Ursula was framed

Growing older is highly underrated, especially for women.

I’m not that old right now—just 33—but I didn’t expect my 30s to be as good as they are. I didn’t exactly dread them, but I did approach them with a certain determination and an increasingly well-honed resistant consciousness. I know that the pop culture philosophy of female aging, as stated in countless Oil of Olay ads, is “I’m not growing old gracefully; I’m going to fight it every step of the way,” and even in my early 20s I knew that this philosophy was bullshit. So I went into my 30s defiantly ready to appreciate growing older.

Well, as it turns out, growing older is wonderful—particularly as a woman. I feel more like an adult—I'm hitting my stride in my career, and I’m developing a sense of myself as an authority figure. When I have something to say, I’m increasingly confident that it’s worth saying and that people will listen. I worry less about how I look. More and more I know what I want and how to ask for it. And, although it pains me a bit to say this in a blog read by both my parents, my erotic life is better than it’s ever been. Much better than it was in my 20s. Better than it’s been since high school.

And yet our culture barrages women with messages that aging is the worst thing that can happen to us, so that we’re encouraged to buy expensive products and even subject ourselves to surgery to pretend that we aren’t getting older. Sean Connery is still a sex object even as a great-grandfather, but Gretta Van Sustern has to have some work done to continue being a viable newscaster. Now this imperative is stretching even to our genitalia. A friend sent me a recent article from the New York Times Magazine, “Our Vaginas, Ourselves,” which discusses the burgeoning phenomenon of vaginal surgery—surgery to make a woman’s labia smaller, or to tighten the vaginal opening or even recreate a hymen. As the author, Daphne Merkin, notes disgustedly, “sagging groin skin and limp labia are going the way of crooked noses and post-nursing breasts.”

The reason for this, of course, is that growing older often means growing more powerful, and while our culture eroticizes male power, it’s suspicious of power in women. Media scholar Susan Douglas makes the point that the only really powerful women in the classic Disney movies are the evil women, the evil stepmothers, Maleficent, Ursula; these are our major icons of powerful adult womanhood.

What would happen if we celebrated—and even eroticized—the adult female body? What if we started seeing the post-30s stomach pooch, graying hair, bags under the eyes, and—for god’s sake!—the genitalia of a grown woman as sexy rather than suspect?


Kenneth said...

What about the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio? I love the Blue Fairy.

Kevin O'Mara said...

What would happen if we celebrated—and even eroticized—the adult female body? What if we started seeing the post-30s stomach pooch, graying hair, bags under the eyes, and—for god’s sake!—the genitalia of a grown woman as sexy rather than suspect?

Well, my brain is not sufficiently powered-up at this moment after a long day, so I apologize if the following comment isn't perfect. It is my understanding that men have always been and will always be attracted to the youngest possible mate. Since the beginning of peoplehood it's been in the man's best interest to mate with the woman most likely to survive childbirth and keep his genetic material alive, yes? And those most likely to do so are young and in good health.

I wholeheartedly agree that women of all ages should be eroticized. It may even be possible to create a positive and effective social campaign marking or marketing the older woman as the new sexy. I just doubt it possible to counteract millions of years of evolution. The young woman will always turn the man's head.

While we're at it (this is the part where the joking commences) we need to eroticize the male portly, pasty, and socially-inept specimen. If we no longer need youth and non-sagging parts to be the sex standard in women then by all means let's do away with the big burly brawling food-producing hunter-assgrabber. And by "do away with" I mean we should start killing frat boys and gym rats and roasting them on spits over pit fires.

Walter said...

i'm a fan of anthropological/evolutionary readings, but here's a cute question that i can come up with about them:

when's the last time you were talking to someone, say, on the street, and they suddenly reached out and popped a passing insect into thier mouth? i bet our ancestors would have done that, but we don't.

we choose to not enact our evolutionary history that way, opting instead for dining perhaps three times a day around a table with utensils in hand.

i guess what i'm saying is that we sidestep so much of our evolutionary training through the use of a constructed culture--hence, can't we just as well construct a more egalitarian culture around aging women?

Anonymous said...

Yea Alison

My eyes, my eyes... I can't read such things. I shall remain blissfully ignorant of the obviously normal and healthy development of my children.

