Doris Bersing, PhD
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Older Women: The Double Standards of Aging

I am very passionate about the theme of older women and aging women. I am struck by how hard it is for some women to age gracefully and enjoy their lives, or exercise their professions, find new hobbies, make new relationships, or express and fulfill their desires and sexuality. I reflect on the other part of the equation—like the Ying and Yang of the universe, where there are always opposites manifesting daily—where a more positive attitude can rule.  The one society does not embrace often but could exist, the one that should also be possible and considers age as something beautiful, a positive part of evolution.

Ageism and Sexism

As Robert Heinlen— , one of the most influential and controversial hard science fiction authors, once said:

“Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what Auguste Rodin was-can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is…and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them.”

Do we all need to be good artists, or this positive side of the aging women equation is just science fiction? Culturally, there are influences against any positive view of this process for women but not for men who become the old sexies or the silver foxes (a term with a more positive meaning “an attractive middle-aged man having mostly gray or white hair.”). Tired of the double standard and given the influx of beautiful and interesting women with silver hair, people started using the term “silver vixen.” However, the term has been distorted to refer to a person who is hot-headed and ill-tempered. Vixens are often used to mock a woman who is rude or unpleasant. Surprised?

Other distortions we could observe during past centuries are the use of words describing wise women–crone, hag, and witch—once were all positive words for old women. Crones, hags, and witches frequently were leaders, midwives, and healers in their communities. The meanings of these three words, however, were distorted and eventually reversed during the 300 years of the Inquisition when the male-dominated church wanted to eliminate women holding positions of power. Women identified as witches, who were often older women, i.e. crones and hags, were tortured and burned, and the words witch, crone, and hag took on the negative connotations that continue as so in our language. Many examples of sexism and misogyny plague our current culture for all women but when it comes to older women, we find this discrimination to be multilayer going through race, gender, sexual preference, and of course age.

The double standards faced by older women

Since Susan Sontag coined in the 1970s the phrase “double standard of aging”, discussions about this dual interpretation of aging have continued to evolve. Recent feminist gerontology scholars have called for an intersectoral approach to cultural norms regarding physical appearance and aging. Hated for many, Sontag described aging in “The Double Standard of Aging,” with a terrible clarity: “Growing old is primarily an ordeal of imagination, a moral disease, and a social pathology, which affects women more than men.” The horizon of potential dwindled and receded day by day… According to the author, is a social convention which states that aging improves men but destroys women.

Women are therefore held to a greater standard, regarding aging, than men. Gwyneth Paltrow, a younger woman (50+), has validated this double standard of aging. In an interview with British Vogue ,Paltrow discussed the “double-standard” of women having to maintain their beauty while men get older and are celebrated.

“I think that it is a cultural problem.” Paltrow reflected on the fact that women are judged harsher for getting older. As women, we are interested in being healthy and aging. It’s so strange that we are supposed to freeze in time.

The double standard of aging, as described by Sontag, refers to both genders being devalued at older ages – ageism in a youth-oriented society. However, the standards in our culture create more problems for women than men. Sontag’s “double standard” of aging is a devaluation of both genders as they age, i.e. ageism in a young-oriented culture. However, the standards in our culture cause more problems for older women than men. Women suffer greater losses because aging erodes the social assets of women (their attractiveness), while men gain from their most valuable social resources (their earning power and achievements in the public arena). Women must hide their aging to be considered by society as distinguished.

Mental and Physical Wellbeing

Men have a wider range of options, while women are more confined to the idea that beauty is equated with youthfulness. Women’s aging is associated with a loss of sexual and visual allure, while a man of a higher age can be considered “handsome” and “sexy”. In terms of sexuality and intimacy women follow the “happiness scripts” that tell us what older women should do to feel happy. These scripts place a strong emphasis on the beauty of the body, sexual desire, and timelines. The dominant happiness scripts for older women focus on beauty and body. This includes anti-aging products, cosmeceuticals and cosmetics that can hide signs of ageing. Got Botox?

A woman who doesn’t look old is the happy older woman. Women who cannot counteract the ageing process are usually portrayed as unhappy. The aging narrative is a downward spiral in which older women feel unhappy due to their loss of beauty and are alienated by their mirror reflection. As a result, older women who are less attractive tend to feel like a second-class citizen, unattractive and purposeless. They may even become asexual.

It is acceptable for a young woman to have a love interest for aged men but older women who have sex with younger men are ridiculed. While the pressures on older people to remain sexually active as part of a wider project of ‘active’ aging are undoubtedly increasing there is still a copout to refuse sexual activity on the grounds of advanced age and loss of attractiveness in contrast with the sexy oldie-fox for image men.

To add insult to injury, there are new and continually increasing pressures on older people to remain sexually active as part of a wider project of ‘successful’, ‘active’ or ‘positive’ ageing. For men, hence more of the double standard of aging, this active aging is fixed and supported by global pharma—who have not heard of VIAGRA—and yet what for women? Many, supported by the ‘asexual older person’ discourse, which places the sexual activity of older women within the outer limits, just refuse or abstain from having sex. Yet, refusal or abstinence is just an option and should not be the norm. Often, a decision to not have sex or a declaration that you don’t want to be sexual can become stigmatizing in later life. It is easy to reject sex or sexuality because of age, if the “asexual older person” narrative continues to be available—after all, to do anything else would be bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned.

