“To me, old age is always ten years older than I am.”
- - Bernard Baruch
How many of us would think of ourselves as old if the world at large did not assign that category to us? My friend, Kent McKamy - who turns 69 today, is in good physical shape, works full time and has a variety of personal interests that keep him busier than many - told me this story last week:
Standing in the aisle while riding a crowded city bus uptown, Kent was surprised when a young woman offered to trade places with him. Embarrassed to take a seat from a woman and at being taken for being that old, he declined and wondered, “Do I appear infirm in some way I don’t realize?” He flexed is arm muscles, his legs, his butt and lifted his chin as he checked his reflection in the window to confirm that he was okay, but as he was jostled to and fro over the next 40 blocks, he had to admit to himself he wished he were sitting down.
It is a revelation to discover we are perceived by others differently from how we think of ourselves even when it is obvious our appearance warrants, from a young person’s point of view, that perception. Other times, as a result of the constant onslaught against imperfect bodies from the age and beauty police, we can easily be caught up in our own personal ageism.
“Now I have so much shame about my aging body that I'm not anxious to show it off to a hard-bodied younger man.”
Fran’s feelings about her body are not uncommon; I share them to a degree. But "shame," and in Kent's case, "embarrassment" at our imperfect, aging bodies? This is what ageism has done to older people. But it is not older folks who should be ashamed and embarrassed; it is the culture at large. It is
- The advertisers who choose only young, perfect bodies to show off their wares.
- The advertisers, again, who select older people to promote only the drugs for the afflictions of the aged, like constipation and arthritis.
- The manufacturers who design attractive clothing for no one past the age of 20.
- Movie- and television-makers who feature older people only as unreliable witnesses and loony grandparents.
- Government agencies, which allow older people to be warehoused in inadequate and even abusive nursing homes.
- And publications, like today's New York Times, so steeped in widespread, unconscious, unchallenged ageism, they unblushingly publish this phrase in an editorial: "...poll workers, many of whom are elderly and have only limited knowledge of election law" equating age and ignorance, as though older people's intelligence is snatched from their brains by aliens on their 65th birthday.
Would the same phrase, substituting "women" or "blacks" for the word "elderly," get past the editors? I don't think so.
Although it is the people of the media and other institutions who reinforce, by repetition, even our own negative feelings about our age, there is another agent that undermines our self-respect . As Pogo so famously said, "We've met the enemy and it is us."
It is we who accept the culture's disgust at and fear of aging, and allow ourselves to become embarrassed and ashamed at the changes in our bodies. And it is we who must refuse to accept it.
There is some humor in Kent's story - an event that produces a sudden, rueful realization that our appearance, about which we can do little, is at odds with our inner image. We can have a little laugh among ourselves at such happenings but perhaps too, it is a wake-up call to acceptance and getting on with living despite the cultural bigotry toward us.
I suspect there comes a time in getting older when discomfort about a thickening middle, jowls and wrinkles abates while other things take on more importance. As we make our peace with the physical changes of aging - and we must if we are to continue to grow into ourselves - we can take a page from Popeye, “I yam what yam,” and from this quote Jill Fallon of Legacy Matters sent which our culture creators would do well to take to heart too:
“It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
- - Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
EDITOR'S NOTE: I have three gmail accounts to hand out. First come, first served.