It’s a well-documented fact that women past the age of 40 cease to exist. No longer able to appease the sex-centric (male) gaze with their fertile faces and bodies, they simply phase out of reality, quietly.
Rare instances of women continuing to exist past this calamitous age have been documented in recent years, the scientific research community working tirelessly to create new ways of conserving the female appearance in a state of perpetual youthfulness. These fringe cases of enduring as part of day-to-day reality past the calamitous 40 year mark seem to almost always involve white, highly affluent women. Scientists are still working to determine why that may be the case.
We all know when we get the malady of disappearance, so we can make adequate preparations for our departure into oblivion. We’ve watched it happen to our female caregivers, to neighbours and friends.
The first symptom is usually the gradual diminishing of catcalls and sexually related slurs as one ventures outside the safety of their own home absent the company of a male chaperon. Then, one begins to notice it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be taken seriously during job interviews. While the male mind becomes ever wiser with age and is therefore often rewarded with greater financial compensation, females suddenly start finding it nearly impossible to produce relevant contributions to their respective industries from the point of view of many a potential employer. This, too, puzzles scientists the world over.
Scientists do believe we can learn a lot about this dreaded condition by studying those particularly resilient specimens who have made it past the critical age without being erased off the face of the earth.
The media often covers these compelling examples of womanly permanence, providing hope to the masses of female-identifying subjects approaching their age of imminent descent into irrelevance. Though evidently out of reach for the majority of the female population lacking access to state-of-the-art costly health and cosmetic care, these archetypes of continuance offer an inspiration to us all.
Okay, so, yeah this was fun and all, but no, really. We seriously need to do better with our applied standards for women and ageing.
Ageing gracefully isn’t just for obscenely rich white women.
At the risk of having internet lynch mobs hit me over the face with a ‘frustrated cunt’ protest sign, I’ll even argue it isn’t just about physical appearance. Or, you know, at least, it shouldn’t be.
This isn’t to pass judgement on women who choose to strive towards a youthful look into their old age, this isn’t to shame women at all. This is to say that we seem to be biased in our standards regarding what it means to age gracefully as a woman, to the detriment of women and society in general.
What we come to expect of ourselves as we age
Let’s look at the most culturally relevant of examples, a meme of Meryl Streep caught in the act of ageing gracefully, aka simply existing and doing her thing.
For one, yes, she was and is gorgeous, duuh. I most definitely agree that she has, in fact, aged gracefully. Yet are we as average women feeling truly inspired to know that someone who’s net worth is estimated at $150 million has managed to ‘age gracefully’? Or are we cultivating a near-impossible cookie-cutter standard?
I mean hey, with $150 million-level extra access to mental and physical healthcare alone, underprivileged or even downright regular folk would be looking at taking about 10 years off of their faces as they grow old. Add to that the years of consistent cutting-edge cosmetic care, from expensive creams to lasers to whatever else Meryl Streep may have rightfully and legitimately chosen to do with her body, and I’m ready to age quite gracefully myself thank-you-very-much.
To iterate, Meryl Streep is fabulous as fuck, obviously, yet as close to being an attainable standard for even the middle-class white woman such as myself as it would be to expect I’ll age into a white horse and ride off into the sunset.
Ironically and perhaps even more to the point, the actress herself has discussed her fear of ageing in an industry that judges our gender on superficial grounds alone. If even the most privileged among us fear the ageing oblivion, what the fuck are we mere mortal women supposed to even aspire towards?
While things have somewhat improved since Meryl Streep was 40 years old 27 years ago, as women, we’re still very much prone to falling off of the face of the earth as we age, especially if we happen to be something other than wealthy, famous, and white. (A note to filmmakers, please don’t take the latter complaint to mean we want a token diversity fix, because that’s annoying as fuck, and we can tell your tokenism is being shoved down our throats in an effort to signal wokeness.)
Also, don’t get me wrong, I’m not ‘offended’ or ‘triggered’ by this meme, nor am I judging the person who created said meme, pointing a finger at those who choose to share it and feel inspired by it. I’m simply saying we can focus on including others into the conversation, too. As in, other demographics. Other skin colours. Other body types. Other criteria for measuring worth.
