Ageism: The Dance of Marginality and Irrelevance

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“I know I’m going to get older. I can handle that, and I even know that I am going to die. What bothers me the most, though, is the thought of becoming irrelevant.” This statement was made by a 69 year old man who is a member of my consciousness raising group.

Old people are becoming less and less a minority in our country. Quite to the contrary; today, approximately 18 per cent of people living in the United States are 60 years old and older. By 2050, people over 60 will make up over 25 per cent of the population…hardly a small minority.  When we marginalize a group of people, we are pushing them to the edge of humanity and according them lesser importance.  Their needs and desires are then ignored.  When ageism is in action, this is exactly what happens. Ageist language and media portrayals of old people encourage this marginalization.

Ageism can be very subtle, or as one of my colleagues describes it, “slow-drip” oppression.  It creeps up on us, sometimes without our ever knowing we are being oppressed until we find ourselves in the outer margins of society.

Nobody wants to be pushed to the edge of society.  Yet, older adults teeter on this edge…always dancing on the line between inclusion and exclusion.  In today’s society pride in age is hard to find.  It’s no wonder that older people often hide their true age.  Stop for a moment, and ask yourself, “why?”

Many of us tend to think of this practice as vanity, but consider that the true answer may be fear…fear of becoming irrelevant.  So, what do we do?  We drink the “Kool-Aid” dispersed by the media and the anti-aging industry; the message is, If you don’t look young enough, you too will be marginalized.  Not only is the advertising deceptive, it is detrimental to our overall health.

Not wanting to be relegated to the outer margins, we support the anti-ageing industrial complex, spending hard-earned money on anti-aging products, medical and non-medical procedures, and cosmetic or plastic surgery.  When we do this, are we just satisfying our own vanity or are we hoping to buy a few more years of relevancy?

The dance of marginality seems to start younger and younger these days, with people in their forties and some even in their thirties seeking out a magic bullet that will make them seem to appear younger than their true age.  For those of us who are older, however, one day you are a vital contributing member of society and only a few wrinkles later, you are dancing on the margins again, trying to figure out how to get back to the other side before you are turned into a trivial appendage, maybe even a burden, to the current social order.

Ageism in itself can cause a more rapid decline of our physical and mental health as we edge  closer to the end of our lives.  Researchers have proven that older people who are constantly subjected to negative stereotypes of their age cohort often internalize these messages.  As a result of this internalized ageism, their own self esteem is affected; and this leads to both physical and mental health issues.  In addition, recent research has shown that those who accept their age and feel the wonderful combination of beauty and wisdom in their own selves are mentally and physically healthier than those who feel the pressure of having to conceal their true age.  Many of us just keep on dancing.

Who is doing all this dancing?  First and foremost are the “invisibles.”  The “invisibles” are healthy people between the ages of 60 and 80 who are not ready to “retire” in the way that traditional retirement has been socially constructed.  This cohort is the most skillful at the dance of marginality; they get in a lot of rehearsal time.  They know that if they don’t enter the dance contest, they will automatically lose. And, they can lose a lot.  Mostly, they can lose their financial security and, with that, their dignity.

You may have noticed that the age of the traditional concept of old has been pushed back quite a bit, with people living 10, 15, and some even 20 years longer than previous generations. In many ways the invisibles are in the prime of their lives.  Yet, they are constantly maneuvering to remain inclusive members of society. Most catastrophic is the cold shoulder they bear from American workforce.  If they are not still in their career jobs, they find themselves traveling a road that leads them closer and closer to the margins of society.

A lovely 85 year old woman came to visit me in my office one day.  She was carrying a rather large umbrella.  “Is it raining?,” I asked.  “No,” she replied; I just refuse to be seen using a cane.”  Even at 85, she is still dancing.  To appear completely autonomous is her goal.  Afraid to admit that she may need some help, she struggles to keep up the appearance for fear that she will not be perceived as the smart woman she is.

