I heard someone say it again today, “I just want to age gracefully.” And I lost it.
What I lost — at long last — was my belief in this crazy idea that aging could be graceful. For just one minute I want to take up the other side of this madness: Aging is not, and should not be, graceful. Aging is an exit ramp, as it is designed to be, and it is clearly marked.
This whole aging gracefully thing is actually another anti-woman, unrealistic standard and myth. It is like — and related to — the myths of giving birth gracefully or going through cancer gracefully. Really? Labor and childbirth are messy and fierce. A new life comes into the world through a human body. That takes a fight, and some messy grunting and fury.
And cancer? I’ve been there, and I’ve watched others go through it. Those battle and war metaphors are not for nothing. Cancer, too, is messy, and it requires ferocious determination to push through it. It’s not graceful. “Oh, she never complained once.” Shame on her.
Then we lay this expectation of grace on women as they age. Phooey. Have you ever heard a man say he wants to age gracefully? No. When we say aging gracefully we mean aging silently. It means, “Shut up.” It means, “Please be invisible.”
So no, I do not want to age gracefully. I will age the way I live now: always grateful (I’m the only woman in my family to reach 65), and sometimes scared — when the human body breaks down it can hurt and be uncomfortable. But, alas, breaking down is a must; that’s how we get out of here.
The human body is designed to age so that we can exit. And exiting this life is as expected, and as natural, as entering this life. If you are older than 35 and still thinking you can skip death, shame on you. Seriously. People who say, “If I knew I was going to die, I would …” and I think, “If …?”
But here’s the good part: The beauty of knowing you are going to die means that you are free to live fully and fiercely now.
We shame ourselves, and other women, when we play the “aging gracefully” card. It’s kind of like what we do on Facebook. “Look, her kids have matching outfits, and her house is immaculate.” And we believe that. That stunning living room doesn’t show the piles of dishes and laundry just off camera, and that couple with the staged photo of date night doesn’t tell us about the screaming the day before.
Aging gracefully? Drop the phrase.
And please, do not bring up Georgia O’Keeffe and her wrinkles. Yes, she was gorgeous at 90 with her accordioned face — because she was Georgia O’Keeffe. Her real beauty is the art that she left us. But when O’Keefe was 55 and 63 she was not very happy. She struggled. She struggled with her identity, her relationships and her choices, and yes, with her appearance, too. Just like us.
When we ask ourselves to “age gracefully” we are asking ourselves to be good women and nice women, and aren’t we past that yet? Good women and nice women are quiet and compliant and invisible. They are, “Just no trouble at all.” Shouldn’t the benefit of getting older be that we can be, and embrace, trouble?
If you are older than 60, skip the graceful and embrace the fierce. Make some trouble. And be sure to slam the door on your way out.
Diane Cameron is a Capital Region writer for The Times Union in Albany, New York.