A couple of years ago, I was witness to an awkward faux pas on the part of a friend of mine. Two women were in a shop with a baby, one of them clearly the mother. I’m not sure why, but my friend asked the other woman – who could have been anyone in the world – if she was the child’s grandmother. The space became hushed as the moment was engulfed by a collective shock. How could my friend have the audacity to ask such a question! It was obvious that the woman was offended. However, she answered with grace, and while smiling rather defiantly, said “I’m just a friend.” In a panic, my friend backpedalled, stating “No, I didn’t mean you look old, I mean you look like you really love the baby!” But the damage was done: the woman had been publicly cast into the shameful realm of old lady. Later on, as I was biking home, I reflected: why was it so terrible that my friend thought the woman was a grandmother? I imagined an alternate ending with the woman reacting to my friend’s question with a beaming smile, saying with pride, “Why yes, I am the grandmother!” Why is this not the case?
You may have heard the term ‘ageism’ tossed around here and there, but I don’t think mainstream society realizes the breadth of ageism or the repercussions of institutionalized and normative assumptions about age. The term was first coined by anti-ageist activist Dr. Robert Butler in 1968, with the intention of bringing issues of inequality stemming from ageist beliefs and practices to the forefront of public scrutiny. Dr. Butler describes people’s propensity to be ageist as emerging from a natural fear of bodily deterioration, dementia, and increasing dependency.1 Many people fear ageing because they believe that it promises a decline in memory, sexuality, mobility, and an increase in vulnerability and age-related diseases. In addition, the idea that old people become useless and forgotten can evoke terror, because we fear that we will inevitably become useless and forgotten one day. We therefore fervently hope that this never happens to us, and regard with internalized fear, pity, and sometimes repulsion, those to whom age has not been kind.
Normative understandings of age see our life as a series of definitive stages, each characterized by common assumptions of development. Integral to these stages is the dichotomy of dependency versus independence. Western ideas of life stages see that physical and financial independence are markers of success to be strived for, and are attributes you initially gain as you become an adult, and then often lose as you get older.2 Because having a command of your body and being economically productive are so valued in our society, those who have these things occupy that privileged centre; they are esteemed and looked up to. Therefore, of all the stages, ranging from infanthood to childhood, adolescence to young adult, adulthood, and then becoming elderly, adulthood is the coveted stage. This is because people expect and look forward to the independence, both physically and financially, of adulthood. Importantly, it is during adulthood where people are seen as ideally stable, complete, competent, rational, mature, educated, independent, virile, and strong.2 Conversely, when we are young, there is the expectation that we will be immature, underdeveloped, and by default are not expected to have independence or competency at life. On the other end of the spectrum, when we become old, there exists a misconceived assumption that by nature of our bodies and minds deteriorating, we naturally lose those qualities so valued that we previously had during adulthood.
There are a multitude of negative outcomes stemming from ageist beliefs and practices. For example, because mainstream ideas about adulthood – the competent, independent adult – are so normative, they are overrepresented in media, as only 2% of television and movie characters are 65+, and only 1/3 of those are women.1 Furthermore, within that miniscule amount of representation, most elderly people are depicted as one-dimensional, inaccurate stereotypes such as the crotchety old man, the sweet old granny, the senile fool, the miser, or the demented vegetable who has no idea what is going on. The result is that our vision of what it means to grow old is not only incredibly narrow and misguided, it is also quite bleak. No wonder many people are terrified of becoming old. Stereotypical representations send the totalizing message that “older people are incompetent, lack self-sufficiency, and are only worthy of contempt or pity.”2 As Maggie Kuhn of Grey Panthers explains, “Only the newest model is desirable. The old are condemned to obsolescence; left to rot like wrinkled babies in glorified playpens — forced to succumb to a trivial, purposeless waste of their years and their time.” Even though it is true that our bodies will breakdown as we age, it is ageist to assume that elderly people are reduced versions of their former robust selves. A frail body does not mean a less worthwhile, interesting, or valuable person.
Alongside media representations, there are also many forms of institutionalized ageism:1
- Age discrimination in emergency rescue services: response teams are more likely to search for left-behind pets than abandoned elderly
- Age discrimination in the workplace means decreased employment opportunities for older people
- Age discrimination in marketing often manifests as anti-aging products which define ageing as negative and undesirable
- Millions of elderly people aged 65+ have been injured, exploited, or mistreated by those they trust
- Millions of elderly are victims of financial exploitation, with little to no repercussions as most cases go unreported
To combat ageism, we need more than trendy marketing campaigns rooted in consumption-defined notions of identity such as the Dove Pro-Age campaign, which peddles photo-shopped images of ‘elderly’ women, passing Dove off as inclusive and progressive. Be warned: do not trust capitalism to initiate and set the standard for our critical thinking. A how-to guide to tackling ageism sounds like a really great PhD thesis that I would love to read, but for now I will offer my modest contribution to the cause: I propose that we need a plethora of honest, diverse, and widespread representations of real people at all ages. The effect will be a balanced vision of what it means to be a person, at all stages of life. Ideally we will come to see age as inconsequential, instead focusing on the person, not the number.
Here are some amazing representations of interesting and inspirational people who just so happen to be getting older:
The feisty and philanthropic Italian Giuseppe Inserra defies ageism with his robust and inspiring lifestyle. I admire that he has never stopped learning new skills, such as roller skating for the first time in his 50s. I am also warmed by his palpable love of building relationships and making other peoples’ lives better. His words to live by: “When you put positive things in your mind, everything turns in the right direction.”
The blog Advanced Style is a mainstay in the world of fashion blogging. Creator Ari Seth Cohen believes that style advances with age, and has taken on a personal mission of sharing with the internet the most fashionable older people on the streets of New York and abroad. Yes, it is based on the material and external – fashion – but! I argue that so is the rest of the entire world. So it’s only natural that a blog of insanely confident, fashionable people ‘owning it’ would have widespread appeal and accolade. I value Advanced Style as an integral platform for ushering older people into the purview of mainstream society.
And of course, there’s Baddie Winkle – stealing your man since 1928. She is many, many people’s role model, old and young. Unwittingly, she has become a champion for challenging ageism. She represents the antithesis of what is considered fearsome about getting old: she hasn’t withered away into a frail shell of her former youth – a common, yet misguided, mainstream depiction of growing old. However, it’s not that Baddie is ‘acting young’ in a contrived way, it is obvious that she is being unapologetically herself. She’s doing things that are typically viewed as not appropriate for her age, such as wearing bikinis and dancing to rap music, and she’s having more fun than most people while she does it. Baddie Winkle is liked because she contradicts the common fear that growing old means tottering away into oblivion. She is instead dancing her way into the limelight, and actually makes getting older look really fun.
“Of all the self-fulfilling prophecies in our culture, the assumption that ageing means decline and poor health is probably the deadliest”
- Brock, D., Raby, R., & Thomas, M. P. (Eds.). (2012). Power and Everyday Practices.Toronto, Ont.: Nelson Education.