Has our emphasis on youthfulness caused us to vilify the process of ageing?
The reverence of youth is nothing new. As a signifier of beauty, strength, second chances, newness and much more, the history of the human race’s relationship with youth – and youthfulness – dates back to the early days.
From Sunset Boulevard – where an ageing actress no longer sought after because she has lost her youth begins to slowly unravel; to Disney stories such as Snow White – the story of an ageing queen’s bitter envy of a girl’s youth and beauty; to Tangled – the abduction of a young girl whose magical hair keeps her abductor – a wicked old lady – young, the idea of ageing has been a source of fear for many women, the world over.
The fear-mongering of a woman’s ageing process by society and the media, has created an urgency to “accomplish” while young. Anything after the “cut-off age” is considered atypical. It is why it is so celebrated with a collective sigh of relief when a woman “finally finds a husband” after the age of 35. The idea is such that a woman’s desirability is in descent as her age ascends.
Society and the media have done well to back these claims using such armour as: “age-defying” creams; “wrinkle-combatting” serums; the idea that growing old could be ok, so long as the signs are not as evident on your face. We hear about women who have “let themselves go” and we idolise women who, through genetics or surgery, have successfully fought against the signs of getting older. The desirability of a woman lies in her ability to, if not stay young, then at least appear as youthful for as long as she can.
In Disney’s Tangled (2010) fashioned after the Brother’s Grimm tale of Rapunzel, Gothel traps Rapunzel in the tower and forces her to sing a song that brings her hair alive with powers of youth, in order for Gothel to maintain a youthful appearance long after her true youth has gone. For this reason, Rapunzel is never allowed to leave the tower, until she escapes.
The core of parenting a girl child in countries like Nigeria, seems to depend on the very notion that they have a shelf life, not death – though you’d be forgiven to think it so. The expiry date that young girls and women are led to believe is their lot in life, is the day in which their youth betrays them and they are no longer deemed desirable to a man. These values were built upon the male gaze and from that stem grew branches of marriageability and general worthiness.
Speaking with relatives, it is not uncommon for the conversation to turn to marriage and childbirth once you hit your early-20s.
The pressure to “accomplish” these preset goals by the designated age of “before-30-preferably-years-old” has long been a key factor into the decisions that women make regarding their life trajectory; with many not having the choice to take the time to find themselves and their true paths, for themselves.
Many women approaching – or “over the hill of” – 30, have lamented that no matter how much they achieve in their careers and in their lives as a whole, their singleness creates a stain on their record that is difficult to look past. If in the beginning it didn’t affect them, it begins to nag at them as more people around them settle into family life. Naturally. However, where tradition is involved, there is a very vocal and very visible rain cloud that looms over every woman, whether in the form of pressure from relatives and in-laws or pressure just from social settings and the self.
A woman approaching 30-years-old is more likely to feel the pressure to settle down and have children regardless of her personal readiness for such a step, because her friends are doing it and because society has planted the seed of the “Best Before” date firmly in her subconscious. In the age of social media that pressure has [probably] trebled. With every wedding hashtag, is the growing burden of her singleness on her shoulders.
From a biological point of view, the statistics do show it can – and often does – become trickier, but not impossible, to have children past the age of about 35. But these stats are in no way one-size-fits all. One thing that women are often not allowed to realise until much later, if at all, is that they are individuals and so their biological makeup is also much more individual than they are led to believe.
What’s interesting is the idea of the biological clock for men being all but a myth when it actually does exist. Where all the emphasis is on the woman, the same is not placed on the man for whom the same biological clock is ticking.
Beyond the scientific proof of childbearing, an expiry date has been placed upon women in a sociological way. The belief is this: after a certain age, a single woman becomes undesirable and her value as a member of society – no matter her personal accomplishments – are diminished. Such a high value is placed on marriage as a pivotal measure of one’s true womanhood that now women scramble to be “chosen for marriage” in order to avoid the stain of singleness past the age of 30.
So how do we unlearn the ideologies that have long governed our lives as women? How do we shift gears and begin life anew on a path that puts less emphasis on ageing, in this sense? By simply doing. Women who have found enough reason to shift the paradigms of their lives in spite of these very notions of an expiry date, have shared that they feel more fulfilled as a result. Too often our lives are governed by male opinions that we forget that we ought to navigate our lives for us.
In giving so much power to one group, many women have found themselves in less than ideal situations for the simple desire to feel accomplished.This does not in any way negate a woman’s fulfilment in marriage and motherhood, nor should it ever. However, let it be the woman’s decision. Let this very life-changing decision not lie in the hands of a society that has not considered the woman enough of an individual to make this choice to suit her. Therein lies the issue.
What’s interesting, as always, is the male perspective on this whole notion. As with many issues that women must endure, the man – who has not experienced a lot of the same limitations – is unable to understand this notion as anything other than “harmless advice”. Some men claim personal preference for a woman “in her prime” aka youth, but comically this does not reflect a need on their part to also remain “in their prime.”
Tales of men in their fifties, who go through the often-seemingly-shallow mid-life crisis, seek companionship with women in their barely-20s come to mind. This is more observation than judgement, but what is telling is the inability to respect a woman’s choice to do the same. The trope of The Cougar has long been a veil of shame for the woman over a certain age who dares to date a younger man.
Single men over the age of 35 who date are left to do so with very little thought or opinion by society but a woman over the age of 35 who “is still dating” is considered of lesser value. “A woman who is still “someone’s girlfriend” at the age of 35 needs to check her value.”
Read a comment on a post on the The Shade Room’s Instagram. Many concurred. Just a few posts below, a man of 50 has just began to date a woman of 25. For every comment about how “gross” they found it, there were more about the woman looking for financial gain or a status upgrade as the reason for such a thing happening.
The Best Before Inexactitude will not die down anytime soon, but it is worth challenging the idea nonetheless. What would you do, dear woman, if this idea was not instilled in you at a young age? How different would your life trajectory have been if you weren’t told by society that you needed to be married with children by the ideal age of 27 – 30 if you’re pushing it. Think on this, that’s all one can ask.