Alternately, some older women may find it liberating to be free of sex. This is especially true for those who never enjoyed sex in the past. Or for those who have experienced sex in their marriages as a duty, but not as something they enjoyed. Women who once enjoyed sex can refuse to have sex later in life by claiming that sexual interest will decline. It is not a one size-fits-all. How much of these beliefs or attitudes are genuine and how many are introjections of socio-cultural values?

Overcoming Societal Stereotypes and Prejudices

The same is true when it comes to social and psychological stereotypes. While older men are perceived to be wise, experienced, forceful, and authoritative, older women are perceived to be vulnerable, stubborn, and frail, invisible, and just plain old. Hillary Clinton is an excellent example. Rush Limbaugh, a radio commentator, predicted in 2007 that the U.S. People would not vote for Senator Clinton because they would not like to see a woman “age before their very eyes.” In 2014, her critics claimed that she was “too old” to run for the presidency again. However, these same critics did not have any concerns regarding Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or John McCain’s ages when they ran. The American culture frowns upon ugly women, and an older woman is considered ugly, and it seems she should be invisible too.

In popular culture, societal stereotypes often paint a negative image of older women, while giving older men a more positive portrayal. This creates a stark contrast between the experiences of men and women as they age. For women, the process of aging is often depicted as challenging and filled with physical changes such as saggy breasts, spotted hands, and wrinkled necks. These portrayals reinforce the idea that older women are frail and fragile. On the other hand, society tends to view lines and wrinkles on a man’s face as signs of character and wisdom, without placing the same pressure on them to hide signs of aging through hair dye, anti-aging creams, or Botox. However, in reality, many older women defy these stereotypes. They are strong, resilient individuals who are capable of accomplishing incredible things despite societal expectations. Their experiences should not be reduced to simplistic narratives that focus solely on physical appearance. It is important to recognize that the beauty and worth of older women go beyond external features. Their strength comes from their experiences, wisdom, and resilience.

It is crucial that we highlight their strength and resilience to counteract these limiting beliefs about aging. While it is true that society tends to idolize youthfulness, we should not overlook the wisdom and experience that come with age. Older women have a wealth of knowledge to offer, based on their life experiences. By valuing their insights and contributions, we can create a more inclusive society that respects individuals regardless of age or gender. It is time to challenge the societal norms that perpetuate negative stereotypes about older women. Let us celebrate their achievements, acknowledge their strengths, and promote a more accurate portrayal of aging in media and society. By doing so, we can pave the way for a future where everyone is valued for who they are rather than how they look or their age.

Impact of ageism on healthcare for older women

On one hand, it is evident that older women bear the brunt of society’s double standards when it comes to ageism, sexism, and gender biases. These unfair expectations can take a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. However, it is important to note that internalizing these ageist stereotypes can intensify their impact, leading to a decrease in self-esteem and a sense of helplessness. This, in turn, can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and despondency among older women. It is crucial for society to recognize and challenge these harmful attitudes to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all individuals regardless of age or gender. By acknowledging the unique challenges faced by older women and promoting equality across all generations, we can work towards dismantling the double standards of aging that perpetuate sexism and ageism.

Furthermore, the disparity in health care for older women is a pressing issue that cannot be overlooked. Ageism has far-reaching consequences, particularly in the realm of healthcare for older women. Stereotypes and biases can affect the quality of care received by older women, leading to misdiagnoses, undertreatment, or neglect. Healthcare providers may unconsciously prioritize the health concerns of younger patients, dismissing or downplaying the symptoms and concerns of older women. This can result in delayed or inadequate medical interventions, potentially compromising the health and well-being of older women.

While women tend to live longer than men, they are often faced with unequal access to quality healthcare as they age. This discrepancy is not only rooted in sexism but also fueled by ageism, perpetuating a cycle of discrimination against older women. The double standards of aging, combined with deep-seated sexism and ageism, contribute to this unfair treatment. Instead of being viewed as capable individuals deserving of the same level of care, older women are often dismissed as frail and helpless. They are deemed unfit for aggressive treatments or surgical interventions simply because of their age and gender. This discriminatory mindset not only undermines their autonomy but also denies them access to potentially life-saving medical interventions. It is disheartening to witness how these stereotypes perpetuate the notion that older women are merely complaining about multiple symptoms due to being “just old and lonely.”