I must comment from the point of view of an "older" (not that old) male in this society that is in love with an "older" (not that old) woman.

First, I find "younger" women a bit (pardon this word) flighty (as maybe they should be)... I tend to think they lack the richness and depth that experience can give someone.

Second, and probably more important, I tend to see "younger" women as someones daugther. Someone who was nurtured as they took their first step, cut their first tooth, wore their party dresses, had their first boyfriend (boys are scum), learned to drive a stick shift (easy with the clutch...easy with the clutch) and grew into their own person with their own life. So, in my mind to think of them in another way would be kind of "EEEYYUUUWW". But, maybe that's just me.

Just another point of view to contrast with the obviously hormonally supercharged males that normally read this blog.

I did pretty good typing this with my eyes closed.

The Dad

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in our society I think the "erotized" would turn into "fetishized." Being a young woman who, by virtue of being young and fitting somewhere into the current societal beauty standard, feels constantly stuck in the male gaze, I can say I look forward to aging because I will be able to find myself beautiful without having to deal with all the shit I get now every time I walk down the street. I do agree that society needs to give up its war against older women, but I wonder if eroticizing older women is the solution. Maybe expanding the definition of attractive to contain more than just younger women and then learning to respect all women as sexual beings who do not exist solely for the pleasure of men would be a start.

Jamie H.

ps-sorry for super-long sentences. I've only had one cup of coffee at this point.

Miss Meghann said...

I'm running late to my EVER ENTHRALLING 18th c. Restoration Drama class, but I found this link and had to share.

OH, if only I had found it 24 hours ago...


Miss Meghann said...

PS: I didn't get to read your entry yet because I'm running around in a towel :) BUT I WILL

PPS: Jamie Huff is automatically smarter than me.

Charlie said...

Love the post, Alison, but does anyone find it funny and strangely appropriate that the "Our Vaginas, Ourselves" author has the last name of Merkin? And she's talking about the alteration of genital appearance? Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I attended a lecture yesterday by a leading scholar on gender discrimination in the labor market [Becky Pettit, U. of Washington]. Her findings show that males will only opt for parental leave if it becomes a 'use it or loose it' policy, while women generally will choose to exit the labor market to raise children. In fact, a fairly high correlation exists between the length of paid parental leave and male-female wage gap. E.g., the gap in male-female employment rises as a country's length of parental leave increases.

Oddly enough, I find this research parallel to what Allison is discussing. Women have a monolopy among genders in childbirth, but. to paraphrase the character Ted Kramer, "Women have no monopoly on parenting." In most societies, women are, nevertheless, given the responsibility in household production and in the bearing and raising of children. Their status in the labor market and in society is contingent and not in the core. This seems to hold true for almost every advanced [at least, in terms of technology] society I know of.

Its not that women having vaginal surgeries or raising parents seems wrong to me, but its more the fact of the context that it occurs in. Economies of scale can make one parter staying at home and one partner working an efficient outcome... What bothers me is the fact that, given any female's particular human capital and labor market skills, she is 'predisposed' to stay at home. Or, that men first choose home OR career instead of a pair of equals making a decision.

I find it highly amusing that an extremely progressive economist I know [who is an editor of Feminist Economics AND a leading theorist on family economics] is known for only working with very attractive female grad students. He may preach equality/parity in labor markets, but his personal 'tastes' dictate otherwise. Modern patriarchal society seems to preach a very similiar double-standard-- you women are equal to us men, but please clean the home while I'm away, look pretty to me, and don't take a job UNLESS it will cover the cost of childcare.

Some part of me thinks lady liberty would be 1) ignored if clothed and 2) sent away very quickly if naked and over 50.

Anonymous Doctor of Society

christiemckaskle said...

At age 41 I now enjoy a feeling of being able to shine without being quite so "shined at," ie, scrutinized under spotlights of attention that Jamie H describes. (Both of my daughters are painfully aware of being evaluated - one of them, when much younger, asked me fearfully if people were trying to read her mind. It took me a while to realize this was her experience of being gawked at.) I supposed I fall in the category of people who like the idea of celebrating becoming older without eroticizing it. (My post-nursing breasts would like some privacy, for pete's sake! Not because they're not beautiful, but just because they're so bored with it all!)

