by Cait Johnson
I know a lot of beautiful older women, women who have proudly refused Botox and plastic surgery, even hair-coloring and chemical peels. Why shouldn’t wrinkles and gray hair be beautiful? When you look at the vagaries of what’s been considered beautiful throughout history, it’s pretty clear that the whole concept is a cultural construct and we’d be better off reconstructing the concept rather than our aging faces. It’s the eye of the beholder that needs a makeover.
Of course, if we truly believed that the aging female face and body are beautiful, it would spell doom for a multi-trillion-dollar beauty and plastic-surgery industry which, dear reader, is perhaps the real root of the whole thing: women spending vast sums of money in a mad (and ultimately doomed) stampede to remain youthful-looking certainly keeps the wheels of that economy greased and turning. It becomes an act of real subversiveness to embrace our aging flesh rather than our local aesthetician.
Thanks to Susan Weed for giving us language around menopause like, “She Who Holds the Wise Blood Inside.” It has a nice Native American ring to it, dignified and comforting. (Although, as Roslyne Sophia Breillat writes, “Unlike Western civilization, tribal cultures have no word for menopause. For the indigenous woman, this is a simple flowing process where she naturally and graciously becomes an elder. During the latter phase of her life she is revered for her knowledge, wisdom and experience.”)
When Western women began to rethink giving birth, not as an illness but as a spirit-filled and natural process, it was to indigenous ways that many looked for guidance. Same with the process of dying. We’ve made great strides with those bookends. But we lag behind in honoring the step that comes before the actual death-part: post-menopausal aging.
We live in a culture that, as Breillat says, “fears femaleness, intimacy, honesty, sexuality, truth, love, aging and death.” To state the painfully obvious, a woman loses her value as a sexual object after menopause, while a man can still be a silver-haired stud (think Sean Connery) until he dies. But who wants to be a sex object, anyway? Wouldn’t most of us rather be loved by someone who sees us in all our dimensions and who is as fond of our aging flesh as we are ourselves? Aging women can still give and receive plenty of pleasure and that is, of course, what sex is really all about: not propping up, with our youthful sex appeal, some aging man’s image of his own virility, but a playful, mutual adventure in sensual intimacy and pleasure.
Like many of us, I suspect, as I age I find great comfort in old sepia-toned photographs of elderly Native American women, women with wrinkles like the fissures of dry river beds, women facing the camera without shame or coyness or artifice, some with fierce pride, others with wry humor. When I think of what happened to those women, and what is still happening to their descendants, it makes what’s happening to my face pretty damned inconsequential.
When we no longer obsess about our wrinkles or sagging breasts, we have more energy to pursue those things about which we are passionate. In fact, maybe it’s to keep us passive and quiescent that we’ve been fed this load of you’ve-got-to-look-young garbage. Because a post-menopausal woman who doesn’t, in vulgar parlance, give a rat’s ass what you think of her is definitely a force. In fact, banshees pale in comparison.
As a friend of mine would say, “First-World problems.” How fortunate to have nothing worse to worry about than our bulldog jowls, when millions of other women around the world are summarily refused an education, when thousands of rape victims are killed by their families in the name of honor. And injustice is not just happening in places that are comfortably far away, folks.
A friend once told me a heartening story about watching a 90-year-old woman dancing with gusto at a wedding. “She was the most beautiful woman there,” she told me. “Because beauty is about energy, life-force.” If we can wrest our gaze away from the mirror, we may find our life-force burgeoning as we devote it to making things better on this troubled planet. Without all the demands that beleaguered us in middle age—young children, spouses, aging parents— we’re often free in our later years to be feisty and outspoken and passionate about our beliefs in ways we were too distracted to explore before. Or so I can only hope.
Image: old woman’s hands tucked between her legs by Horia Varlan von Flickr