Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don't you be calling me adorable: A reflection on ageism

These are times of calling people on their shit. So I’m going to call out ageism, and more specifically that insidious kind I think of as “compliment-based ageism,” which I’m now experiencing in my own life.

Some recent examples: I scrambled up the rock at my favourite Upper Thetis swimming hole a few days ago and a woman watching me from the top told me what a good climber I was. When travelling, my partner Paul and I notice that younger travellers have taken to praising us as “inspiring.” Last night as I was cycling up a hill coming home from work, a woman walking past called out, “Good for you!”

Good for me? I’ve ridden that hill I don’t know how many times, with nobody applauding my tenacity. I’ve scrambled up those rocks for almost 30 years, and nobody’s ever called me a good climber before. I’m still travelling the way I’ve always travelled, which did not attract attention as inspirational until recently.

What’s changed? I passed some invisible line where people started to see me as old. It started in the runup to turning 60, so the last couple of years. Maybe the neck wrinkles got to be too much, the thicker torso – I don’t know, but it was like somebody hung a “Plucky old lady!” sign on my back, and all of a sudden everything got weird.

We think of ageism as affecting employment and how we’re viewed as workers, and you’ll get no argument from me about that. But having people say kind things about you that are nonetheless distinctly ageist is really no better. Those kind words lay the foundation for a damaging belief: That people become less able, less engaged, less interested in the world as they age, and thus we should celebrate the rare older person who is the exception proving the rule.

You might be thinking, “Come on, Jody, now you’re going to crab at people for saying nice things, too?” Yeah, I guess I am. I’d make the case that they’re not actually saying nice things. What their comments make me feel like is that they’re observing me as spectacle - an aging woman acting against type, like a dancing bear. It’s not a good feeling.

I posted a photo on Facebook of Paul and me at an event on behalf of sex workers’ rights a few months back, and somebody called us “adorable.” I took it like a blow.

Adorable is a cute word for babies and toddlers, but for someone who’s still very much engaged in trying to change the world, it’s a kick in the pants. Does anybody change the world by being adorable? I don’t think so. Adorable is toothless and dear - a sweet old geezer who nobody needs to listen to anymore, an endearing example of a harmless oldster looking “cool” by standing up for edgy causes.

(Nobody has yet used “feisty” to my face so far, another old-person-specific word, but I’m bracing for that to happen as the years accumulate. That first feisty is going to be grim.)

There is an easy solution here: Cut it out. People in this modern day know how to catch themselves on thoughts relevant to all those “isms” that are (rightly) no longer tolerated. Ageism has been on the list for quite some time, but we clearly need more work on the sneaky kind that wears a friendly face.

Please, allow me to help.

For one, don’t ever tell anyone they look good for their age. In fact, strike “for your age” right out of your vocabulary. If they look good, just say that, and say it to other people of any age if they look good as well.

Any compliment that ends with “for your age” is both a back-handed insult to the person receiving it (“Wow, I’d expected you to look like a wreck at your advanced years!”) and a direct insult to anyone in the maligned age group used for comparison. Also, stop if you hear yourself telling a story and saying something like, “So then some grandma type comes along and says…”

Compliment people for what they do, of course, as you might at any age. But if the only thing striking is that they’re old doing a “young” thing, either ignore them entirely like you would anyone else or just give a friendly nod and say something neutral, like, “That’s quite the hill, isn’t it?”

Don’t presume to know what old people are like. Isn’t that the principle underlying every “ism”? We have visible differences, but they don’t explain the person within. We work to train ourselves not to “see” a person’s exterior in matters of race, religion and gender; we need to think the same way when looking at older people. I am still the same person I always was – it’s YOU who think me different, and for no reason other than my appearance.

If you are older yourself, don’t allow words of self-denigration to come out of your mouth. Every time you attribute anything to growing old – aching joints, inability to do a somersault, puzzlement at all this new-fangled technology that the kids are using these days – you confirm the cultural belief that older people are doomed to become useless (albeit adorable) shells of the vigorous, competent people they once were.

Joints can ache at any age. I was never good at somersaults. We must not let the stigmatizing view of older people – powerless, ineffectual, weak, a burden - colour how we view ourselves.

So if you compliment me on my form one day as I cycle past and you think you hear a muttered “Fuck off!” in response, at least now you know where it’s coming from. Just chalk it up to me being feisty.


Unknown said...

Jody, this is an excellent piece - and by someone at your age! Sorry, I couldn't resist :) Seriously, I totally enjoyed your blog and as a mature woman, I appreciate that you are taking on yet another aspect of ageism. It is one of my pet crusades to challenge that form of discrimination. You would not believe the ugly ageist comments that have been said to me - and always by other women! I have written a lot about ageism and in fact, our new Facebook page, 'UnRetired Life', is all about changing the conversation about ageing. Please join our Facebook page. In the meantime, I am sharing your insightful blog on our Facebook page. ------------- Doreen Gee

Bill Amos said...

What I hate is everyone talking over you in meetings as if nothing you have to say is worthwhile. People start to “tolerate” you hanging around instead of really engaging with you. We are not invisible!

Finner said...

Hi Bill. Sorry can't resist but you mean like what it feels like to be a woman most of the time?
My pet peeve is being called "Dear".
Piss Off. I am not your dear!

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I was going to suggest further endearing yourself to the nit-wits we share our planet with by telling them to go fuck themselves but It beat me to the punch. It will probably only get you called a feisty old bitch any how!

Unknown said...

As a stronger than average female, I do find it exasperating when carrying something heavy, people rush up and try to take it from me or ask me if it isn't too much. If it were too much for me, I wouldn't lift it. Sometimes I feel as though society thinks that being in my late 70s means I'm no longer capable either physically or mentally.

Andrea said...

I don't like "dear" either, however I notice that it is usually spoken by an older women. I think there is an age where that was their cultural word, perhaps even when they wrte younger dear was said a lot. However, everyone can be educated. Perhaps it was a demeaning word in those times too

Joan said...

Love this! Thank you! Years ago, I stopped telling people how old I am! At a certain age, I started counting backward!! Can’t wait to be two again!!

e.a.f. said...

came upon this post a little after the fact. Loved it. Yes, they do get condescending when you age. As my sister pointed out, no one had ever called her "dear" until she was 65. Now it maybe because they forgot her name, but if they ever call me that, I'll explain I consider that a much worse term than being referred to as a bitch.

there is nothing special about continuing to do what you have always done. Its not as if they're congratulating you for eating, but perhaps that day will also come. *Its all ageism. We hide the aged away, they live in retirement communities, those with illnesses go to extended care, etc.

I like the idea of just telling them to fuck off. I'm 69, I'm not dead, I'm not infirm.