Don’t You Dare Call Me OLD!

I have never witnessed anything quite like it: the adverse, often combative reactions many older women have to the label of “old woman.” In my classes, “Women and Aging,” when I suggest that we adopt with pride the label “old woman” to counter the negative images of the aging woman, invariably most of the class will adamantly resist–this occurs in spite of my qualification that old doesn’t negate a meaningful life. I’ll get responses to the tune of, “I’m not old! “ or “Don’t call me old!” I get nowhere when I counter with the argument that regarding ourselves as old women reduces the fear of aging both for ourselves and for younger women who look to us as role models.

Don’t call us “old!”

I’ve noticed that it’s not just women of a certain age who are uncomfortable with being called “old,” but the culture at large. A few months ago when I had my car serviced I asked the youngish woman tallying my bill when I should make another appointment. She responded,” Well, you have low mileage and don’t seem to drive a lot so you can wait a bit.” To which I jokingly replied, “Ah, I fit the stereotype of the little old lady who rarely drives.” I was met with an immediate, urgent-sounding response, “Oh, but you’re not old.” I looked at her and said, “But I am. I don’t want to be thought of as other than my true self.” That ended our conversation with discomfort hovering between us.

Another recent exchange happened in the grocery store when I asked the middle-aged male produce worker where I could find Meyer lemons. He smiled and said, “Give me a minute young lady.” Once again, feeling compelled to set the record straight, I replied, “I’m not a young lady. I’m old.” Nervously he came back, “No, you’re not. You don’t look old.”

A woman comfortable with being old.

And so it goes, it seems that it’s not just older women with a knee jerk reaction to the word “old,” but everyone I encounter! What does this say about our culture? It suggests that the concept of an old person is engrained in our psyches as a state to be avoided at all costs. What a loss. If we can’t recognize old people and their valuable contributions as elders, then we’re writing off an important and vital resource. Men come off a little better. We value the elder statesmen. Where’s the elder stateswoman?

Fortunately there are cultures that don’t share our obsession with youth. Native Americans have a long tradition of revering the wisdom of both old women and men. Older friends who have traveled to Japan describe their delight at being bowed before in appreciation of their age.

A content old Japanese woman reflecting a culture that reveres the old.

In owning “old lady,” I also want to distill the stereotype of having one foot in the grave. I can be old and still be full of creative energy. My zest for life is very much intact, maybe even fuller because my life experience has allowed me to eliminate many of the obstacles of my younger self. Look out world, there’s a dangerous OLD WOMAN in your midst!

This post originally appeared on WOW blog on April 20, 2016.

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