I’ve been thinking a lot lately about age-ism and size-ism and physical appearances and all of their intersections; and just the entire concepts of age and fat and “being pretty” in general. Some of it has been triggered by great posts around the sphere, others just from reading articles, seeing ads and, most recently, from an experience I had at a shoe store. Let me share the experience first and let you know where my thoughts on these topics have traveled and just a warning that you should bring some snacks for this road trip; it is long, winding and stops at some fairly odd attractions along the way. It is kinda like a family road trip…but without the leg cramps and your brother won’t be able to wipe snot on you across the seat divider.
This past weekend I was browsing the clearance racks at the local DSW shoe store. I have a couple of coupons and was hoping to get something for next to nothing if possible. Since shoes tend to vary in fit I have found that my size will range from anything to a 9 to an 11; so at that moment I was poking around in the 11s. Bear in mind I’m paraphrasing but this is the pretty close to accurate conversation I had.
A woman approached the aisle and said in a sorta shocked but happy voice, “Oh I can’t believe they have 11s here!”
I looked up and grinned and said, “I know, isn’t it great? I love this place.”
She went on to look at some shoes and kept chatting “Yeah, my 13-year old daughter just got measured as 10 and a half !”
Trying to be polite and come up with some platitude or sympathetic something to say I just said, “Don’t worry, she’ll grow into them, getting taller and such”
Then the woman kinda cocked her head at me and asked, “Why, how tall are you??”
I thought for a minute and said, “5 foot 6.”
She shook her head, “No, you’re taller than that”
I looked at the shoes I had on and conceded, “Okay, maybe a bit but only because of the shoes. Why?”
Then she just asked, “How OLD are you?”
I kinda baffled as to why this was relevant and also because I always have to do a mental calculation in order to get my age (Okay so born in 1980 in November, so the age’s last number will always match the year’s last digit unless it is before my birthday). I just had my birthday so I answered, “I’m 28. Why??”
“NO you’re not. Get out of here!”
“No, really truly”
“I thought you were like 17 or 18.” and then, in a slightly embarrassed tone and laughing voice, “I was gonna ask if you drove yourself here!”
“Well, thanks for the compliment.”
We laughed and went about our shopping business. But I couldn’t help thinking about how odd it was. First, why did I feel the need to remark that calling me a teenager, 10 years my junior, was a compliment? Is it really a great thing to be seen as a younger version of what you are? And how did this sudden shift in my ages from perceived to real affect the other woman? Did this woman’s perception of me change all that much when she went from believing I was closer to her daughter’s age to knowing that I was 10 years older?? Did I somehow become wiser in her judgment? Less immature or naive perhaps? What sort of preconceived notions had to suddenly shift when I underwent this sudden age jump?
Then I started wondering about age and ageism in this culture. The prevailing message sent to women in this day or modern advancements across the board, is that you’re still only as young as you look. Makeup marketers thrill to tell us that only by using their products can we remove “unsightly” lines and wrinkles and any slight demarcation of the passage of time that might appear on our faces, our tummies, our thighs. Every moment of our lives we’re supposed to be these amazing working moms with high-paced careers, well-behaved children and flawless complexions. Acne is a problem to cure, to prevent any possible marring of your smooth appearance. Fine lines and winkles need to be masked. Crows feet and smile lines need to be smoothed. Foundation needs to be applied to give a smooth overall color tone. Cover up to blot out any signs of facial humanity. Makeup to return the color to your face that all this foundation and cover-up has..covered up. And above all, a slight smile should always appear on our faces, our teeth whitened if need be to further enhance this vibrant and youthful mask. All in the effort to appear still in our prime, still pretty, still youthful and full of vibrant potential. As if we never age past this 18 or 21 year old “prime-time” of beauty and grace. As though our years on this planet should never show their passage on our faces or in our bodies. If anything they should only make our eyes appear more knowing and maternal and our unconscious grace have more years of living to fall back on.
And through all the disguise, NO ONE IS SUPPOSED TO KNOW. The key marketing feature of any make-up product is that using it will somehow fool the world; trick everyone into thinking you’re younger. Well so what?? What is the benefit of looking younger, if EVERYONE looks younger then they should? Soon you have people asking 28-year-olds if they are 18 and I guess the marketing and product usage has worked in effect; now no one DOES have a true means by which they can guess a woman’s age. Any tell-tale marks have been chipped away, filled and smoothed by the mortar of time-reversal make-ups and age-reducing techniques so that we all resemble some sort of marble face statues, lips parted slightly in the vulnerable poise of innocence, slightly sexual and porcelain pure. Unaltered. All the same. Smooth and without a defining characteristic aside from youth. Fresh from puberty, virginal and pure; barely woman and “holding” is this elusive age-appearance goal and all I can do is ask: why?
Why? I mean, I’m not even to the “dreaded” 40 year old time-mark that seems to haunt men and especially women and I can’t help but puzzle about this over-riding need, this overwhelming strive for keeping some sort of youthful beyond our years appearance. This need for 30 somethings to look like teenagers, for 40 year olds to appear barely in their twenties. Heck, even for 60 year old men with greying hair to now look like they are back in their 40s. Why are we as a culture so obsessed with looking younger. Why is it that no matter what you may have accomplished in life, looking young and thin and conventionally pretty is what will award you the most accolades? Why do we thrill at a compliment by a stranger commenting that we look 10 years younger than our actual age (especially when it is likely no one REALLY knows what true ages look like anymore under our “masks”)?