Fighting ageism and sexism with education and empathy

Alternately, many minority women have had to endure disrespectful treatment within the healthcare system due to factors such as sexism, racism, or bias against lesbians. This history of mistreatment only amplifies the challenges they face when seeking proper care and support. Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive approach that tackles both sexism and ageism within the healthcare system. It is crucial for medical professionals and policymakers to recognize the unique needs and experiences of older women and work towards creating an inclusive and equitable healthcare environment. By acknowledging and challenging the double standards of aging in health care, we can work towards creating a more equitable system that provides comprehensive care for all older women, regardless of their background or identity. Furthermore, promoting more realistic and diverse views of older women in the clinical field is crucial. This shift in perspective can greatly improve doctor-patient relationships, as doctors will be better equipped to understand and empathize with their older female patients. Ultimately, this leads to improved adherence to treatment regimens and reduced disparities in health and healthcare for older women. It is time to dismantle these ingrained biases and ensure that every woman receives the quality care she deserves as she ages gracefully.

It’s strange and sad that so many women are unwilling to accept the fact they are aging and are no longer a minority. Women are now most of the Americans 65 and older. We have the chance to be part of the critical mass which can help change ageism and sexism.  By continuously educating ourselves about different cultures, perspectives, and experiences, we can gain a deeper understanding of the diverse realities faced by older women. This knowledge empowers us to recognize and challenge the double standards that unfairly affect us.

Self-awareness and empathy are the best ways to fight against double standards. Be aware of your biases. Consider whether you have different expectations of different people depending on their race, gender, or other factors. Consider how your decisions or actions may affect others. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Listen to others’ perspectives and change your views if needed. I believe we need to see more older women expressing their disappointment with the current status quo and ageism, including anti-wrinkle products and pharmaceuticals. As a former activist, the older woman should not find joy in fighting wrinkles. Instead, she should fight against ageism.

Advocacy and Activism against Ageism and Sexism

Advocacy and activism play a crucial role in effecting social change and dismantling ageism and sexism. Individuals and organizations can engage in advocacy efforts by raising awareness about the double standards faced by older women, promoting inclusive policies, and supporting initiatives that empower older women. This can involve lobbying for legislation that protects the rights and well-being of older women or participating in grassroots movements that challenge ageist and sexist practices.

It is crucial that we celebrate the beauty and wisdom that come with age, valuing the unique experiences and perspectives of older women. By embracing aging as a natural part of life, we can create a society that values individuals of all ages and genders, fostering unity, respect, and inclusivity. Let us stand together, advocate for change, and work towards a future where ageism and sexism are no longer barriers to the full participation and empowerment of older women.


Ageism and Sexism

We Need A New Paradigm for Old-er Women.

Ageism

I was stunned when Debbie—my 67-yer-old client, who has one Ph.D. in American history and a JD—told me that her contract as full-time faculty at a local law school had not been renewed. She is vivacious, energetic, intelligent, and adored by her students. I asked immediately, why? She has always told me she was on the “retire-at-85” plan and as far as I knew, Academia is supposed to be a world of respect and knowledge; a place where attaining knowledge and wisdom are regarded as the ultimate achievements. Nonetheless, Debbie told me she was forced into retirement! Debbie had spent 25 years of her life as a professor for several graduate and law schools, during which time she had received many awards for research and groundbreaking work. Now, she said “retirement has been forced on me, and my courses have been assigned to young-er faculty members, who are less expensive. For the first time, I have faced ageism as never before, and it is not a theoretical concept, anymore. It is real.” She, too, was shocked.

Yes indeed, ageism –although an old paradigm—is still in full force, current and pervasive permeating all layers of our society. Perhaps it is time to kick this new old paradigm with its ill-fated consequences for our society’s well-being to the curb and embrace a different more optimistic, engaging, and active paradigm of aging: one that does not fear aging but embrace it as a very meaningful and with a great potential phase of life.

Sexism

Like we did not have enough with the ageism in our culture, we also need to face Sexism.  The prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, against women, on the basis of sex, is a fact very well known on all fronts of society and affects women of all walks of life. Instances of sexism are experienced by our mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, and all women and girls around the world. It is one of those phenomena would like to have the exclusivity of it but it is not like that. It is pervasive and perverse all around the world.

Sexism is based on the prejudice and extensive generalization that there is something faulty in women and it continues to impede women from their rights to grow and thrive in our society. Perhaps we are not as pretty and firm as we were when young-er but seasoned –or spicy, hot women—had fought for equality, diversity, had raised their self-esteem, run for public office. They have shaved off their internalized ageism and are ready to venture into new characters, created new connections, and created a new wave of accomplished women who give us the inspiration we need to live as first-class citizens and make our golden years shine and count, and do what needs to be done.

Not all of us get to that place and nevertheless, it is worth trying. A place where we can branch out, revolt, or go quietly happily ever after about life. Whatever works for you do it with gusto! Let’s this new woman be at the top of the hill and not over the hill. She can change her image of a raggedy crone to the one of mentor. to be proud and loud.

As many of us who are undertaking the journey through the uncharted land, we become pioneers with no maps but following our moral compass to be the best we can be. Being the eternal optimistic and positive thinker, she is, at 80 Ms. Steinem finds herself more productive and at peace than ever.  “…A dwindling libido, she theorized, can be a terrific advantage: “The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things…” 


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