The way our society is constructed, it takes more courage to ask for help than it does to manage on our own regardless of the consequences. It is the American way, to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and rely only on yourself to get where you’re going.  Another octogenarian told me “if I show the slightest sign of  not being able to live independently, my children will whisk me into the nearest assisted living facility.”  She knows this, and so she dare not let her age show.  She, too, keeps on dancing.

Fear seems to be the main reason why so many of us are caught up in this dance of marginality. There are other times and other places where older adults have been embraced by society.  For so many, this is no longer true.  Old people are often segregated, put aside, or discarded completely. They are often treated as if they are diseased. We need to start changing the way we view and interact with the older adults around us. Old age is not contagious.

The ageing process, including the end of life, is part of the course of the lifespan.  Ageing is not a disease to be treated; it is a gift to be accepted.  It is an accomplishment to be proud of.  Older adults should not feel as though they have to “sing for their dinner,” nor should any of us have to “dance for our dignity”.

Ageism and the Anti-Aging Industrial Complex: What Does Wisdom & Beauty Look Like?

How do you feel when you sit down to unwind in front of the television at the end of the day and you are bombarded with ads that tell you to “Stop the Hands of Time with Mrs. Smith’s Anti-Aging Formula 801”?  Or, you may want to try a little cosmetic surgery to lift that chin, or maybe some Botox to iron out those wrinkles.  This reminds me of laying my head across the ironing board while taking my mother’s two-ton steam iron to my long curly hair to straighten out the curly tresses that I obviously inherited from some mutant gene, but that was in the early sixties before curls were in.

Now, I am in my sixties, and they are telling me to leave the curls while erasing the lines of wisdom and experience from my aging face. I just don’t look good enough—code for “I don’t look young enough”.  What don’t I look young enough for, I ask myself.  I am fortunate to still be part of the workforce, but maybe if I looked younger I would get that raise I’ve been wanting.  Alas, the people that pay my salary know how old I am and assume that I’m not going to make any waves when so many of my peers are shipwrecked on the shore praying that a job, or maybe a little Botox, will arrive to save them.

anti-aging-creams-1Back to the TV ads. Every time, I see Debbie Boone touting the wonders of Lifestyle Lift, a company that provides facial and neck cosmetic procedures, I wind up in front of the bathroom mirror pulling my obliging skin back to see what I would look like if I just took a little from here and a bit from there.  Ugh, I am so mad at myself for even considering for a moment to alter the face I was totally comfortable with only 10 minutes ago.

It’s all about ageism.  It’s all about the youth culture in which we’ve been immersed.  It’s all about the message from the girl whose hair was spread across the ironing board: “Do not trust anyone over 30!”  So many retouched faces that we admire are telling us that we can look younger too. But, can we really trust anyone who looks older than sixty or seventy?  It’s all so familiar. Remember all those air brushed waifs that were presented to us telling us that we also could become “walking x-rays”?  All of a sudden anorexia and bulimia became part of the American lexicon.

I didn’t know if there was a term for people who are addicted to plastic or cosmetic surgery, so I looked it up.  This is what I found:

There is not a term for the addiction, but there is a recognized psychological disorder that affects some surgery addicts. It is called “body dysmorphic disorder” (BDD), and sufferers have a distorted image of their own appearance. This is sometimes manifested as disapproval after surgery is performed, leading to another surgery to correct the apparent flaws. Because of the high costs of plastic surgery, this disorder is usually apparent only in the very wealthy.  Read More

Whew, that’s a relief.  I am definitely not rich enough to have BDD.

A number of years ago I attended a “Wise Women’s” conference and participated in a workshop led by a Native American Elder.  To this day the image of her stunning lined face stays with me.  I thought of how I hoped to look like her when I became an elder myself.

The signs of age that mark our bodies are badges of wisdom, something that we need to be proud of, not something to be to be ashamed of—and certainly not something to erase.  I don’t want to go back to the age when my skin was perfectly smooth and taut and my mind was empty.

It’s time to let advertisers know that we want to see people we can identify with—people (especially women) who look like us. Wrinkles can be beautiful and we need to create a culture that sends the message that lines of wisdom are in.

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