Friday essay: grey-haired and radiant – reimagining ageing for women
Ageist thought patterns and reactions are so embedded in Australian culture that even educated people, people who otherwise insist on political correctness, will open their mouths and deliver a hurtful, hateful judgement.
Like the time a few years ago, sitting on the grass at a writers’ festival with a group of other women writers of whom I was the oldest. We were fellow graduates from a postgraduate creative writing course, some of us just beginning to be published; I knew the generational difference made parts of my life inaccessible to them, as parts of their lives would remain mysterious to me.
That afternoon, with literary conversations buzzing all around, I remarked in passing that I was thinking of colouring my hair with henna. That rich and blazing plant-based red had once been my signature shade, but what with study, family and moving countries, the process of sourcing, mixing up and applying the henna had all come to seem too messy, too difficult.
So I had let my colour fade; I had allowed a succession of hairdressers to cover my grey hairs with chemical dyes, at ridiculous expense.
Perhaps it was a niggling sense of needing to seize control again that prompted me to say what I did. “I think I am going to henna my hair.” Immediately, one of the women blurted: “Oh, I wouldn’t. Not at your age!”
My thoughts seemed to skid to a halt. I was 59: too old to need anyone’s approval or permission. Lost for a response, I remained silent. Out of all of us, this woman was the one who was always bleaching or dyeing or doing something to her hair, in the process often leaving it visibly damaged.
My memory of that moment is that she realised what she had said was offensive, and tried to retrieve it by disparaging the older women with hennaed hair who regularly fill seats at the festival. However, a second ageist comment could not defuse the first.
Going further back, during the demanding MA year that would eventually result in my first published novel, I was paying the household bills by freelancing – words and pictures – for a local glossy lifestyle magazine.
The editor had sent me to a country race meeting, with instructions to take plenty of pictures of racegoers for the social pages. At the end of a long hot afternoon, filling time while waiting for the bus to take me back to Adelaide, I gathered a few last shots as people clambered into hired stretch limos.
Two suited-up young men were lounging in the back seat of one of these vehicles. I leaned into the open door and asked if they’d like to have their photographs taken for the social pages, and I named the magazine. They beamed obligingly; I snapped the picture, recorded their names, and turned away.
And then I heard one of them say in a sniggering undertone: “Why the hell are (name of the magazine) getting old grannies to do this work?” I was checking their image on my digital camera, making sure the exposure was good, the framing right. “Shhh!” hissed the friend.
I was a 54-year-old woman at the end of a long working day: I was not going to put up with this shit. My vengeful thumb moved to delete their image.
Of course, I should have turned to that arrogant boyo and asked whether he had a grandmother and, if he did, how he would feel if someone insulted her the way he had just insulted me. But I couldn’t face him because my eyes had filled with tears.
Walking away, I blamed my loss of control on the menopause. But it wasn’t that: it was the shame women are made to feel simply for having lived a certain number of years.
In our youth-obsessed culture, old people have become invisible. If we dare to put ourselves in the line of sight, we may become targets of this kind of humiliating, knee-jerk ageism. Both men and women suffer from the social erasing of the old, but it is worse for women.
The premium placed on feminine beauty means that older women often find themselves at the terrible nexus of sexism and ageism.
In 1972, in “The Double Standard of Ageing”, Susan Sontag identified the oppressive belief that men are enhanced by age while women are progressively destroyed. “Competing for a job” writes Sontag, “her chances often partly depend on being the ‘right age’, and if hers isn’t right, she will lie if she thinks she can get away with it.” A woman’s age, Sontag insists, is “something of a dirty secret”.
It often seems as if not much has changed since 1972. Bill Shorten once admitted that his mother Ann, having qualified as a barrister at 53, discovered, in Bill’s words, that “sometimes, you’re just too old, and you shouldn’t be too old, but she discovered the discrimination against older women”.
Sex-ageism is not merely demoralising, but has the potential to affect women’s ability to survive. If we are not to be allowed to continue to work even though we are fit for it, if we have always been paid less than our male colleagues, if we have given years of our lives to the unpaid labour of child rearing, if we have insufficient super (or no super at all), what is to become of us in our sixties, seventies, and eighties? Alarmingly, older women make up the new demographic joining the ranks of the homeless.
In At Seventy: A Journal (1987), May Sarton writes, “This is the best time of my life. I love being old.” She goes on to explain that she does not feel old at all, “not as much a survivor as a person still on her way”, and she speculates that perhaps real old age will only begin when you find yourself looking back rather than forward.