Is it just the media? Or is the media just reinforcing a cultural standard already in place? Is this another chicken v. egg type of question? Does the onslaught of youth-as-best images we see everyday create this society-wide desire not to age or does our society’s irreverence of old-age create a fear of losing this prized youth; becoming a fear upon which the media can then prey? Is this the exact sort of fear upon which the media draws for it’s drugs and diet schemes to shrink waistlines and double-chins? Is it a fear of aging (which inevitably brings on weight according to studies and any diet pill every marketed) that spurs all of these tricks and products that are aimed at making us look younger, seem thinner (or for a temporary span of time BE thinner), appear more conventionally “pretty”?
I think it is. Somehow the fear of aging, and all the baggage it brings with it (aside from that wisdom part, no one seems to want to take a brain-wrinkle smoothing serum for that anticipated side-affect of the passage of time), is something we try to pacify, try to alleviate with little creams and exercises and devices and all manner of attention diverting techniques (Spanx to hide fat, Creams to hide age).
When it is all boiled down, the fear of getting less pretty, the aversion to growing old, the hatred of being or becoming fat(ter); doesn’t it all come down to a petrifying awareness and paralyzing fear of one and only one thing? We as humans are loathe to admit to our mortality. We don’t want to show signs of aging; that proves we are mortal and will some day die. We don’t want to be fat because that too is a sign of aging for some, and some hyped up harbinger of death for the sheeple masses. And heaven help those of us who fall from the graces of “pretty” or “making an effort at least” and admit that youth and smooth complexions fade. Woe betide those who refuse to submit to the dominant beliefs and instead choose to understand that not all waistlines remain (or start for that matter) thin and “trim”.
I guess the most ironic part of this wandering path my thoughts have taken (thanks for joining in the voyage) is that my thoughts tended to center on media images of youth and products used to retain such youth; even though I was called 18 at the age of 28 and I don’t USE any make-up or products to retain my skin’s glow or moisture or aerodynamic nature or whatever the marketing gist is these days. Mostly I avoid make-up because it is annoying and I rub my eyes a lot. Getting make-up in your eyes sucks. And I don’t use anti-aging products because well, I don’t FEEL old. Maybe that will change if I start seeing wrinkles or something but I don’t think so; mostly because I’m too lazy to want to spend time applying lather and cream and gunk to my face and body in a vain attempt to stem the effects of the passage of time. Though, again, I can’t make any promises since I do still color and enjoy having dyed hair; and will probably still color my hair when my eyebrows have gone all stock white. So who knows.
I’m just fascinated and compelled to comment on an obsession with the lost an unattainable (youth, beauty, smaller pants) that is so much of our everyday lives. Maybe these gimmicky attempts to halt the flow of time is all just a natural response to the fear that losing one will mean losing all and cashing in those final chips. Perhaps it is just a last-ditch attempt to push away the thoughts of our mortality and cling to what we think of as the age of innocence and longevity. And maybe the media and marketing advertisers are just capitalizing on a fear already in place. But I don’t think their reinforcement of these ideals helps to do anything but to further ingrain what they know is a very lucrative fear upon which to prey.
This is why no one can tell how old you are or how much you weigh with just a glance. If you are exposed often enough to 50 year old women with complexions to rival that of a 20 year old; if you are shown pictures of a large woman in an awkward and flesh distorting-picture and left to read an article about the “slightly overweight” it is no wonder that we have such a huge disconnect between perception and reality.
We don’t know what “real” is anymore. We don’t even know how we SHOULD look at any particular age or weight (well, weights above the “normal” BMI ranges are sorta swept under the carpet until an article needs them for more obesity booga booga stuff anyways).
The message we receive is pervasive and constant. We all need to strive for some unattainable and flawless us: thin so we’re “healthy”, smoothly complected so we’re “youthful”, perfectly made up so we’re “beautiful”. It just seems an awfully long laundry-list of “must-be”s for us to strive for in order to be “happy”. No wonder the markets for such things as diets, pills, botox, anti-aging creams, beauty-products will never be a dying market: we will always be reaching for some unknown goal, never quite getting there and always being told that if we stretched (our wallets) just a bit more, we just might grab that golden ring of perfection; and thus happiness.
Why can’t we just accept the happiness we might already HAVE instead of focusing all energies and monies into striving for some imagined happiness that might arrive once the right combination of weight, size, shape, age and beauty coalesce around us? Should we always spend our lives thinking we’ll never quite be as happy as we COULD be if only we could be “something just a bit better”?
Maybe it is all in the lingo. I notice that in English we say “I AM xx years old” and “I AM a size xx” and even “I AM beautiful” (though not many people honestly feel they can say this last and that is sad to me). In some other languages they phrasing is more how I think it should be “I HAVE xx years”, etc. Perhaps a turn of phrase is need; putting less emphasis on components of our physical bodies as BEING us and focusing on them more as attributes of the whole. Like a huge tasty fruit salad, our size, age, appearance, imperfections, each is just one berry, one fruit in the whole that is our body’s lovable pot-luck desert. The whole IS greater than the sum of it’s parts and each little piece of our lives and bodies shapes how we live and experience the world around us.
I suggest owning up to all these many pieces that make up the real “you”. Own up to the parts of your life and your body that you’re able to change and the parts you’re unwilling or unable to change. Maybe you’re not ready to let go and face the world as “nature intended”. That’s okay. Wear makeup if you want, heck try all the anti-wrinkle creams you want to spend money on. As an adult with disposable income that is your right to choose how to spend it. But at the end of the day, I think we need to be unafraid to look mortality in the eye and boldly declare the real physical us:
I have lived 28 years
I wear a size 22
My butt and breasts and waist are all large parts of my body
I have a chicken-pox scar on my nose
I have cellulite on my thighs
My cheeks flush when I’m hot, and sometimes even when I’m not
I have acne around my face sometimes
I have murky brown hair under my dyed red tones
I look just how I’m meant to look; just how I want to look
I am alive and I am happy