Just before the fall semester of my freshman year, a friend of mine and I happened to witness the sight of someone who could not avoid the public scrutiny of the people around her. She was an older woman, around 50 or 60, with heavy make-up (think thick rouge lipstick and lots of foundation); short, platinum blond hair; and a bright blue top that fell just under her breasts, exposing the weight of her stomach which sagged over her pants. And to top that off, she stepped into the sights of the ever-so-student-populated Starbucks.
As much as we might try not to judge others and neutralize our opinions, it was clear that one particular opinion was silently making its rounds among the people who had caught sight of her. She was a woman who was not appropriately dressed for her age, and her physical appearance projected a certain stereotypical image of someone who was still trying to live out the youth that had passed her.
I don’t mean to ridicule this woman, but to question the way I perceived her when I first saw her walk in. Without thinking, I judged her based on societal standards of how a woman of her age should present herself in public. It was only because she was a much older woman that everything about her physical appearance caught bystanders off-guard.
To expand on this idea, picture this: in your twenties you graduate from school, get a job, make money, and become fully independent from your parents. In your thirties, you should have a steady job with a steady income, be thinking about marriage (or be married already), and have established a certain identity and place for yourself in this world. By the time you reach your forties and fifties, you are likely to have a family of your own and be settled down so that you can take care of your children and watch them grow up. In your sixties you look forward to grandchildren; and retirement and your seventies, eighties, nineties, and maybe even hundreds is when you could be the grandmother in that long, flowery dress or the grandfather in tweed blazers taking afternoon walks in the park. How about that for a nice life template?
It is precisely because of these societal standards and expectations that such a vast distinction has been made between growing up and growing old. Suddenly the former refers to life that you can only live in your twenties, while the latter refers to anything left over after that. It’s hard to miss with all the TV commercials advertising Olay cream that will take away the wrinkles that make you old; billboards obnoxiously claiming how 40 is the new 20 when all industries increasingly value youth; the workforce that demands that you build your credentials and profiles when you are young so that you can make something of yourself by the time you hit thirty.
Now, your twenties are permanently immortalized as the years when you can live young, wild, and free; from 30 onward, everything is geared toward settling down. This is the system that we follow for conducting our lives, and the very system which I subconsciously submitted to when I made my judgements about that woman. Did I feel guilty about my judgement of her? I probably should have – in judging her, I submitted myself to this ageist hierarchy; she did not.