Sarton’s journals are rightly celebrated, and are a cache of gold well worth digging to find. For together with Doris Lessing, May Sarton is one of the few women writers who have not shied from writing about age and ageing.
The shocking scarcity of older women in fiction that has left me with a sense of marching forward in the dark is balanced by the steadying beam of their work – especially Sarton’s, for the light she sheds is age-affirming, ever hopeful, an antidote to the “state of decline” narrative.
For example, when asked why she thought it was good to be old, Sarton replied:
Because I am more myself than I have ever been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced, and more powerful.
She amended this to “I am better able to use my powers”. And May Sarton continued to use those powers, writing At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1997). Though it was published under that title, her preferred name for it was Kairos, after “a Greek word meaning a unique time in a person’s life and an opportunity for change”.
Realising our authentic selves
This question of how to be, as we move from middle-age into old age, is a lot like the dilemma of the teenage self. Back then it was the childish body transforming to adulthood, and although that destination was where most of us wished to be, the unfamiliarity of the changed self, and the pressures of fashion, popular culture, and one’s peers, often made the transition awkward and painful.
While the destination of Old is not where most of us wish to be, if we live long enough we will have no choice. If there is any advantage to this passage, it must be the power described by May Sarton, to be more ourselves than we have ever been. Yet how many of us know ourselves well enough to be “more”?
Lately I have been taking inspiration from the musician, artist and poet, Patti Smith. Now pushing deeper into her seventies, Patti is a creative force; she still performs with her band. Smith describes herself as “always evolving”, but not changing because of any outside pressure.
Never one to conform to expectations of feminine beauty, or of how a woman should appear on a stage, Patti Smith appears to be a completely authentic version of her younger self, only older.
Realising this authentic self is the task old age sets us, but how is it to be done? How are we to tell what the authentic self is?
In the preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers (1983) Doris Lessing – who initially submitted the two novels in this volume using a pseudonym – explains that by writing under another name she wanted “to get free of that cage of associations and labels that every established writer has to learn to live inside”.
She also wanted to “cheer up young writers, who often have such a hard time of it”. Interestingly, both the novels in Lessing’s publishing experiment deal with women and age.
The first, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, evokes the unforgettable Maudie Fowler, who in her nineties remains so fiercely independent that she will not consider moving from the dauntingly uncomfortable rooms she inhabits, or even having helpers. (“With your own place,” Maudie says, “you’ve got everything. Without it, you are a dog. You are nothing.”)
In England, Doris Lessing’s publishers Jonathan Cape and Granada rejected The Diary of a Good Neighbour, with Granada saying it was “too depressing” to publish. It was then accepted by Michael Joseph, who said it reminded them of Doris Lessing. When it was acquired by Lessing’s French publisher he rang her to ask if she had helped Jane Somers, because Somers reminded him so much of Lessing.
The perceptiveness of these publishers made Doris Lessing question what it was they had recognised. She had deliberately made Jane Somers’ style different from her own, and felt that each of her novels had a characteristic tone of voice, a style peculiar to itself. Lessing reasoned that
behind this must sound another note, independent of style. What is this underlying tone, or voice, and where does it originate in the author? It seems to me we are listening to, responding to, the essence of a writer here, a groundnote.
I am fascinated by this concept of the groundnote as it relates to writing, and in whether or not one can recognise it one’s own work. I am reminded of those black-and-white films we once watched on television that were set on board a submarine; the only soundtrack was the persistent bleep bleep of the sonar.
Often the act of writing itself is like being one of the submarine’s crew – tensed within the finite oxygen supply of a tiny lit capsule, pushing on through darkness under crushing force. I can still picture those submariners: sweating, silent, while the vessel shook and water trickled dangerously, and the periscope was cranked up to scan the surface.
Aside from writing, Doris Lessing’s experiment easily relates to the dilemmas of ageing, for older women, too, suffer the “cage of associations and labels”. It is good to be reminded that, whatever style we adopt, or imagine we possess, there is underneath, the groundnote of the true self.
Patti Smith writes in M Train (2015):
As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-coloured hair.
Yet, Smith continues:
If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter […] glowing and receptive […] if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.
Understanding our groundnote must surely release us into our power. Hearing it, will we not become comfortable, even radiant, in our own skins?
I am visualising a state of being that has nothing to do with the positive ageing or active ageing campaigns directed towards the elderly. Those campaigns could be termed passive-aggressive, for their subtext is that ageing is bad. And in denying age its due dignity, in promoting a fantasy in which old people do not appear to age at all, they set the scene for many levels of failure.
