A couple of weeks ago, during an examination before a minor medical procedure, the doctor glanced down any my notes. ‘You don’t look your age,’ she said, looking me up and down as though I might be hiding a bath chair. I’m sure it was intended as a compliment but my heart sank, as it always does when someone unwittingly reveals negative assumptions about age. I could almost feel her attitude towards me changing, as though I had won a prize in a contest I hadn’t even entered. Look at the healthy older woman!
It is of course possible, as the American feminist Gloria Steinem pointed out more than three decades ago, that we do look our age – it’s other people’s assumptions that are wrong. Steinem got so sick of being told how marvellous she looked at the apparently advanced age of 50 that she threw a ‘this is what 50 looks like’ party in New York. Thirty years later, she did it again with a ‘this is what 80 looks like’ party in Philadelphia. But the question that’s still being asked about Steinem – how does she look so good? – suggests that people just don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes.
There’s a trap here, for any woman over the age of 40, and especially for women whose jobs place them in the public eye. Either we conform to expectations about ageing, leading to often hurtful comparisons with our younger selves, or we’re treated as some kind of exhibit. ‘Look how she’s aged’ or ‘Isn’t she amazing for her age?’ are not attractive choices for women, not least because we find ourselves being played off against each other.
A whole range of variables – genes, health, lifestyle and, crucially, access to resources – affect how women and men age. But men in their 60s and 70s are still defined by their experience, careers and achievements. Women, no matter how famous or successful, are primarily viewed through the prism of their birth date. When Hillary Clinton, then aged 69, ran for President in 2016 against Donald Trump, who is a year older, questions were asked about her age and fitness for office, not his. The former Vice-President, Joe Biden, has entered the running to be the Democrats’ next Presidential candidate at the age of 76. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be throwing a ‘this is what 80 looks like’ party in just over three years’ time.
Obviously public policy must take into account the possible effects of ageing, making sure that those who need it have access to high-quality health and social care. The Scottish government’s framework for older people, published a couple of months ago, strikes the right balance, recognising that individuals can find themselves vulnerable and marginalised as they get older – but also acknowledging that many of us are living longer, healthier lives. The problem is that public perceptions remain wide of the mark, lumping everyone over the age of 60 together in a way that has a particularly damaging impact on women.
In our everyday lives, older women are no more defined or limited by our age than men are. What we do have to struggle with every single day is the laughably outdated assumption that chronological age is the most important thing about us. That doctor, congratulating me on my relatively youthful appearance, knew nothing about all the things I do, and she made no attempt to find out. Instead of changing her outdated assumptions, she decided I must be an exception, an experience that will strike a chord with many older women. Maybe things will have changed by the time she finds herself joining the massed ranks of diverse, active, innovative older women – but it’s going to take an enormous effort to get us there. Hashtag #NoException, anyone?
If you’d like to share your experiences of challenging damaging stereotypes, please look at the website of the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls.. Its current spotlight is on older women – and you can join the debate by using the ‘Have your say’ screen.
Joan Smith is a journalist, novelist and human rights activist. She is the author of six novels, the feminist classic Misogynies and several other non-fiction titles, including Down With the Royals. Her latest book is Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013.
A Fairer Scotland for Older People: framework for action, 3 April 2019