A Woman’s Age Can be Her Cage, at Any Stage
Just because everyone believes it does not make it true. When we buy into society’s perception (or should I say misperception) of age, it could cost you your hopes and dreams. At the very least, it may lower your quality of life. Upon completing this article, I hope you will have a greater sense of clarity about not allowing age to interfere with your ability to enjoy a meaningful life.
Ageism and the fear it can create may hit anytime. For most, when we think of ageism, images of individuals in mid to later years come to mind. However, the effects of ageism can start much younger when it comes to the female gender. Of course, women in mid to later years are more heavily targeted than at earlier stages of life. However, more covert ageism can begin to rear its ugly head. As a mental health clinician, I have heard clients repeat things like: “I’m too old to go back to school” (age 23) or “I should know what I want by now” (age 21) and “I can’t change careers at my age” (age 25) or “I should have a boyfriend at my age” (age 15). The reality is, regardless, how old you are, your belief about age shapes who you are and has real-life consequences. Consequences to manifest years later as deep regret of not fulfilling your dreams or living life on your own terms.
In my tweens, I dreamed of the day I would turn Sweet 16. Growing up, age 16 was a big deal. In my family, we were 4 siblings, all girls. We often shared our dramatic and dreamy theories of what we imagined age 16 to be. However, all of us agreed on one thing: that 16 was a year of magic, a rite of passage so-to-speak. A year when one is transformed into a beautiful woman, becoming a “real” teenager. I was the second oldest, and our theory was confirmed when my older sister was in her 16th year. A once awkward and gangly tween, suddenly, as if overnight, she became intelligent, confident, and drop-dead gorgeous. She became popular at school, and boys and men alike looked at her differently than they would at my younger siblings and me.
I remember it was a hot summer day. My mother had taken us to picnic at Thompson Park, not too far from where we lived at the time, in Scarborough, Ontario. We found an excellent spot for ourselves! There was no one to be seen in the north, south, east, or west. My younger sisters and I were running around laughing, playing tag, and keeping cool in our swimsuits. My oldest sister, now Sweet 16, wearing her brand-new striped bikini, was standing barefoot in the grass, taking in the beauty of our surroundings.
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Suddenly, out of the distance, we spotted something moving quickly, heading in our direction. As the figure grew more prominent, we saw it was a young guy riding his bicycle. We stopped what we were doing because the cyclist appeared as if he was under a spell or in a trance, unable to take his eyes off my sister in her striped bikini. His bike continued to pass us by, but his eyes and head were not coming along. He just couldn’t stop staring! We watched a bit stunned as the rest of him and bike parted ways and the latter stopping dead in its tracks by a nearby maple. Shaken but not seriously hurt, red-faced, picked himself up like a tripped puppy not pausing to look back to our whoops of laughter. Wow, I thought. What power. Sweet 16, couldn’t come soon enough!
My day would come when I would magically transform from what I sometimes felt like an ugly duckling into a swan. Whenever I experienced difficult tween emotions or problems, I would close my eyes and find hope in imaging all the goodness that will behold me once I am 16. All troubles would vanish, and everyone would love me. However, nothing could prepare me for what would transpire. My lack of years and maturity prevented me from understanding that transformation had to happen on the inside first before I could recognize and embrace any outer change.
Growing up, my sisters and I would watch reruns of teenage movies from my mother’s era, like Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo. I would watch in awe as I witnessed the heroine’s beauty having the power to make the most intelligent of men look senseless and the strongest of men weak at the knees. The common theme was the girl who got the guy was always the most beautiful of females in the movie, so in my eyes, she had to be 16. She had it all. She was kind, well-mannered, and cared about others and rarely got angry. When she did get angry, it was always somehow cute and endearing.
Then there were the love songs that played over and over on our parents’ RCA radio. Love songs with lyrics like: “Your 16, your beautiful and your mine” or “She was only 16, only 16, oh how I loved that girl so-o-o…” To me, 16 was the precipice of a woman’s beauty. At no other time in a young woman’s life would she ever be more perfect. So, when I had a bad day at school or was experiencing a complex emotion, I found solace in my mind’s eye dreaming of how perfect my life would be when I turned 16.
When my 16th birthday finally arrived, I was ecstatic! I danced around my living room, singing a song my sisters and I made up “I’m a teen-A-Jah, I’m a teen-A-Jah!” Later, returning to school, now aged 16, I waited to see if people would notice my transformation. But nothing. There was no change in how anyone looked at me or interacted with me. I was still the same “Angie” I was before my birthday. I reassured myself, I would be 16 all year and had 12 full months for my transformation to occur. So, I waited. And I waited. Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months and still nada. The only change I was aware of was my breasts were much larger, and my jeans fit better. Both of which I did not enjoy. Instead, I felt fat, not beautiful.
My hopes and dreams all came crashing down on my 17th birthday. I felt like God or whoever decided for some reason that I was not worthy of this transformation. I was devastated. From here on in, getting older became a curse. From here on in, I started to experience the feeling of time running out. Thankfully, later in life, I woke up and understood the trappings of age-related decision-making, and my world opened! Once you break through the darkness of living life with the shackles of ageism and finally experience the freedom of living age free, you can never go back.
