A few months ago, I celebrated my 47th birthday. Honestly, "celebrated" might not be the most accurate word to describe the occasion. It wasn't the number 47 I objected to. Rather, it was its frightening proximity to 50 that had me gnashing my teeth. How could I possibly be 50? I know, I wasn't 50 yet, but I was going to be, and in just three years. Three years passes in the blink of an eye these days.
When I shared my incredulity about the situation with a friend who happens to be the same age, the response I received was "Don't worry. You'll be a hot 50-year-old."
Now, I will confess as a middle-aged woman I was initially flattered. "Hot" isn't a word I would ever use to describe myself. Still, there was something about the comment that irritated me, and I found myself thinking about it periodically, questioning what it was I found so objectionable about what was surely intended as a compliment.
The thing is, at this point in my life, I would hope that my worth is measured by who I am and not merely how I look. I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a writer, and I would hope that my accomplishments as such would count for something. I don't think the comment was meant to be sexist, but upon closer examination it began to look that way as it reduced my complex feelings about aging to mere worry about fading physical attractiveness. Do I really have nothing more to offer? Is my function as a woman simply to look good? And what if I do make it to 50 with my "hotness" intact? That's not going to last indefinitely. Every day I discover that the gray hairs have multiplied and more lines have etched themselves into my face. Should I crawl away and hide when I no longer meet society's standard of youthful beauty?
I would like to think I live in a world with more depth to it, but evidence to the contrary bombards me daily. The media hold up women for admiration based on beauty and fit physiques. Middle-aged women are equally criticized for letting nature take its course and for employing artificial means to erase the tell-tale signs of the passing of time. Maybe men face these same problems, making this not an issue of sexism but one of superficiality. I don't know. I am not used to analyzing behavior to determine if it's sexist or not. I grew up in a mostly female household and had parents who led me to believe that I was an intelligent human being whose future would be determined by my actions not my looks. The message women get from the media, however, contradicts what my parents taught me. Just recently headlines were made when the picture of a "regular" mom wearing a bikini went viral. Somehow the implication was that women should feel good about this. Yet, I couldn't help but notice that words like "flawed" and "flabby" were used to describe her body. Why are we so concerned about this woman's body anyway? Rather than being a triumph for the average woman, to me this becomes one more example of a woman's value being determined by how close she comes to meeting an impossible ideal.
As I said, I don't believe my friend's comment was a conscious display of sexism. Perhaps if there hadn't been so much discussion on Twitter recently about the discrimination of women in the publishing world, I wouldn't have even given it a second thought. But I did. And it made me more aware of (overly sensitive to?) the myriad examples of women being scrutinized and judged on a daily basis for the most superficial of reasons, making me wonder how this came to be and how to raise my sons to understand that there's so much more to a woman than how good she looks in a pair of tight jeans.
A few weeks ago my husband surprised me with tickets to see Garth Brooks. Before the concert tonight, I will spend time on my hair and make-up and slip into a pair of jeans and my cowgirl boots. I will admittedly put extra effort into my appearance in the hopes that he'll think I look--dare I say it?--hot. I hope, though, that the beauty he sees when he looks at me has less to do with hair, make-up, and clothes, and more to do with everything he has learned about who I am on our shared journey of the past 18 years. I hope he sees the kind of beauty that lasts a lifetime.