When I recently told her my age, an acquaintance said to me, “you look much younger!” And I, “why thank you.” Because that’s how a lady accepts a compliment.
Days later, the exchange keeps coming back to me because there’s something there I don’t want to accept gracefully. The compliment’s laced with an expectation that youth is what we’re all after. In just a few well-intended lines, she and I reinforced a cultural aesthetic that I’d rather not play into.
We’ve all been sold the myth that youthful beauty is the only beauty. Isn’t this why Madonna’s latest bustier-clad Grammy appearance drew such vehement criticism? At her youthful start denounced for her unabashed sexuality, the now fifty-something Madonna’s denounced for, well, her unabashed sexuality. A girl can’t win. Nor can a woman.
Our collective insistence on youth as beauty is a long-standing myth. Ganymede, Narcissus, Paris, Helen – all were youthful beauties. But beauty hasn’t always been only for the young. Odysseus’s wife and queen Penelope turned heads long after her youth had passed. She held her kingdom for twenty years and raised an adult son, and still the sight of her still made men sigh.
My friend’s seemingly simple compliment bothers me because it’s lined with a golden age fallacy, and a twisted one at that: instead of looking back and imagining a societal past more ideal than the present one, we’re looking back at our past appearances and assuming they were better than our present appearances. Both nostalgias evidence a mistake in logic. Neither our communities nor our youth were necessarily better.
But beliefs, even those based on mistakes, can be hard to shift. So I’m left wondering how I might oppose this unrequited aesthetic that hinges on a longing for the past. Because I like my present. Of course reminiscences are lovely. But I like living now and looking forward, too.
It’s easy enough to rail against a beauty industry that sells us a myriad of balms, and a fashion industry that sells us thigh gaps. But I’d like to speak to ageism on a personal level, too. It seems as if accepting a compliment for not looking my age, whatever that means, encourages rather than discourages overvaluation of a youth that’s over. The compliment politely nodded towards a bias that disrespects us both. In a so-often repeated that it’s almost scripted exchange, the two of us reinforced a social expectation that tries to make us both feel bad about our aging selves.
But if a few words at a time can sustain an idea, it seems I might begin to change the way we see ourselves, too, with a few words. Now to find the words and the way to express them. How might I celebrate my age? They sell shirts for this, emblazoned with lines like aged to perfection or life begins at thirty or forty is fabulous or sixty is the new forty. Seriously. You can buy and even wear a shirt like this one:
I suppose we all need a slogan. I’d just rather mine be about something more significant than my age. Or at least about something that has more to do with my days than with (what my friend’s compliment suggests were) my glory days.