So how are we to hear this groundnote?
It could be a case of careful and consistent listening. It must be different for everyone. Perhaps the transition is less about growing old and more about growing up.
When I think about this what comes to mind is the Michelle Shocked song “When I Grow Up (I want to be an old woman)”, with its implication of a genuine desire to experience being old. If there are stages we must pass through, the first stage might be the cessation of denial.
In her book The Fountain of Age (1993) ground-breaking feminist writer Betty Friedan admits that in her fifties she “didn’t even want to think about age”; she, too, was locked in denial.
But as she researched that book, she “began to recognize some new dimension of personhood, some strength or quality of being in people who had crossed the chasm of age – and kept on going and growing”.
In her earlier book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan, at 35, had refused to let women be defined as sex objects, and in her book on age she refuses to let women or men over 65 be defined as objects of “care”, or old age be defined as a “sickness” to be “cured”.
Feminism has fought hard for women’s rights, but despite some of the movement’s leaders like Friedan researching exhaustively and writing about women and ageing, ageism persists, the last of the undesirable “isms” to ever be mentioned.
Old women remain the butt of jokes; in real life, old women are some of society’s most marginalised people, while in literature they are disgracefully underwritten, other than as stereotypes.
Feminists have typically tended to address matters affecting younger women. This is a reflection of the age of the women involved in the battles for equal pay, paid maternity leave and the calling-out of sexual harassment. Sadly, when it comes to old women, even younger women do not see them.
The result is mutual deprivation: old women have no opportunity to contribute their experience and wisdom, and young women have no role models to show them how to manage their own inevitable ageing.
An ordeal of the imagination
One thing that gives me hope this will change is the #greyhair movement on Instagram.
When in preparation for my own switch to natural colour, I ceased dying my hair – no more henna, no more expensive sessions at the hairdressers – I stumbled over pages that led me to communities of women dedicated to supporting each other through this process.
And I needed encouragement, for when I had announced I would no longer colour my hair even my 92-year-old mother advised against it, telling me I would be sorry.
From the stories shared on Instagram, I learned that for many women, the grey kicks in early – sometimes even during their teens. The candid posts with photographs of every imaginable shade and patterning of grey, and the ease of sharing them, make social media the perfect tool for this new women’s movement.
It could become instrumental in chipping away at our damaging self-beliefs about ageing, and recalibrate perceptions of female beauty.
Another signal of positive change is the recent high-profile publication of at least one Australian novel in which the main characters are all women in their seventies. Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (2019) goes against the grain of decades of published fiction, with just a few notable exceptions.
Wood’s literary currency means the book has been widely read, and at literary festivals has sparked conversations about ageing, and especially about what it means for women. In the novel, the elderly actress Adele has a moment where she feels “on the edge of discovering something very important – about living, about the age beyond youth and love, about this great secret time of a person’s life”. Perhaps Adele is about to discover her kairos.
Liz Byrski is another Australian writer who has identified the absence of old people, especially old women, in fiction, and has set herself the task of addressing it. In her novels she makes a point of showing old women using computers and mobile phones, busting the stereotype of elders baffled by technology.
In her slender book Getting On: some thoughts on women and ageing (2012) Byrski insists we need to challenge the public perception of ageing and change it to a positive conversation in which the phrase “the fight against ageing” is banned and the use of “anti-ageing” as a descriptor for any product is greeted with derision.
She goes on to suggest how as individuals we should “start seeing old people”; we should strive to put aside our blindness, denial, and fear, and to focus instead on the richness and value of the lives old people are still living.
The negativity around ageing, the elitism of youth, means there are few older role models to encourage our young people. This has the effect of leaving them marooned, unable to imagine a way forward beyond middle age – and further on into the kind of old age that, if they are lucky enough to reach it, they might be willing, even proud, to be able to live.
Susan Sontag, while describing old age as a “genuine ordeal” maintained it was mainly “an ordeal of the imagination”.
I don’t believe she was underestimating the physical tests and challenges age brings, but rather acknowledging that nothing about it is so testing as being looked through, looked past, being patronised, being treated by others as diminished, or worthless.
By continuing to denigrate old age we are contributing to this ordeal, condemning young folk to “walk the victim”, denying them, and ourselves, the possibility of kairos; the possibility of radiance.
Author: Carol Lefevre, Visiting Research Fellow, Department of English and Creative Writing, The University of Adelaide.
This article was first published by The Conversation on 27 May 2022.