The sales clerk slid my groceries over the scanner. I stared absently at the magazine covers: ‘Stars without Make-up’, ‘Guess Whose Cellulite’, ‘Beach Ready Bikini Bodies.’
‘Would you like a hand out with your groceries, Miss?’
That one line snapped me back to attention in a way that no other offer of help could have. I smirked. I almost laughed. He had called me Miss. Yes, yes, I heard him correctly – Miss! Over the last few years I have grudgingly come to expect to be addressed as Ma’am. That polite generic term is so laden with connotation. Every time a man (and it is always a man) has called me Ma’am I have secretly screamed inside. I am not a ‘Ma’am’. I am too young! Too young! ‘Ma’am’ had been so jarring, so offensive at first but had been leveled at me so frequently that I had begun to ignore the slight. How surprising then to be addressed as Miss. I looked the sales clerk in the eye. There was not a hint of irony or sarcasm in his words and yet, that moniker stung. Hearing that term that was reserved for a younger me illuminated the truth: I am Ma’am.
For most of my life, I have been attractive enough and young enough to garner a good deal of attention from men. This has been reinforced for me in my dealings with men and in many ways my self-worth is directly linked to the bits of flattery that have been paid to me. I don’t think that I am one of those women who use sexuality to get what I need. I am just aware that when dealing with a man, looking a certain way is to my advantage and I like the attention that comes with it. Lately, however, I have noticed a shift. I receive less attention, more indifference, from the men I come across in my life. It is the unavoidable shift from ‘Miss’ to ‘Ma’am’. I am aging and the years may (or may not) bring me wisdom but they are killing my appeal to men.
I mentioned this to Mr. Flapper Pie who, for the record, makes me feel like a sexy beast daily (I promised him I’d be clear about that!). He is constantly telling me how beautiful and sexy I am, and for that I am so grateful. My diminishing self-worth has nothing to do with him. He pointed out that age can be sexy and then confessed that he finds Helen Mirren to be one of the more attractive stars. He also reminded me how much better sex actually gets as you age. I can’t argue with him on that one. And yet, as the circles around my eyes darken, my breasts sink just a little lower, and the lines in my face etch a little deeper, I continue to feel less and less powerful. And that, my friends, is the crux of it. There is power in beauty and youth and as I age I can feel that power slip away.
So lately, I’ve been contemplating some medical help. I’ve been wondering about Botox, Juvederm, and Restylane. I fantasize about tummy tucks (three kids do not make for a pretty tummy) and boob jobs (a nice pert C cup). Then I stop and wonder what these things would really buy me? Would I just look like a desperate women clinging to her youth? Like the man with the toupee, am I pathetic or is this something that I need to do to maintain a bit of traction in our society? And for what reason do I need these procedures? Is this about appealing to men or maintaining status with women?
I don’t want people to think that I am shallow. I have a great life and a lot of good things going for me. It’s just that this whole aging thing snuck up on me. I’ve been surprised by how much of my self-worth has been linked to my appearance and particularly surprised by how much the attention of men figures into this experience. I never realized it until the appearance of youth started to slip away. And when did that happen anyway? When did I stop being the young one?
We could have a discussion about objectification theory , how society puts pressure on women to be ‘sexy’; the impact of limiting self-worth to one’s appearance or sexual attractiveness; how women are limited (or empowered) in our society through objectification. We could examine how age biases keep women subjugated (see this fabulous article from 1979 – there have been changes, but too much stays the same). These things matter, but what matters to me right now is how aging is impacting my sense of worth. Theory and conjecture do not change the experience. My self-worth is being diminished as I age because I know that my sexual appeal to men is diminishing. And I know on an intellectual level how stupid it sounds. So please no pep talks. Yeah, Yeah, I know!
When I sat down to write this it took some strength to admit these things. As I told a dear friend recently, it is not that I am worried about what my friends will think but rather that my mother and aunts might read this. And what would they have to say? I fear that their judgement would lay heaviest on me. Perhaps it was their conservative Calvinist upbringing or the hangover from sixties and seventies feminism that the older generation came up in but they do not talk openly about aging. While it is clear that all the women in my extended family care deeply about their appearance, no one would ever admit to its importance. So I am left to extrapolate their experience from what is not said and from the silent ways in which I see them confront their age. Would aging be easier if we talked about it?
There is nothing that can really be done. A little Botox might buy me a couple of years, but in the end I will have to deal with this. It is a new journey for me, one which I’m just learning to navigate. I need to stop clinging to ‘Miss’ and to accept that ‘Ma’am’ can be good and beautiful too.