By Elizabeth Perlman
(Elizabeth is the Executive Director of TIWP, whose girl’s empowerment space was recently taken over by a woman’s “permanent cosmetics” salon. The irony is not lost on us!)
Yesterday, I looked at the ever-darkening circles under my eyes and shuddered. “God help me,” I always say, as if God should be bothered with such a trivial thing. I am not objectively “young” anymore, but why do I care? Why does it trigger me that I no longer look like I did twenty years ago? I certainly wouldn’t want to revert to the insecurity and blindness of my youth. And yet, the very fact that we “worship at the altar of youth” (such a well-used cliche!) tells you a lot about what we fear—as a culture.
In theory, aging should be celebrated! I mean, our faces never stop changing, from the moment we form something resembling “a face” in the womb to the soft, smooshed-up head of a baby wriggling from the birth canal. Then we go from a baby face to a toddler face to a child face to a tween face to a teen face to a young face and onward through all the faces and stages of adulthood, if we’re lucky enough to live a long life. Nothing is constant, everything’s in motion, and there is a damn good reason the Buddhists teach non-attachment. And yet, we live in a world that is pathologically attached to youth—and the pressure I feel not to age is crazy-making. I mean, the concept of not-aging is antithetical to personal growth. Spiritually, we can only grow and learn from living. True wisdom can only come with age. And yet, when it comes to women, our world demands an unnatural stasis. And this, I believe, is the real problem, the fact that it is only women who are not allowed to age.
An older man is considered attractive, intelligent and interesting. I don’t need to mention the names of all the famous older men who are professionally thriving (and often married to much younger women). And yet, last night I went to see a “feminist,” “girl-power” film featuring one of my favorite actresses—someone I have always admired and looked up to—only to see that her face was no longer her face, that her expressive features had suddenly been smoothed out with that mysterious Hollywood sorcery we call “fillers.” It was a good movie, but watching her motionless face on the screen left me feeling demoralized. I mean, what hope is there for any of us, if the most powerful women in the world have to get chemically inflated—like inflatable plastic dolls—in order to remain relevant? Whenever I see another actress succumb to the pressure to “have work done,” my heart breaks for them—and for all of us. It’s doubly painful to me when an actress denies that it happened. The subterfuge reveals the shame women are made to feel, the shame for having done what they were told they had to do. It’s as if the mere fact of aging is a kind of personal failure.
When we’re young, we are shamed for our bodies (because all girls are convinced that they are somehow defective and wrong) and then, as we age, we are shamed for living past forty (because skin wrinkles and hair turns white). Collectively, it freaks us out and shuts us down and steals our fire. And yet, in the midst of all this age-ism and body-shaming, the world is literally on fire! As we are all-too-painfully aware, everything is falling apart and a million injustices must be fought and the earth must somehow be protected. Now more than ever, we need women—all women!—to rise up as warriors and leaders and save us from the old men (how ironic!) who don’t care that they are destroying everything. As women, we are born to create, to heal, to teach, to invent new and better ways of living. And yet, we can’t do the work we need to do if we’re filled with shame about “how we look.” I believe this shame is code for the fear of being rejected, the very real danger that we will be cast-out by the very world we were born to inhabit.
Everything I’m ranting about here is what Naomi Wolf already wrote about—very eloquently—twenty-eight years ago in The Beauty Myth. According to Wolf, the more power women achieve economically and politically, the more our culture keeps insisting on ever more stringent and psychologically crushing standards of “beauty.” But of course our ideas about “beauty” are not about “beauty” at all. They are manifestations of the unconscious fears and neurosis of the people in charge. I believe that our society (by which I still mean, the patriarchy) is most afraid of the wisdom, power and gravitas of older women. That’s why it shames us into hiding, whispering in our ears through every magazine ad and television commercial that gravity is against us. As it turns out, the only thing working against us is ourselves, anytime we internalize the fears of old men.
I internalize these fears anytime I shudder at my own appearance. I have since had to apologize to myself for this, as it was a total violation of my values as a human being. And yet “the beauty myth” runs deep, permeating our collective psyche—not unlike the lead that leaches invisibly into the water supply. The reason I developed dark circles to begin with is because I’ve “been through some shit” and have struggled and learned from my struggles. Why would I want to erase the proof that I have lived? Likewise, women naturally gain weight after the miracle of creating and giving birth to human beings (!). Why should they have to hide their power by oh-so-quickly becoming thin again? And why do women need to work so hard and suffer so much to be so thin and small, in general—if not to placate an insecure society that’s afraid of the women who take up space?! I believe that what we call “the signs of aging” are in fact our Trophies of Survival, our Medals of Wisdom, our Gold Stars of Creation! Our faces and bodies reveal the truth of our lives, which is the strength of our souls—which is the very thing the world is most desperately in need of. Now more than ever, we need the truth and the strength of every woman, at every age, rising up and coming together to advocate for the well being of all life.
It is no accident that our obsession with being physically “perfect” restrains us from the necessary work of healing the world—which is the one thing that would make us eternally beautiful. Just imagine for a moment: what would happen if we all stopped trying to “fix” ourselves to fit someone else’s standard? What if we let the world see just how often we have laughed and cried and made babies and eaten good food and rejoiced in the warmth of the sun? What if we let the world see all our years of accumulated power and wisdom—and then used this power and wisdom to create a better world?!
For myself, I dream of a world led by wrinkled, white-haired, liver-spotted, saggy-kneed, round-bellied, thunder-thighed, big-armed, frizzy-haired Wise Women, women loving themselves and each other and joyfully working together to bring the world back into balance. Afterall, if we’re going to fight for truth, we’re going to need to speak the truth—and to show our true faces.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Elizabeth! We NEED to be hearing this, and saying it to our sisters daily. Beautifully, powerfully written.