Forty-five-year-old women need a version of “the talk,” because our bodies are changing in ways that are both really weird and really uncomfortable.
Lisa Selin Davis writes in a New York Times op-ed:
I am not sure how I would have reacted to an article like this in my forties. I was still consuming the message that aging could be resisted, and having a kid in elementary school meant that most of my parental peers were in their thirties. Presbyopia had set in, and I was staving off bifocals with contacts and reading glasses.
My mother had just turned seventy, which made me uneasy around her. Part of that was wondering when I would join the "sandwich generation" as her caretaker, and part of it was what I now realize was aversion to her aging body. That's hard for me to admit, especially now that I am closing in on seventy myself. When I looked at Mom then, I searched her face for the young woman I remembered. And when I looked at my own face, it was comforting to still recognize myself. "But someday", I would think, "I will see an old woman and wonder who that is."
Like puberty, menopause has its highs and lows. And both have their promises for life-altering transformations. There are subtractions and additions, narrowings and deepenings. All in all, I'd say it's an interesting journey. In fact, more interesting than puberty. "Weird and uncomfortable"? Yes, but also amazingly fascinating.
When I started this project, I envisioned it simply as a history of clothing for women over fifty. But the more I read, and learned, and thought, the more it wanted to become more complicated. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Letters to my Son, wrote that “race is the child of racism”, meaning that the creation of racial categories and markers is the result of a desire to explain one group’s claims to power over another, not vice versa. This resonates with me, beyond his original meaning. Could it be that the ways we define and delineate age is the child of our fear of the death and decline? We can say that “age is just a number”, but who really believes it? Our awareness of our own mortality has resulted in our construction of age categories and generational labels, each of them loaded with meaning.
So what are these ages of life? Most of us have heard Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" monologue from As You Like It, which begins:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Shakespeare’s ages are very decidedly gendered, except for the first (the mewling infant) and the last (second childishness…sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”) Between those endpoints, the schoolboy becomes the lover, then the soldier and the judge. Decline begins in the sixth stage, “lean and slippered pantaloon”, which is not a garment but a comic character from Italian commedia dell'arte, an aging man clinging in vain to the last vestiges of youth. Shakespeare did not invent these images; there are earlier examples dating back to ancient Greece, although sometimes the number of ages are fewer. By medieval times, the number seven was commonplace.
There are also many versions of the “seven ages of woman”, which helpfully reveal the interplay between age and gender. For example, Hans Baldung’s 1545 painting (above) portrays the middle five stages in the nude, only their hair and headdresses hinting at social status. The baby girl is clothed, and the oldest woman is hidden behind another figure. It is a study in the physical changes in a woman’s body over the life course. In the centuries since Shakespeare and Baldung’s time, not much has changed. Men’s lives are delineated by occupations (and they get to wear clothes!); women’s journeys are marked by biological events: puberty, motherhood, menopause. One author points it rather pointedly: Instead of "government or commerce, war or exploration, science or even the arts", woman's fulfillment...her eagerness, her interest has always been directed toward...the perfection of her femininity". (My marginal note is simply, “Wow!”) Only two characteristics of their stories are similar. First, the least gendered stages of life are the same: infancy and very old age. Second, The first through the fifth ages are described in progressive or positive terms, with the decline narrative beginning in the sixth. Apparently, men and women begin to go “over the hill” at about the same points in their lives.
Which leads me to ponder: Where am I in this journey? Definitely sixth age, with the seventh hidden in the fog, or perhaps crouching like a stripper in my next birthday cake. Where are you? What are the markers that you noticed along the way that told you that an age border had been crossed?
Most of us have heard Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" monologue from As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage,
I browsed the greeting cards at the grocery store today, and this is what I found. Except for the 40th and 50th birthday cards, they were each the only card for that birthday. There were three options for 40th birthday, and five for the fiftieth. What do you think these cards can tell us about aging culture in the United States today?
"The scary stuff about aging is real, but our fears are hugely out of proportion."
Sometimes research takes writers into territory that is not only unfamiliar, but unpleasant. The unfamiliar I can deal with, but this was the first project where I dreaded the so-called “review of literature”. As it turns out, slogging through the massive body of literature on aging and women was as miserable an experience as I’d expected, but also disappointingly familiar. This was especially true of the information on the biological aspects of human aging. “Hair sparse and grey”: check. “Skin like parchment”: check. “Fewer curves”: check. “Wrinkles”: check. My posture is pretty good so far, but I am no longer 5’ 9”. I walk more slowly, descend stairs more carefully. Less hair in “those” places, but more facial hair, though "rarely to the point of disfiguring”, as one author helpfully adds. The word “atrophy” stops me in mid-sentence and I smile. Tell me something I don’t know.