We say Anthony Hopkins has aged gracefully, which by all means, he has. If you’re reading particularly brave media, you might even hear mention that Morgan Freeman has aged gracefully, which, by all means, he has. When we say this, do we mean that they’re surreally wrinkle free for their age while adhering their attitude to an invisible age-appropriate standard? Or do we mean that they’re charismatic and talented while being unapologetically themselves?
Okay, so, then, why is it that when we say that Meryl Streep has aged gracefully, we mean that she looks younger than 70-something?
Like an anonymous, silent fart at a party, there’s an undeniable, invisible yet overt focus on youthful physical appearance when we discuss women and graceful ageing.
I don’t mean to say men aren’t held to their own sets of impossible body standards.
However, I do mean to say that it’s significantly easier to find examples of ageing men in the media who are revered for qualities other than their appearance, or even whose appearance is revered for qualities other than its conformity — than it is to find such examples of women.
That obviously doesn’t mean we should stop admiring men for their charisma and talent. It doesn’t even mean that we should stop admiring women for their beauty.
However, it does mean that it could be helpful to examine the standards we women hold ourselves to as a result of what we see portrayed in the (social) media, particularly as we age.
I’m 31 years old at the time of writing, which places me firmly in the too-young-to-complain age category. I’m also in a somewhat advantageous position compared to other women, in that I’m white and living in a body without any visible illness or difference. I’m also what is, at least in Bucharest Romania, considered to be middle-class.
Which means I’m privileged to be finding myself investing in a ‘skincare routine’ for the first time in my life — other than soap, water, and what I now know to be inappropriately applied sunscreen. And I do find myself thinking more and more about how I want to age.
Healing from unwanted expectations as we age
I want to continue improving my mental health, which has, throughout the years, officially gone from total fucking train wreck to occasional fucking train wreck to the present semi-functional human being.
I want to get better at making my mental health a priority as I age.
I want to provide my body gentle and age-appropriate nutrition and movement to help me feel my best — rather than diligently feeding myself rabbit food in order to look social media acceptable, while feeling too fucking depressed and depleted to get off my ass in the interest of anything other than work and obsessive calorie-burning powerwalking.
I want to get better at focusing on how shit makes me feel and how it’s impacting my wellbeing, rather than on how it makes me look.
I want to cultivate my work ethic and unwavering professional curiosity and keep getting better at paying my mortgage and medical bills, in a way that I both don’t hate and is valued in my industry. I refuse to contribute to a world where women are afraid of not being taken seriously as they age.
I want to wear my age proudly, a testament to the many urgent deadlines I’ve survived throughout my career and to my ever-increasing ability to accurately call bullshit where bullshit need be called.
As for the way I look, I strive to award myself ever-expanding room for authentic self-expression.
I want to unashamedly live through a perpetual teenage phase of aesthetic exploration and experimentation, as I make my appearance evermore about what I want to reveal regarding my inner world than it is about what the world expects me to look like.
I aspire to stay true to my values and my creativity rather than surrender to what’s considered age appropriate.
You know, less proper lady, more Michèle Lamy meets bright accents and DIY tattoos.
When the vanishing disease comes to take me around age 40, I endeavour to fight with dignity, or at the very least my version of said dignity, as illustrated above. But make no mistake, fight, I will.
I refuse to fade quietly into oblivion and see my professional and social relevance diminished as I age, by sheer reason of my gender.
I refuse to allow it to happen to other women in my presence, and endeavour to call it out without remorse or shame.
I choose to feel and experience beauty beyond youthfulness and normativity.
And, as much now as once I’ll be crossing the 40 milestone, I labour to continue existing until the day I die, free of shame.
Thank you for making it this far, kind reader. As ever, your time is much appreciated.
If you feel so inclined, debate with me in the comments — I love a good (preferably civil) debate, though be warned that prioritising my mental health and shit means I do take for-fucking-ever to respond.
And, until next time, stay safe, fellow nerds.