What I wonder is this. Even when we do evolve to the point that all beauty truly is appreciated without having to be capitalized on...will people who pay for self-mutilation be happier with themselves/ourselves, or would we just continue to find other ways to find ourselves not quite up to standard?
P.S. I'm sure the Blue Fairy is no older than 26!

Walter said...

i've never even seen the movie pinocchio, but i did go to a lecture he gave once. he spoke of having NO genitals at all--just a hard leather patch where his pieces were supposed to be. (he also refused to address any symbolism that might be found in his growing nose.)
i left after he started to sing a duet with former batman, adam west.

Eliza McGraw said...

Limp labia?

Kevin O'Mara said...

Sorry to come back to the party so late - I forgot about this discussion in the past couple hectic days.

Walter sez:
when's the last time you were talking to someone, say, on the street, and they suddenly reached out and popped a passing insect into thier mouth? i bet our ancestors would have done that, but we don't.

we choose to not enact our evolutionary history that way, opting instead for dining perhaps three times a day around a table with utensils in hand.

I feel that's an overcomplication of the issue, and indeed a 'cutesy' question. It can be boiled down to this:

Our ancestors got hungry and ate the closest nourishment at hand.

We get hungry and eat the closest nourishment at hand.

Just because they ate bugs and we eat Hot Pockets doesn't change the parallel. We also eat things like cotton candy and drink things like coffee - but cotton candy and coffee won't sustain you indefinitely. Likewise we may one day choose to revere and worship the elder female, but we had best not do so at the exclusion of the younger.

... though that comment makes it sound like I think ladies go through menopause at 30, which ain't right.

Let me drink more coffee and come back and see if I can say anything more insightful (note: don't hold your breath on that one).

Maig said...

I totally agree.
Although I am still in my 20's I've had many conversations about this subject with my kick-ass older female mentors. I look forward to growing into an amazing and confident and powerful woman...even sexily saggy. It's really unsettling how a grown woman's body isn't celebrated as sexy but more as "has been." Unsettling not just because we are over looking so many terrific and sexy grown women but how unfortunate that is for our youthful daughters and their self image...which is a whole other blog entry.

christiemckaskle said...

I'm suggesting, though, that when you have a handle on direct power as an older woman, having other people (especially people you don't know) consider you sexy is just not interesting anymore.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming in late on this one, so the conversation may have moved on, but those evolutionary biology interpretations you mention, Kevin, are also ones that don't hold up under much scrutiny. The corollary to it is that younger women are "supposed" to be attracted to older men who represent status and secruity...But

How then do we explain the Demi Moore phenomenon? Or the trope of the "bad boy" or ill-fated lover who represents anything other than security and economic well being and is lusted after down the centuries? And, biologically, sperm age just like eggs do. If our genetic conditioning were based around the idea that older men were always attracted to younger women for their reproductive vim, doesn't the fact that older sperm are more likely to cause genetic mutations, miscarriages, or to fitz out more often than not, counteract this theory? This theory after all, places women at the center of reproduction once again, without recognizing that it takes two, as it were, to tango.

Walter said...

to kevin re: "closest nourishment at hand."

i heartily disagree. i hardly call getting in your car, going to the grocery store, buying packaged food goods, returning to the house, preparing food goods with electricity (or gas, if you're cool), putting them on a plate and eating them with tools as "closest nourishment at hand."

what i'm addressing is two-fold: the willingness to take part in the above scenario would not only seem to point away from following "millions of years of evolutionary training," but also seem to imply that we are very willing to abjure to cultural constructions.

hence, i don't put that much stock in the evolutinary survival training, and even if i did, the evidence pointing to our willingness to follow current cultural models means that we can probably construct any "truth" we want to, regardless of that training. "culture over instincts."

in short: do you find a tweleve year old girl to be a viable sex object? your ancestor probably would have. you, probably, do not. your cultural training forbids it. i think we can expand that training BY CHOICE.

what CHOICES do we make as far as sexualizing women of varying ages?

(non-theoretical moment of truth: i've found that as i've gotten older the window of women i find "viable" has gotten scarily bigger. at nineteen this was limited to 18-21 year olds. at 37...well, it scares me...something larger than "cultural training" seems to be at work in me. that said, i do find i have a limit--and that limit is not defined by "sexual viability." i don't know what has shaped that limit, but i don't think it is evolutionary training.)