Wednesday, November 3, 2010

So I'm a Liar

I lie about my age.  Actually, I’m not even ashamed of it, nor do I tell you this the slightest bit apologetically.  As a matter of fact, as a Southern woman I have always felt it was both my privilege and my obligation to lie about three things:  my weight, my dress size and my age.  All three of these descriptors are loaded with such stereotypes that only a woman’s husband and closest friends should know the truth about any of them.  

While most people still respect the personal nature of dress size and weight, for much of the population, age seems to have fallen out of protected status, along with the use of polite niceties such as, “please” and “thank you.”  Privacy surrounding a person’s age in popular culture these days is often considered outdated to which I am truly baffled because I, personally, am very offended when someone asks my age.  Because for what purpose is the question asked?  Those who advocate prying about someone’s age do so under the rubric that it’s in order to learn about you.  Well, what does knowing a person’s age tell you that’s actually useful and not an arbitrary basis for evaluation, comparison, pigeonholing or cataloging?  Am I right?  If someone wants to learn about me then I insist they do it the old fashioned way:   by getting to know me.  By asking questions that actually might yield some real information about me, like what I like to do, what books I like to read, what music I enjoy, whether I like to travel and where or anyone of thousands of more enlightening questions.  Don’t have time for that?  Then we probably don’t have time to become friends anyway.

The funny thing to me is that I’m not supposed to be offended when someone asks and actually, they become offended when I either tell them that I don’t tell people my age or better yet, ask them why they want to know, advising that “Just curious”  is not a good enough reason.  I equate it with the same level of intrusiveness as asking me how much money I make, or for that matter, asking me whether or not I’d had a bowel movement that day…even if it is just out of curiosity, it’s inappropriate.
Why am I so touchy about it you ask?  And I ask you to consider what conclusions you’ve already come to?  That I’m a bitter old woman?  Guess what?  I’m not old.  In fact, I still get carded at the liquor store and in bars from time to time.  My attitude runs deep and from very early on.  You could say it runs in my family, as both my mother and my sister are ardently opposed to the sharing of their age as well.  To this day, I have no idea how old my mother is and it’s not important for me to know.  You might also say it’s a product of cultural traditions, going way back to Southern Belle’s of old.  In traditional Southern etiquette, asking someone’s age has always been considered extremely rude.
But there’s more.  I have actually experienced social restraints and prejudices surrounding age from a lot of different viewpoints.  For example, I was on my own at the age of 16 for reasons I won’t go into here, and trying to find honest work to support myself was just about impossible.  Because of challenging life circumstances I had been forced to grow up much faster than most of my peers yet I was considered too young for jobs that carried any weight of responsibility, which were the only ones that might possibly pay enough to support a gal.  This created more “character building” situations, stretching me further outside of any traditional mold so that by the time I was 20, if you asked me how old I was the conclusions you drew from that information would be so far from who I actually was to the point that those conclusions really told you nothing about me.  I’ve met quite a few other people where this would also be true for them.   As I continue through life I encounter the prejudice in an ever broadening scope.  “Too young to understand.”  “Old enough to know better.”  “Old for my years.” “Immature for my age.” 
There’s a term for this and it may surprise you to have it applied in this circumstance, it’s called “Ageism.”  I know.  It’s usually applied to the elderly, but ageism is much more prevalent and it’s tendrils more broad.   As women, we’re confronted daily with the ageist unspoken “expiration date” such that women in their twenties are getting botox and chemical peels and women over their twenties have to fight through feelings of inadequacy when they are no longer considered young enough (by some) to portray the leading lady role.  Bosh and Bullocks!
I’m reminded of a scene from a movie called, “Fried Green Tomatoes” where the heroine, played by talented actress, Kathy Bates, is a middle aged woman fighting for her self-worth in a world that would tell her she’s passed her prime.  While looking for a parking space in a crowded grocery store parking lot she spies a car backing up and with a sigh of relief, she waits patiently for the car to back up.  As the car begins to move away a souped-up convertible Volkswagon beetle zooms in and steals the spot right in front of her.  Outraged, she yells out her window that she was waiting for that spot.  She was there first!  Two bouncy young girls get out of the beetle laughing, turn to our stressed out heroine and while smacking thier gum, one of the girls says over her shoulder, “Face it, we’re younger and faster.” And then laugh as they head into the store.  Our heroine proceeds to push their car out of the way with her own larger Cadilac and as the girl’s stand outraged, she smiles satisfyingly as she drawls, “Face it girls, I’m older.  I have more insurance.”  To which, be we young or old, all cheered “YES!”  Why should age trap us in roles?  Why is age considered such a negative, so limiting?
Maybe it started with the cultural revolution of the 1960's.  During the heyday of The Beatles, Jim Morrison and rock 'n roll, no self-respecting young person would trust anyone over the age of thirty  Adults were the "establishment." The arbitrary age marker signaled something to be avoided at all costs: growing old. People above the age of thirty were square. Someone age forty and up was an antique. Once you hit sixty, you were practically dead! A person in their sixties in the 1960s would be a white-haired old lady (or old man) consigned to life in a rocking chair.

Of course by the turn of the 21st century, those same baby-boomer teens from the 1960's had grown up, and suddenly they realized that thirty wasn't so old, after all.  People started to question the stereo-types of age and the results have been that sixty year olds these days may be just as likely to take up rock climbing as twenty year olds.  To which I cheer, “YES!” 

Living in Colorado, the land of perpetual youth and man-children, taught me much more about age and ageism.  I had one of my first major lessons when I was in college and I took an avalanche training class.  The class took place on the coldest mornings in Colorado that year, near the top of a dazzling 11,000 foot peak of rock, ice and sun sparkling snow.  The teacher was a beautiful, strong woman…in her 70s.  We trudged up and down that mountain in the thin air all morning and on every climb, that gorgeous woman beat me to the top and seemed to be barely winded.  Meanwhile I was gasping and wretching up breakfast as discreetly as I could to the side.  On a similar note, while snowboarding at ski resorts I’ve yawped with sheer glee following ten-year-old friends as they zig-zagged paths through pine and spruce forest.  I hucked off of cliffs I never would have found on my own and laughed when a tree unexpectedly dropped a branch load of snow on my head when I paused to take in the wildness so deep in the forest with a waxed board letting me float atop chest deep snow.  

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