We know the birthday cards – the ones where “older woman” is signified by sagging everything and bunny slippers. And the advertisements urging us to utilize the latest magical cure (“hated by dermatologists”) to restore wrinkly, saggy, puffy skin to an earlier, more youthful visage. We remember the astonished comments when Dove began showing real women, with real curves (and fat) in their advertisements, even on buses. And the current comments about the young woman who protested (effectively) to Seventeen Magazine about air-brushed images of the women who were presented as their models.
Attractiveness is equated with intelligence, beginning in nursery school. By midlife we are all too aware that attractiveness is often used synonymously with “youthfulness.” When people began saying, “Oh, you don’t look 60! …or 70!” they meant it as a compliment. When my friends began serious hair coloring and face lifting, and stopped marking birthdays or even mentioning their graduation year, and worried about holding on to jobs in which competence was connected with appearance… we knew we were all in trouble.
The Older Women’s League (OWL) has always worked for economic security for midlife and older women. That means keeping a job, and being promoted because one has developed competence along with maturity and experience. Rationally, an appearance that says “mature”, “experienced” and even “wise” would seem to be an asset. But this is often not the standard we see in the real world. This issue is most apparent in the high-visibility jobs (the TV anchor, the model, etc.) but we have a great deal of evidence that it creeps into many other positions.
Body image concerns emerge early, and persist long. My first graduate school research project explored body image and self-concept among adult women. I was appalled (but not surprised) that few Caucasian women in 1963 America liked their bodies; they especially did not like their hips. I didn’t like my hips. My mother made it very clear to me that my hips were a major impediment in achieving the American Girl dream of the 1950s: having that ideal 34-24-34 profile that just fit the Vogue patterns and the Seventeen fashions.
Since those early days of humiliation, regret, shame, dieting, hope, exercise, and futility, I have gained a new appreciation for my body – and the bodies of those whom I cherish.
At 73, I am familiar with the ways my body has betrayed me. After an exuberant period of power walking, power-listening (to books), and feeling finally in total control (in my 60s), my knees began to protest with pain, my hips ached, and I succumbed. I had knee replacement and therapy, followed by hip replacement with therapy, followed by new efforts toward modified senior fitness. Keeping even moderately fit requires more and more energy, with unreliable results.
However, I have also experienced the persistence and ripening of sensuality. I move slower, but I appreciate even more the sensual appeals of food preparation, food sharing, and food memories. Orgasms are more rapid, more spontaneous, relieved of the anxieties of wondering if my body is perfect enough; I have become familiar enough with my own sensuality to know how to arouse myself, with or without the “perfect partner.” I realize that all of us have sensual potentials waiting to be enjoyed; perfect proportions in women, and strong erections in men, are not essential. Flaccid penises still experience pleasure, ripe clits can respond to many different sensations, and our erotic imaginations and memories are intact.
In my observations, the women who have the most difficulty dealing with the inevitable physical changes of age are those who have relied on the culturally-defined standards of beauty and sexual/social desirability to define themselves as adequate and desirable humans. Many of these women are indeed wonderfully beautiful; I admire them as I admire any work of art. I recognize the work required to create and sustain such beauty. I also mourn, in advance, the adjustments that may be required when such women (or men) realize that they can no longer rely on their physical beauty for social acceptance or self-esteem.
Less advantaged women (like me) learn earlier that we cannot depend upon our physical beauty to garner social approval or acceptance, or to feel adequate or good about ourselves. Some rely on a “good marriage” and/or “good children” for self and social approval; others look more to independent, career-oriented modes of affirmation. Any of these may work to sustain a sense of worth, short term or long term.
Many women are in the mid-range: we feel pretty good as long as we have some semblance with models of beauty within our age group, and we are recognized as attractive within our social group. The “attractiveness” may relate to our partnership, our parenting, our social involvements, or our work accomplishments. In later life, many of these are challenged as sources of self-esteem. Our partners may desert (physically and/or emotionally), the children may disappoint, our close friends and allies may die, and our work accomplishments may fade under the enthusiasms of our newly-empowered replacements. Many women speak of being rendered “invisible” in the social sphere.
These are the challenges of later life: how to feel good about ourselves, and commit to preserving the best of our values and traditions for future generations when we no longer recognize our physical selves, when we are not validated in the same ways by others, and when we are uncertain about the future.
Fortunately, most of us rise to the challenges. Many older women recognize their inner beauty and inner strength, and use those to advocate for the changes needed to preserve and protect the world they want for their daughters and granddaughters. They seek out partners who appreciate their special varieties of sensual and sexual vitality. They ignore or resist the influences of advertisements and other messages that imply that “older” is a bad word, because we know better. We were young, and we appreciate the wonderfulness of that stage of life; we also appreciate the specialness of maturity.
Margaret Huyck is President of the Older Women’s League National Board of Directors, and Professor Emerita, Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Psychology.
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