I had a birthday the other day. I turned fifty-three.
I don’t go about announcing my age these days. It’s difficult for me. In fact, for the last several years, I’ve gone out of my way to conceal it, removing my birth year from social media sites or limiting who’s able to view it. On occasion, I’ve even lied on surveys.
I never thought I would do this. For most of my life, I haven’t cared about age. I was who I was and I liked what I liked and the number didn’t matter. It was an arbitrary measurement, an abstraction. Now, however, as I begin the climb through my sixth decade, the ageism I have internalized along the way is surfacing in a serious way. I tell myself I’m in good physical health for my age. I look pretty good for my age. I worry about acting and dressing too young, as if there’s some real delineation between what’s appropriate for person (a woman) of twenty-five and one of fifty-three. I agonize over doing things I’d like to do, like coloring my hair purple, because I’m not sure it’s suitable. I agonize over continuing to cover the grey at all. I’m getting on for being an official senior citizen now. Maybe I should accept the outward signs with some form of gravitas.
A lot of women I know experience increasing freedom with advancing age. They’re better able to ignore societal constructs and expectations of what the performance of “womanhood” looks like. They’ve done their bit for King and Country: Followed the diets, had the kids, worn the clothes. They embrace the bodily changes and settle into new roles as grandmothers, advisors. Age gives them relief; they can finally attend to themselves.
With a few brief exceptions, I stopped the diets years and years ago. I always despised the clothes. I never had the kids. Age gives me no relief and no guidance. Sometimes, most of the time, I feel stuck in some eternal thirty-five, as if the last years since the turn of the millennium have passed over me without leaving a mark. Besides being on a medication that alleviates my depressive episodes, my mind and internal reality aren’t any different. Besides having put on weight in places I never carried weight before, my body isn’t much different, either. I have no clue whether menopause is in my reality. My periods stopped all of a sudden nearly ten years ago, probably due to medication. I did try to address this with various doctors, but no one listened and I didn’t have the ability, then to force the issue. I was fighting to stay alive; anything besides that was beyond the scope of thought, much less action. But other than the lack of blood, I haven’t ever experienced the symptoms women talk about. Here, too, my experience falls outside the norm.
I have no model of how to be an older me. In movies, when older women appear–if they appear–they’re either grandmothers or spitfires, like Maude and Auntie Mame. Sometimes they’re a combination. On rare occasions, you can spot an older professional woman, like Judy Dench’s M in the recent Bond films.
When I was a kid, people over fifty were OLD. This isn’t just a matter of perspective. Michael and I talk about it often, how his grandparents, how my parents, had a particular attitude about life that set them apart. How the uniform of age has changed. “Mom jeans” didn’t exist back then, because moms didn’t wear jeans. Pantyhose barely existed. My mom sometimes wore them on her days off, under polyester slacks, but on working days she crammed herself into a girdle and garters and wore nylons. I remember her being scandalized at a pattern for a pair of “ladies” slacks with a front fly. When I was cast in character roles of older women in the school plays (as I invariably was), my costumes came from my mother’s closet. Tweed skirt suits, plain blouses, sensible shoes.
In college in my twenties, I hung out with the Punk and incipient Goth scenes. One of the women in our circle was a petite blonde of thirty-five. Thirty-five, with teased hair, white powder, heavy black eye makeup, tall boots, leather corsets. We talked about her behind her back: “What’s she doing hanging out with us at her age?” Later, at a different college, several of the women in my dance program were in their late thirties. I already felt ancient at twenty-six, too old to be working still on my BA, certainly too old to be a dancer. What were they about? They’d left families, left careers. I didn’t understand, and part of me still doesn’t.
I know at least part of my internalized ageism comes from trauma, lessons that were forced down my throat under threat of ostracism and other punishments. Even when I was a child of five, when my mom was displeased with me, she demanded that I “grow up.” “Oh, Kele, grow up!” she’d exclaim with a sigh. Act your age. Be a little adult. Put aside childish things that are inconvenient for me. During my hospitalizations as a teenager, one of my psychiatrists decried my love of collecting stuffed animals. He wrote in my chart that I evinced inappropriate object attachment for my age, that I refused to grow up. He told me that having stuffed animals was indicative of mental disturbance, not to mention non-compliance with the program, and if I didn’t get rid of them he’d be forced to put me on suicide watch. I got rid of them because suicide watch sucks, but I never understood what separated my collection of stuffed animals from his collection of tie pins.
These are the voices I hear when I browse Hot Topic, when I pin cool hair colors, when I read comic books and watch superhero television and buy sweatshirts with pop culture references on the front. When I think about going to conventions and doing cosplay. “Grow up! Act your age!” I’m pretty sure there are other like me, people who are no longer “young,” who enjoy the same things I do. I tell myself this on a daily basis. And yet, when the sweatshirt arrives in the mail, when I put on a cool outfit, I feel uncomfortable. All too often, I pass up buying clothes I like because deep inside I feel they’re inappropriate. Or if I do buy them, I wear them once or twice and then they end up hanging in the back of the closet. I go back to my T-shirts and sweatpants, unable to bring that side of my inner self into the light for long. Unable to bear the scrutiny.
I wonder sometimes if this is a reason I have experienced so much poverty in my life. If I don’t have the money for things I like, if I don’t have any option but the rack at Walmart, I don’t have to face this challenge. I don’t have to figure out how to be myself. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that; after all, I doubt suddenly being okay with myself after all these years is unlikely to result in immediate riches for several reasons. But it is something I wonder.
I had a birthday the other day. I turned fifty-three.
I ask myself who I am and how to cope with this number. I don’t have any answer.