How to get older?







By Jane Gilmore

A few months ago I started doing some work at universities and found myself surrounded by lots of young people. Though the kids were fine with me, I found them something close to threatening.

Youth, with all its energy and promise, all its insecurity and fearlessness, was thrust in my face, a thunderous reminder of something I had that I didn’t remember losing.

They were so young, and I was so full of envy and relief about no longer being young.

Losing youth has many layers of complexity, especially for women and possibly even more for feminist women. Women are held to a suffocating social standard of femininity – impossible standards of beauty that demand youth, slight and white and symmetry –standards that judge our personal worth by sexual desirability and moral value by sexual purity.  So, if I am unshakeable in my conviction that such judgments are abhorrent and damaging, surely I should be able to reject them?

And thus the conflict of the ageing feminist.

It’s a conflict that pits your politics against the reality of a person living in the world and leaves you angry. Resentful you’ve succumbed to the desire to stay youthful, unable to scrub away the social conditioning and embarrassed you care about something you know is both trivial and wrong. I’m shamed by ageing and shamed by being ashamed of ageing.

Girls know before they can speak that pretty is a goal to attain, a blessing, a means to get attention, praise and love. We learn it from people, from books, from television, from fairy tales and men who stared at me and people who did things for me. And then I learned when I got older that losing prettiness meant I was no longer entitled to notice or praise. Unlearning those lessons is more difficult than I thought it would be.

Youth of course, is far more than just looks. It is promise that can be shaped through guidance or age, but again, for women, the loss of youth goes much further than just the loss of perceived beauty. Men still have much to offer in their forties and fifties. They’ve acquired knowledge, power, experience and wisdom and any guidance they receive is not to control but thrive based on their alleged merit. Women acquire the same but we’re rarely seen in the same light, moving seamlessly from young to invisible before progressing to the archetypal crone, witch-like and dangerous, or saintly nanna, relegated to baking and knitting and staying silent.

The progression of time can be sad, but not only for the loss of physical vitality. It’s also the loss of time and possibilities. Personally, as I move though my 30s and into my 40s, doors are closing around me. I know I am fortunate to have had two wonderful, happy, healthy children when I was quite young. If I hadn’t it would be too late now.

And there are all the other “too lates” that flash by: entering the housing market in my 20s. Maybe it’s the same with starting a career as a struggling writer – perhaps not too late, but certainly much harder. Mentorship, awards, grants, fellowships, they’re all for young writers who still have time and space to build a career. Living in a studio apartment eating sausages and beans while writing that book? Not while you have children and responsibilities and a lifetime of baggage to house. Looking for work as the “bright young thing” full of potential and untapped ability? Pfft. Way too late.

I can see what I’ve gained with my age and yet still feel nostalgia for unrecoverable possibilities and potential. I am angry that the crossroad of ageism and sexism have caught me, where once I was too young to be taken seriously, I am now too old to be noticed, and this doesn’t happen to men my age.

The other benefit of ageing of course, is the ability to recognise the lessons I don’t want to learn, and the strength to fly in the face of them. I’ll slide towards the grave in a purple dress, champagne glass in one hand and the other one flipping the bird at the world. Don’t want to notice me or listen to me? Want me out of sight and out of mind because women are only worthwhile when they’re desirable? Too bad. Because it’s never, ever, too late to learn how to do things differently, and I won’t be held back by expectations that don’t matter. There’s still so much left for me to do and my god am I going to do them well.

Jane Gilmore is a writer from Melbourne.

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