When a wine seller checked my ID a few months ago, I was shocked when she remarked, “Oh, you’re twenty-nine!” assuming I wanted the strangers around me to think I was much younger than I am. At what age does it become standard to start pretending that we are younger?
While incidents like these have become commonplace, it was during my birthday last month that I realized I had crossed a threshold in the public opinion of age. One birthday card promised my age would be kept a secret. Another card read, “You’re not old, you’re vintage.”
While I know I’m not a youth, I don’t think of myself as old or vintage. But even where I can legitimately be considered so (pulling an “all-nighter” these days means I forgot to take my prescription sleep aid), I don’t need protection from that reality. I am perfectly happy with my age.
When I pointed this out to my friends, their overall response was even more surprising: “Well yeah,” they said, “we should feel lucky that we even made it to 38. Look at the alternative.”
My pride is not linked to a feeling of gratitude for having beaten death! If those are the only two constructs — youth or evading death — then there is something very wrong about our perceptions of aging.
Most agree that we live in a youth-obsessed culture, but do we truly analyze the logic behind the belief that people — especially women — should be ashamed of their age once they pass their 20s?
The average global life expectancy is approximately 71 years, and many of us live much longer. For how many of those years are we “young”?
By television standards, we max out somewhere between 24 and 28, or at least become barred from participation in talent programs like American Idol.
That leaves us about 43 plus years (another 30-40 in some cases) — more than half of our lives — trying to minimize or deny our age, feeling ashamed of our maturing bodies, or seeking relevancy within a society that places the utmost importance on being, and looking, young.
I don’t want to spend the majority of my life diminishing my worth with each passing year rather than nourishing my growth and awareness. Yet people everywhere are trying to prep me for the reality of what it means to become “vintage” in a society driven by anti-aging sentiment and the consumerism that goes along with it.
Forget the experience and wisdom we gain through living. Forget that humans are actually happier when they reach that phase in their lives where they know more clearly what they want and how to get there. Instead of celebrating the ways in which we improve over time, our brains’ critical thinking centers are bombarded with messages directing us to spend our precious resources on managing our wrinkles, graying hairs, sagging bodies, lagging libidos, and impending spinsterhood.
If fighting an uphill battle against the inevitable is the plight of the middle-aged, what does it mean to be elderly within this dominant paradigm?
Rather than held up as examples to emulate, venerated for their knowledge and perspective, the voices of our elders are often stricken from the public conversation. Or elderly citizens are thought of as something less than human — lacking skills, significance and even sensuality.
I agree that young people are vibrant, pretty and full of new perspective, helping cultures transition from outdated to modern attitudes. But youth is only the beginning — one fraction of the whole — and it is not the only segment of our lives encompassing beauty and relevance. Far from it!
In a more realistic — and healthy — social paradigm, we would transition seamlessly from youth into middle and eventually old age with external and intrinsic respect and transparency. The way we currently conceptualize aging is simply a delusion.
Brooke Palmer of Kansas City is an editor for a publishing company and freelance writer on music and nightlife. Reach her at Brooke@Invasivethoughts.com.