Ageist thinking and beliefs continued to be prominent in my life, and I continued to use age as a compass right into my twenties. For example, at age 23, I believed I was too old to go back to school, which in hindsight appears ridiculous, but the shame and fear of judgement I felt at the time was real. Eventually, I started to catch on to the illusion of age-related beliefs and went back to school at 27, then again at 36, and then at 45. And, if the desire calls again, now, in my mid-fifties or later, I will not hesitate to act. I dare not imagine how my life may have turned out had I allowed my age to prevent me from achieving my goals.
Over centuries, the word age and its relationship to the female gender has gained some heavy semantic baggage. Age, a simple, innocuous word created out of the concept of time, has taken on a life of its own. Run amok with no conductor, full steam ahead, accumulating guests such as stereotype, judgement, and fear. Today, it remains steadfast, continuing to collect passengers, leaving a trail of hurts and losses in its wake, called ageism.
Rarely, if at all, does one avoid the negative impacts of ageism. Especially given it is sewn into the very fabric of our culture. Every time we turn around, we are confronted with an internet ad or larger-than-life billboard reminding us NOT to get old. Face creams promising to reverse time, exercise regimes and superfoods promising to do the same. God help you if you are a woman who ages!
Ageism is built into our everyday language. How often do you say or hear someone else make comments like “I’m having a senior moment” or “she looks good for her age”? We speak and behave in ways without even questioning the potential harm this may cause themselves or others?
We begin internalizing ageism very young when we cannot think for ourselves and are most vulnerable to imprinting. As early as the toddler years, we are confronted with age stereotypes buried in humorous cartoons, fairy tales, comic books, etc. I recall watching Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes as a child. I would laugh hysterically at cartoons such as one where a grandmother-type woman is walking across the street. She shuffles along feebly. Appearing fragile and at risk of danger as cars speedily zip by, without her even noticing. Finally, a young man sees her and runs out and attempts to help her cross the busy intersection. Annoyed by the gesture, the woman pulls out her cane or umbrella and starts beating him over the head with it. Funny, perhaps. At least it was when I was 4 or 5. However, at what cost? Women of age are so much more than the 2 opposites presented in the cartoons of my day, the decrepit, feeble old woman or the angry old witch. Nonetheless, such imprinting happened with or without my child-self approval.
Ageism has real repercussions be it in the workplace, religious and academic institutions, medical and government bodies, I could go on. Not to mention film and social media, especially when presenting women in mid to later years. Hollywood’s best-selling comedy films are strewn with ageist female stereotypes regarding women in mid to later years. In these films, they are often presented in binary categories. We laugh along when older women are called “hags” or attractive older women are hypersexualized as “cougars” or “MILFs” (moms I’d like to fu_ _). And, heaven forbid we show any disapproval, we are smacked with the labelled “uptight” or “old fashioned.” I made an entire podcast episode about this which will be available here soon.
I believe such stereotypes to be harmful because they do not leave space for women who do not identify with any of these categories, myself included. And those that do are far and few between. To be clear, if you identify as any of the above stereotypes, that’s your choice and your right. I am not judging you. I am trying to convey that there is so much more to being a woman than what is presented in film and media. A subject that could be its own article.
Age has become synonymous with many unspoken laws. It dictates how we “should” feel, what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot wear, what jobs we can and cannot hold, etc. Then, when challenged or disobeyed, it fights back with shame, judgement, and fear. Move too far along the age continuum and risk being pushed to the margins of society. Ignored, dismissed, and sometimes made fun of. Yet, ageing is a biological process that no human can escape. Yes, we have some control over how we age through lifestyle and diet, but we cannot stop the ageing process itself. Eventually, every one of us will die, and our physical forms recycled in the earth’s elements. Yet, we are bombarded with messages telling us not to age, implying that we have control over this inevitability.
There is no winning. The rules are much too complicated and are a recipe for failure anyway. Think about it. Here’s an example. On the one hand, society tells us not to get old or do whatever we can to not appear old.” On the other hand, when we take steps to do so, we are often shunned by family, friends, or colleagues, who tell us directly or behind our backs to dress our age. Now, what does dress your age even mean? This is why age-related tips we see in magazines and online like the 10 best hairstyles for women over 50, or what not to wear at such an age only creates more fear which is just more ageism.
I challenge you to start living age-free. Go back to school, change careers, get that haircut or colour you’ve always wanted, or seek out a love relationship, whatever that may be. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Your brain can give you a zillion conditioned reasons why not and when that happens (because it will) give yourself permission to imagine. Imagine the joy you will feel doing such and such or the boost of self-esteem you will experience upon successful completion of your goal. After all, it won’t cost you a thing. Imagination is free.
Lastly, if you are unsure if age is playing a role in your decision-making, ask yourself, “If age was not an issue, would this still be my decision? If the answer is yes, then you are on the right path. However, if the answer is no, you have work to do because you are allowing age to be your cage and in the process depriving yourself of the life you deserve.
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