Kicking Agism Language to the Curb


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“You look so good for your age!”

 “I hope I look as good as you when I’m that age!”

“You do not look (insert over 40 number)!”

In response to each of those statements I would smile, giggle, blush and thank the person profusely for such a wonderful compliment. Yippee!  I look goooood!

Wait…What does “for your age” mean? What is (insert over 40 number) supposed to look like?

These compliments were, sort of, not really compliments.They were well-intentioned but I began to feel a bit conflicted about thanking people for these backhanded words of so-called praise and wondered how often I uttered them myself? Was I perpetuating the same sort of antiquated (pardon the pun) thinking about women of a “certain age” (whatever and whenever that is) and contributing to the problem?

I was curious to explore this a bit more; the ideas that we have inherited or perpetuated about ageing being a bad or negative thing and began doing some research on beauty and ageing with a focus on the language used. There was a great article published by the Washington Post in 1987. They reported how standards of beauty were changing and that what was considered beautiful was no longer limited to thin,19 year olds. They quoted Playboy as saying they had recently featured a woman over 50 who was “still photogenic” and the article later stated that there was “a greater tolerance of diversity”. So even while positively framing the more varied definitions of beauty, the qualifiers were still punctuating the underlying ageism. This article was published 33 years ago. Surely things have changed?  

People are living longer thanks to medical breakthroughs and better wellness approaches including diet and exercise programs designed to promote healthier lives.  In 2016 the World Health Organization analysed the results of the World Values Survey and found that older people are not respected with the worst offenders being countries with high incomes. Yeah, that would be us.

“This analysis confirms that ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold about older people,” said John Beard, WHO Director of Ageing and Life Course. “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.

They went on to state that discrimination and negative attitudes around ageing are bad for your health. 

We don’t realize the damage we are doing with cutesy comments about someone being “80 years young” or how we perpetuate through social media and tv/film the negative stereotypes of older people being sickly, frail, forgetful, incapable of using technology, a burden or even downright expendable as was often expressed during this pandemic (with a little ‘Ok Boomer’ added for full obnoxious dismissal). I admit that I am part of the problem too when faced with yet another app designed to make my life easier ( but doesn’t).I am often heard to exclaim that I need a teenager to show me how to use it! 

Thankfully our young people are leading the way challenging the systemic “isms” that have governed us sometimes unknowingly for decades.The body positivity movement looked at the ridiculous beauty norms that advertising and high fashion had fostered over generations and made them take notice. Advertising is more inclusive featuring people of all shapes, sizes, races, genders and, creeping in slowly (because of how old we are) ages. Makeup lines and runways are including more mature women; think Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton and Maye Musk who signed to Covergirl at 69. Grey/silver hair (purposely coloured) was  transformed from dowdy to cool! Things are finally changing, yet most advertising still says anti-ageing…

But we must be careful of labelling all older people the same way and more empathic still that it is perfectly ok if they need a walker, or a hearing aid, or help programming the clock on the microwave. Ageing is not a bad thing, although some of the side effects aren’t so great and I had not planned for the soundtrack of my life to include the variety of moans and groans that I emit each morning as I get out of bed!  

I am an NLP Master Practitioner and was drawn to it because of the linguistic aspect. The words we use can conveniently and easily be categorized as positive or negative, good or bad. We cling to the negative like Kate Winslet did to that bit of timber in Titanic. It’s the fight or flight, survival mode of our brains. Better still before expressing a thought or using those negative words is to ask the question “Is this helpful?” Keeping us alive is a good thing, helping us to live better, happier lives is amazing! Go brain!

I think older women are empowered now to speak up perhaps for the first time, perhaps still speaking up after decades of activism, because our young women are so vigilantly holding us all accountable. And I’m feeling conflicted about using the adjectives older and younger here. This is just the tip of the iceberg!  (Titanic reference #2)

We are seeing progress with beauty products once named anti-ageing now being referred to as renewing or revitalizing which is inclusive and a smart way to make me want to spend my money and try your product. Anti-ageing belittles all that I have been through, it minimizes the stories that carved those wrinkles and deep lines on my face. Why would we be anti that journey? 

So I’ll do my part and be mindful of the words I use and next time you want to give me a sincere compliment, tell me that I look healthy, that my eyes are twinkling, that I have a great smile. (Don’t tell me that I am not dressed appropriately for my age – that’s a whole other story! ) Do tell me that I look great. Plain and simple.

5 Responses

  1. Excellent piece Claire, you’ve highlighted the issue brilliantly. I’m sure people don’t mean to offend when they say it, but like you say beautiful doesn’t have to be a slim, young thing with no blemishes or wrinkles or having to wear glasses lol. Well done

  2. Brilliant … You nailed it sweet, vivacious, adventurous Claire, with twinkling eyes and beautiful smile.
    Although it amazes me that I am the same age as old people, I feel blessed to believe I’m still in my youth. I especially relate to … ” Anti-ageing belittles all that I have been through, it minimizes the stories that carved those wrinkles and deep lines on my face. ”
    Forever & always young at heart … Valerie (Your Tracy’s “JuJu”)

  3. Your talents astound. Well written article for women who care. I’m not being nasty at all. Us older women need our champion. Your words are a reminder of sense and sensitivities. We are wonderful people. We do our best in all situations. We recognise as people. Humans. Warriors.

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