We should reclaim the right to age consciously and free ourselves from unrealistic expectations about our looks
Susan Sontag, writer, philosopher and political activist
Susan Sontag, the American writer, philosopher, political activist and one of the most aware voices of the last century, acknowledged that we only have one script for aging: the imperative of the eternal youth. In her essay “Is there a double standard of aging?”, she warned us that it’s much more than an aesthetic diktat. Here are five excerpts from her writing:
1. Aging is harder on women than on men
“There is a double standard about aging that denounces women with special severity”
Whereas men are allowed to “age without penalty,”, the same does not apply to women who are constantly reminded of the importance of their “youth capital.” Women grow up developing a sensitive scanning system to evaluate other people’s reaction to themselves. They can pick the more subtle signs (or the absence thereof) and use them to draw a set of consequences for what they can or cannot do.
2. The attention is on the face
“Women do not simply have faces, they are identified with them”
The face of a man is part of his body and is allowed to record the events of his life. Things are completely different for women: from the youngest age, they are socially conditioned to tamper with it, to try to show and hide what they want other people to see or not to see. Sontag poignantly pointed out that the face a woman shows is the way she expects other people to treat her. In fact, the same signs of maturity have opposite connotations depending on if they appear on a man or on a woman’s face.
3. Women’s work is rarely a form of achievement
“Competence in most of the activities expected from men increases with age”
In the past 46 years since Sontag wrote her comments, things have changed. But if some women have conquered the highest positions in their field, they are still the exception, not the norm. For the vast majority of women holds a job, not a career and the reason why they are behind those desks or kitchens has more to do with their sense of perfection and their “being nice” rather than their willingness to discuss the status quo. The focus on looking instead of doing is a double-edged sword, because it prevents women from setting ambitious goals first and deprives them of the advantages of having reached them later.
4. Aging is a process of gradual sexual disqualification
“The revulsion against aging in women is the cutting edge of a whole set of oppressive structures”
In comparison to men, it takes little time for a women to become sexually ineligible. In the relationship market, men never really go out of fashion. They are convinced of their intrinsic value and get away with it. Women reserve the questions for themselves. It’s particularly encouraging to see a couple in which the woman is older than her partner. It’s a clear sign that the “expiration date” for women can be questioned and, in fact, it is finally questioned.
5. Reclaim the right to age
“The standard of beauty in a woman of any age is how she manages to simulate the appearance of youth”
Dealing with the signs of age is a path into a personal journey. We keep believing that “the only socially acceptable way to age is to show that one didn’t age at all”. Thanks to their wealth and profession under the spotlight, some women manage to “outwit nature”, but at the same time they keep feeding the current idea of beauty equals youth and put a burden on the shoulders of those who cannot afford the same art. We should reclaim the right to age consciously and free ourselves from unrealistic expectations about our looks.