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Updated: Mar 20, 2023

(What it is and what it has to do with body image)

Hey friends,

Today I wanna talk about ageism!

A male friend of mine once told me that as a teenagemr he felt like he should just “fuck around for a while,” because nobody was going to take him seriously until he was older anyway.

I was struck by this– by the different message he and I learned about aging due to our genders, and ultimately, by how right he was.

Even as a middle schooler, I recognized that I was going to get one or two good decades of visibility, respect, and power, because women’s social value seems to peak between about fifteen and thirty.

As a result, I felt immense pressure to grow up fast, live aggressively, and accomplish everything as quickly as possible, before my value “expired.” (Barf.)

Weirdly, this message was reinforced for me more by older women than by men, because women would often make comments like “you just wait til you stop getting catcalled, you’ll miss it!” and “I miss having a body like yours, just wait til you have kids!” which always seemed to imply that I should expect everything to go to shit very soon.

For the record, I just turned thirty five, and I actually have been seeing my visibility, status, and social capital dropping off for the last few years, so there is truth to it of course. And while right now I love it and feel more comfortable than ever, I can definitely hold space for the fact that at some point it might start to really freakin suck.

Free of the pressure to live fast, my friend who made that comment didn’t “get serious” until his late twenties. And in his early forties now, he continues to steadily gain visibility, status, and power, with no end in sight.

This is because men– especially multi-privileged men like my friend, who is able-bodied, white, and tall–  tend to gain social capital, respect, value, visibility, representation, and opportunities in a linear upward fashion as they age through his twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and even sixties. This increase in perceived value basically keeps going up and up until a man gets old enough to no longer be perceived as virile, powerful, masculine, or able-bodied… at which point it also drops off, and pretty quickly.

A woman’s status and value on the other hand, peak when she’s so young because a woman’s main source of value in our society is perceived to be her attractiveness and desirability, along with her ability to bear and raise children. As such, she is most “valuable” during her most youthful, fertile years. After that, she’s likely to steadily lose social capital, respect, value, visibility, representation, and opportunities over the course of her life, with a steep drop-off around menopause, when she can no longer bear children.

Many privileged women I’ve worked with over the age of fifty or sixty report a weird shift from being too-visible in their youth, to practically invisible mid-life. One day they were being catcalled, having doors held open, and generally being treated like a valuable commodity… and now it feels like nobody can see them at all.

Granted, the bias against older folks isn’t exclusively a gender issue.

Studies show that people in our culture tend to have positive biases toward young people and negative biases toward older people in general, both because we tend to be biased toward things we find attractive, and because we value able bodies for their productivity.

Young people both tend to be considered both more attractive, and are likely to be more able-bodied and capable of labor, than the elderly.

So ageism impacts everyone, but the different way we treat aging men versus aging women is the result of the patriarchy’s definition of what makes a man valuable, versus what makes a woman valuable.

Since the defining quality of a man under patriarchy is his masculinity– his ability to dominate, lead, and penetrate– even if he’s not conventionally attractive, he can prove his dominance in the areas of social and financial success.

As long as a man is able to be productive and powerful in some way, he can continue accruing respect and power.

Women, on the other hand, are defined by their femininity, which is to say, they are defined by both their fuckability and their ability to nurture, and take care of, others. In this way a high-value woman is nice, fertile, attractive, young, selfless, and committed to caring for others.

What does this have to do with body image issues? Everything.

In order to maintain a feeling of visibility and value, many women choose to harness the power of science and self-expression to appear younger than they are. Most female celebrities appear “ageless,” seemingly frozen in time through the decades, due to the use of increasingly popular procedures like Botox and fillers, to make their faces, bodies, skin, and hair look youthful, and this has become the “standard” for women everywhere.

So many women spend their money, time, and energy trying to stay young, stay fuckable, stay visible and valuable. We almost never see images or footage of powerful women in their fifties, sixties, or beyond, who are untouched by Botox, fillers, hair transplants, hair dye, or photoshop for this reason, which leads to even more stigma around signs of women aging!

It takes a bit longer, but eventually men get screwed by ageism as well, because turning into an old man means becoming weaker, smaller, less virile, less able-bodied, and more dependent on others–all traits are associated with the feminine and, therefore, devalued.

As such, a man who lives long enough will eventually lose his “masculinity card,” and lose his access to the privileges afforded automatically to younger men, like social status, respect, representation, visibility, and opportunities. And for this reason, men too may find themselves fighting any and all signs of aging, in an attempt to maintain relevance and power.

So while women may face age discrimination, erasure, and biases at earlier ages and for different reasons than men, if a person of any gender lives long enough, they will eventually get screwed by ageism.

Interestingly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Ageism is no more of a biological “given” than white supremacy or patriarchy.

Some cultures revere, respect, and admire their elders, finding places where their voices and wisdom can be meaningfully included and shared, and giving them a sense of purpose, esteem, and belonging.

Our culture however, has chosen to hold older people with little more than contempt: to devalue them, discriminate against them, erase them, marginalize them, and isolate them.

Our society views the elderly as people whose value has been used up or lost, who have no value to offer, as if their job is simply to pass time until they die. And as a result, people (understandably) associate visible signs of aging with danger, erasure, marginalization, and violence– and work their butts off to fight them.

Since this is relevant to all of us, I invite you to consider the role of ageism on your own body image, and examine your own internalized and implicit biases about age.

  • What have you learned about men as they get older? Women?

  • What have you learned about where a person’s value comes from, and how does that differ by gender, and change with age?

  • What are you most afraid of when it comes to getting older, and why?

  • And most importantly, how does all of this impact the way you think about your own body?

I wish for all of us to continue dismantling body oppression wherever we find it, and frankly the topic of ageism is a huge one.

Sending you a big hug,

Jessi Kneeland

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