[The graphic consists of a lilac background with four rows of cartoon-like pictures, four pictures to a row. A figure of a woman in white pants stands in front of one of the pictures, blocking it from view. Each picture has a word at the top. The pictures read Beauty, Skinny, Sexy, Fit, Hot Mama, Smart, Fine, Charm, Spirit, Dazzle, !, Adorn, Lust, Cute, and Attract. The woman is holding a magazine. The front cover reads Beauty. The back cover reads You Need This! Buy it with a picture of a cosmetic applicator between the first and second sentences. The text at the top of the graphic reads: Cathy Thorne. Copyright www.everydaypeople.cartoons.com. The text at the bottom of the graphic reads I don’t know why, but sometimes I don’t feel all that good about myself.]
I’ve only just begun to think about, talk about, and write about aging. I’ve avoided the subject for some time, because like the woman in the graphic, I sometimes don’t feel all that good about my body.
Most people, I think, would respond by saying: Of course you don’t feel good about your body. That’s natural. Aging sucks.
But does it?
Or have we been taught to believe that aging sucks by a “beauty industry” that, in addition to hammering away at us with the words in the graphic, deluges us with articles like Reverse the Signs of Aging, Top 7 Tips to Prevent and Repair Aging, How to Fight Forehead Wrinkles, 4 Ways to Treat Sagging Breasts, and 3 Solutions for Sagging Skin. Even though aging is just what bodies do, the beauty industry would have us believe that aging sucks so badly that we have to go to perpetual war against it.
Most people take it for granted that the beauty industry is right. But whenever I hear someone say that something entirely natural to the human body sucks, I stop a moment and question whether I’m looking at a social construct – whether someone, somewhere has assigned meaning to the human condition and made their interpretation look essential to humanity itself.
Sometimes, things do suck. Severe pain sucks. Losing a loved one sucks. Being a victim of violence sucks. But not everything you don’t like actually sucks. Sometimes, you’re just entering a story that isn’t yours and That Sucks are the only words available. At that point, you’ve entered a narrative wasteland. There are no words for your experience except negative ones, and so you start to describe yourself with them. (That sucks, by the way). And everyone around you tells you that it’s entirely natural to use those words, because they’re stuck in the same story. And then you start believing it.
So I poke fun at the lines around my throat, and I get snarky about my facial hair, and I joke about my sagging boobs, but none of the words quite fit. The words aren’t entirely wrong, but they feel too much like someone else’s story and not my own. I’ve been wondering lately about this lack of fit. I’ve been writing about disability as a physical, social, and political condition for nearly five years, and so much of the aging process includes the body becoming disabled that one would think I could find the words to describe it.
But I find it easier to talk about disability, because so much has been written about disability as a social construct that I can find a plethora of words that make sense and that reflect my experience. I don’t have to depend upon mainstream words like pity, suffering, tragedy, charity, and inspiration. I don’t have to enter into the That Sucks narrative. I have a discourse with which to talk about disability from the inside: as a political condition, as a civil rights issue, as a marker of identity, as part of the diversity of human physicality.
But where are the words for aging? Where is the alternative political and social discourse? It’s difficult to find it. In the absence of that discourse, I’m left with a mainstream rhetoric that demeans the aging body by battering it with other forms of oppression: sexism, classism, and ableism. Consider the following cartoon:
[The graphic consists of two frames. In each frame, a man is standing on the left and a woman is standing on the right, with a sign that resembles the logo for the London Underground between them. The sign consists of a red circle with a line through it on a white background. The man is white and looks to be in his 30s, with a crew cut; he is wearing a white T-shirt that reads Show me yer tits, a pair of blue jeans, and a pair of black work boots with yellow laces. He has a tattoo on his left arm. The woman is white and elderly, with white hair, glasses, a green coat, and red shoes; behind her is a red plaid shopping cart. They are standing on a brick sidewalk next to a yellow line on the pavement. Both frames are exactly the same except that in the second photo, the woman is holding up the hem of her coat to reveal her breasts, which are hanging down in front of her thighs. The text at the bottom reads FunnyChill.com.]
There is so much going on in this cartoon. First, of course, is the sexism of demanding that women bare their breasts for the owner of the T-shirt. There is also a fair bit of classism going on, as the man with the T-shirt has been drawn to look working-class with his crew-cut, tattoo, and work boots. The punch line, of course, is that the elderly woman accedes to the T-shirt’s demand and that her breasts sag almost to her knees. The humor of the cartoon is that the elderly woman is not considered sexual, her breasts are not considered beautiful, and the man was not asking to see them. In other words, he got more than he bargained for – and what he got was ugly.
Ha ha ha.
I know, I know. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves. The problem is, I don’t think that person who made the cartoon is an elderly women with sagging breasts. She’s being laughed at, not with.
And then, to add to the hatred of our bodies, the discourse places ableist rhetoric and aging together. Here’s an example in which the fear and loathing of disability is deeply woven into a fear and loathing of aging:
[The graphic shows The Cat in the Hat, on the left, wearing a tall red and white striped hat and a red bow tie. On the right, the text reads:
“The Cat In The Hat On Aging
I cannot see
I cannot pee
I cannot chew
I cannot screw
Oh, my God, what can I do?
My memory shrinks
My hearings stinks
No sense of smell
I look like hell
My mood is bad – can you tell?
My body’s drooping
Have trouble pooping
The Golden Years have come at last
The Golden Years can kiss my ass”]
What strikes me about the text is the horror of disability that it expresses. None of the physical conditions that it lists are particular to old age. Lots of people can’t see, can’t hear, can’t pee without a catheter, need help with bowel evacuation, can’t chew, and so forth. It happens every day. My sense is that the person who wrote these words was struggling with his Temporarily Able-Bodied status coming to an end and decided to get angry at his body.
Is that what I’m supposed to do? Get angry at my body? Laugh at my boobs? Decry my hearing loss? Berate myself over the nerve impingement in my hip? Bemoan the fact that I don’t have the energy to burn I once did?
That’s the message I’m getting.
I tend to shy away from words that make me feel that I’m in conflict with myself, and when I use them, I’m aware that I have a problem that needs resolving. The bottom line is that I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that I’m supposed to be at war with my body. In fact, I have told my husband that if die before him, I will haunt him from the grave if he pens an obituary that states that I died after “a long and courageous battle” with anything.
No. I’ve been disabled all my life, but my body is not my adversary and I’m not particularly happy with the message that I’m supposed feel that it is.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I’m not sure how to change the way I talk and think about aging. But it’s a subject that I hope that people will begin to discuss.
[Headline image: The photograph, which was taken from the top down, shows a hand grasping the black top of a red cane. Below are visible the person’s legs, beige khaki pants, and red Converse high tops. The person is standing on a beige carpet. Photograph by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.]