I left the gym three-and-a-half hours after arriving there the other day. I’m not obsessed, I promise. One hour of that was combing out and washing my hair. Another 10 minutes or so was standing in the locker room watching Rachel Ray as I failed to multi-task.
Among her guests was a 43-year-old woman who hated her gray hair but who, for whatever reason, had never done anything about it. She started going prematurely gray at the age of 16 and hated that her hair made her look old. People actually gave her senior citizens discounts without asking for permission or for I.D. A stylist showed her photo to random strangers on the streets of New York City and asked for their opinions on how she looked. “How old does she look to you?” “What do you think her life is like?” “What do you think she does for fun?” All the people they showed thought she was at least 65, sad and lonely, and that she bowled, knitted or hung out with her cats for fun.
Then the stylist took the made-over photo around, before revealing the new look to the audience, and asked the same questions. Random people thought the hair-dyed woman looked between the ages of 35 and 40, hung out with her friends all the time and took tango lessons.
I accept that we make assumptions about people based on their looks, but I was saddened by the perception of old age, and particularly, of an aging woman. I’ve taken tango lessons many times, and except for the time I took them as a class–for credit–as an undergrad, I was always the youngest person there. My dance partners were gray-haired, balding or hairless white men, long retired from their various professions. There may have been one or two 40- to 50-something couples on the ballroom floor, but most men and women were there taking the time to enjoy things they finally had time and money to do after kids and work–and after abandoning that fear of looking stupid we tend to have when we’re young. The thought that the gray-haired woman in the photo could do any of that never crossed people’s minds.
Gray hair and dancing tango do co-exist. Image by Gerard Stolk via Flickr/Creative Commons
Why is an old (or seemingly old) woman automatically thought to be a lonely cat lady? I think it’s because old women so easily disappear from our everyday lives, unless they’re family members, and sometimes even that doesn’t prevent their vanishing. They aren’t on television except for MedAlert bracelet or denture ads. (The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that in the 2010-11 television season, female characters 40 and older comprised 11% of all characters. In the 2012-2013 season, women in their 40s made up 14% of the women seen on-screen.) Their appearance in American films is rare (about 25% in the 2011 film season). I remember learning through the film Miss Representation, a documentary about the media’s portrayal of women and its effects, that in a patriarchal society, women outside of childbearing age are irrelevant, and that’s when they disappear from our television and film view. And in our individual home lives? Well, it can be hard to spot an old woman if you live in a place where young mothers abound, where life expectancy is low, or if you’ve moved your nuclear family away from your extended family. Or if you’re just busy.
There are exceptions, of course. I can hardly believe sometimes that Golden Girls was a real show and that Betty White’s made a comeback. Meryl Streep will probably die on the set of whatever film she happens to be making at the time. I have old sensibilities, like a love of tango and live theater, so I hang out with old ladies all the time. I was also raised in an extended family, blessed to live right across the street from my maternal grandmother for most of my life. But in the last several years, my living arrangement didn’t mean I saw her every day. Many times it was because she wasn’t home; I would come home from somewhere, and by the time I put my things down or grabbed something to eat, her car would be gone. Other times it’s because my life was on constant go, and I wouldn’t make time for a visit.
My neglect isn’t because my maternal grandmother is a cat lady or because she’s sad. She’s neither. Until a recent surgery left her recovering in a nursing home, she was driving, active, vibrant, always on the go. And still despite of her immobility, she’s not sad. Her body is feable, her hair gray and mostly long gone, and at 90, decades after her child-bearing years, she’s invaluable to us.