone would reveal. Fifty-four years later, our awareness of ageism is in need of a similar epiphany.
All prejudice involves binaries that divide the world of people into “us” and “other.” Other devolves into deviant or lesser than. Ageism fits this most basic, universal criterion. Although age is a continuum with the exception of specific legalities — such as the eligibility to consume alcohol — we act as though there are two categories: young and old.
Let’s look at language. I spent a week asking people to free associate words related to elderly, the elderly, senior and senior citizen. “Frail,” “fragile,” “sickly,” “useless” and “unneeded” were among the most common. The adjective “older” was perceived much more positively.
My pet peeve is “aging.” The child who asked me my age is aging. We all are aging until we die. It means getting older. But in current usage, “young” people live, and “old” people age. Think of phrases that involve “live”: live it up; live like there’s no tomorrow; and I just want to live before I die.
Substitute “age” for “live.” It just doesn’t cut it.
How about asking someone their birthday, who obviously isn’t, if they are going to be 29? What’s up with “young at heart”? You’re acceptable in at least one generic way? My writing class chum, Paul Lucey, who died last fall at age 93, was adventurous and empowering. My son at age 20 also embodies those qualities.
Language and custom go hand in hand. We highlight an aspect of identity even when it’s not in the least relevant to the situation, and it becomes too salient in people’s minds. Religion is cited in relation to crime when the alleged perpetrator is Muslim, not when (s)he is Christian. This encourages the myth that followers of Islam are violent terrorists who hate our way of life.
Sometimes age is relevant in news items. If an octogenarian gives birth or a preteen graduates from medical school, the story would not make sense without the statistic. If a serial killer wanted by the FBI is spotted in Bangor, the approximate age is a need to know. But how relevant is an accident victim being 41 or an alleged meth manufacturer being 30? Needless mention conveys age as being more significant than it is.
Us/other binaries offer much incentive for “passing.” This has been historically true for blacks and the LGBTQ community. “Old” women are told we can saved from age-related invisibility and marginalization by artificial enhancement. (This, by the way, is totally ironic in a society where articles like “What Never To Wear After 50” are treated with the gravitas accorded the Ten Commandments.) We aren’t told to think of the cost. Those dyes applied every six weeks to cover up gray hairs contain heavy metals and carcinogens. Why aren’t we appalled by the needless danger of paralyzing facial muscles with botulinum toxin, removing the possibility of expressing emotion, to prevent wrinkles?
It isn’t the gray hair. It isn’t the wrinkles. It’s the stigma our society attaches to them. It’s also the huge amounts of money big business makes from keeping us fearful and conforming to artificial dictates. It’s an individualized “solution” that puts the onus on the discriminated against rather than asking what’s wrong with our attitude to aging. We really need to value individuals across the age continuum and use all our gifts and talents to make our communities safer and stronger. That’s what traditional societies do with grace and dignity.
I am loving my 60s, my salt-and-pepper hair, and my well-earned laugh lines. Decades of learning have given me a wide knowledge base, wisdom and a unique writing voice. My recent adventures include becoming a trophy winning drag king. My plans involve graduate school, a published book and travel.
On my birthday, don’t ask if I’m turning 29. Been there, done that, moving on!
Jules (Julia) Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist and proud mother of three. She is taking up the interests she put on the back burner for parenting and serving on a school committee. She will joyfully celebrate her 66th birthday on Sept. 21.