My intention in this chapter is to provide some context for the stories in the chapters that follow. For readers who, like me, have reached their seventies**, it’s old news. But in the optimistic thought that the book might be of interest to younger readers, I will try to summarize existing works on the topics of aging, gender, and fashion succinctly and practically. For serious scholars who want more, I'll provide a bibliographic essay in the appendix.
**The beginning of my chapter reviewing the literature on aging, women, and fashion. Comments and suggestions are encouraged.
*I am actually 69 and 3 months, but will be 70 by the time this gets published.
I am working on Que Sera, Sera (aka Book 3, aka Age Appropriate), which should please all my patient readers out there. The first draft of the proposal is done, as is a very rough draft of the introduction. The glaring holes in my research are now clearly and uncomfortably visible, so I am renewing my effort to connect with American women who graduated from high school in 1967. If you want to participate in what I hope will be interesting discussions about your experiences from little girl to today, you can do the following:
Join my Facebook group, The Class of 1967.
Follow my Class on 1967 profile on Instagram.
Please also share this with your high school classmates! I really want to cast a wide net!
This is in response to the interest in the PBS Digital Studios video "Why was Pink for Boys and Blue for Girls?" Post your questions here and I'll try answer within 24 hours!
I know, I know. I have complained about repetitive interview questions, but the truth is that is order for people to open their minds and let go of gender stereotypes, those of us who do this work must answer those questions over and over. Besides, every once in a while, we get one of those really fun interviews with someone we can share a laugh with, along with the information.
Last May, I had one of those interviews, with Shankar Vedantam of NPR’s Hidden Brain. We met at my local mall and strolled around the kids department in Macy’s, chatting about pink and blue, pockets/no pockets, and the missing character on the boys’ Star Wars T-shirts. (Can you guess who it was?) It was a double blast because inside I was fangirling like a twelve-year old. Hidden Brain is one of my favorite podcasts: smart, well-paced, and slickly produced like an audio documentary. And Shankar Vedantam is a great interviewer and host; being on his Rolodex was a dream come true.
So enjoy the podcast episode. Bonus: now I know how Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) pronounces her name.
Thanks to UK retailer John Lewis, I was bombarded with media requests for interviews last week. That's generally a good thing, except it would be incredibly helpful if they didn't ask the same damn questions all the time. (Especially "Why is pink a girl color?" and "What's the problem with stereotypes?")
So this time I thought a few pictures might calm people down.
As recently as thirty years ago, parents had LOTS of choices for their children's clothing and toys. Strongly gendered clothes and toys are not "traditional". Nor are they necessary, until the objective is to multiply your profits by forcing people to buy boy and girl versions of things that could otherwise be handed down or shared.
So chill. And don't even start with the "slippery slope" arguments. The world isn't about to end if girls wear camouflage or boys wear skirts. If it were, it would have already happened.
This is so exciting! This project took a detour over a year ago as I realized that it would require not only additional research, but also some serious re-thinking of the structure of the book.
You may remember this image:
The original plan was a fairly straight-forward cultural history of clothing for women over fifty, similar to what I had done in Pink and Blue for infants and toddler clothing. But the story would not let itself be told that way.
You see, we don't start "aging" at fifty; childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age are also part of the journey. Learning to be female is not a weekend workshop or even a four-year-degree program. It is a lifelong process of being led into each life stage along a path shaped by cultural beliefs about aging and gender. So I revised the plan.
A Facebook reader sent me this message:
Hi! I was wondering if you could help...my 9 yr old son generally wears 'boy clothes' and he loves the science and nature pictures on the t shirts. He's lately become more aware of gendered clothing as a problem and wrote a letter to Lands End recently requesting that they offer science oriented t shirts for girls as he best friend is a girl who likes science and he found it very unfair ( they wrote a nice reply). Today we went to the store to get him some new sneakers and he wanted the pink ones. We got them as I don't have a problem with that but although he was sure about getting them he was also a little concerned that he would get harassed by the other boys about them. We talked about it and he was undeterred but wants to have a good 'come back' in case he gets teased to educate others that ' pink is for everyone'. I thought perhaps you could help as I find your page so informative about these matters. Thanks so much, A___