For a woman in our society, the cultural cardinal sin isn’t choosing a career over family, or choosing not to have a family at all; it isn’t being bossy or assertive or wildly successful; it isn’t being promiscuous or unfaithful or being a single mother with kids by different fathers; it isn’t being unattractive, shrill, or even fat. In our society, the worst thing a woman can do is grow old.
Aging, as a woman, is unforgivable. Aging is the ultimate fail.
As a child, I found it absurd when my mother and her friends would lie coyly about their age. Wasn’t lying wrong or, at best, a tactic reserved for desperate situations, like getting yourself out of trouble? What was their crime, not dying young? To my pre-indoctrinated sensibilities, nothing seemed more innocent than passing time, traveling around the sun, simply existing. Lying about how many revolutions you’d endured made absolutely no sense. Be proud of who you are, right? For sure, as long as who you are is young.
What my idealism had yet to encounter were the conjoined Goliaths shaping society’s perception of the aging female: The Double Standard and The Beauty Industry.
The double standard, whereby men and women are measured using separate criteria, becomes increasingly noticeable as we age. Susan Sontag writes in her brilliant essay, “The Double Standard of Aging,” that “aging enhances a man but progressively destroys a woman.” This is such a pervasive convention, one that we are so completely immersed in, it hardly seems discriminatory. Like any subdued oppression rooted in history, we barely notice it at all. Men become seasoned and weathered, they gain character and charisma, and they remain eligible. Women sag, wrinkle, and for all practical purposes, become androgynous. The thought of a seventy-year-old being the object of desire is ludicrous when it’s a woman, yet completely reasonable when it’s a man, like Tom Selleck or Harrison Ford.
The largest enabler of this bifurcating system of inequality is an institution that could not exist without it: the anti-aging market of the beauty industry. These two agents – the double standard and the beauty industry – dominate a generation’s worth of insecurities, perpetuating a false notion of what it means for a woman to age (namely, that she shouldn’t). We are conditioned to accept this image, though it defies physical reality, and are actually complicit in its dissemination. We are so fearful of violating the eleventh commandment, Thou Shalt Not Age, we try anything and everything they set before us. Potions, lotions, and concoctions, made from the finest and rarest and most obscure ingredients, that “experts” claim will preserve our youth, garners $250 billion a year. This incredible profit, generated by our desperation, makes the act of lying about our age a deserved rite of passage, bought and paid for with willful denial.
Even if the products they sell us are overpriced useless placebos, we can say, At least we tried. We didn’t go down without a fight. We can rationalize being obsessed with something clearly futile – capturing youth – by holding a sliver of hope that this stuff, this new stuff, might do exactly what it promises. We spend a collective fortune chasing the world’s most valuable commodity, time.
Though I’m not quite fifty, I have already felt the shame of aging, of deteriorating, of fading. I have been pressured to conserve what little I still have, to concede my loss, and to disqualify myself from further competition. I have felt the vacuous stare of twenty-something men looking right through me, as if I were invisible. I have smeared the creams (in a gentle upward motion) and dyed my hair and swallowed handfuls of supplements. I have been stung by the uncensored honesty of younger strangers and older relatives and laughed it off. (What else is there to do?) But I have never lied about my age. I’ve been tempted to, and, at times, I haven’t been exactly forthcoming, but I have never outright lied.
If this is how it feels to be my age now, how will it feel in a decade? The fact is we're all aging. Women, men, children, babies – we're all getting older along with every living thing on this planet. We, as females, just have a tougher route.
Given that in order to continue living, we are going to age, we can either accept this natural phenomenon or we can try to hide it. We can live fully, embracing the transformation of our bodies and our faces because they’re ours, or we can buy into society’s expectations, which are unattainable and unfair. We can allow our skin to show where we have been, or we can try to erase our past. We can tell the truth or lie about our age. I choose truth.