Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 03/9/22 3:17 AM


Opinion: Is Age Just a Number? Well, Yes and No.

Is age just a number? Well, yes and no

There`s age-shaming of women on Big Boss, there`s age-shaming in the workplace, there`s age- shaming on the runway, there`s age- shaming on the streets. And given that a report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation titled `Elderly in India 2021` has put the ageing population of women in India at 71 million, that`s scope for a whole lot of age-shaming.

Actually, it`s  a global phenom, if phenom is the word I’m looking for. When these acts of age-shaming garner reactions, it`s a woefully small number of people who express outrage at such behaviour, led mostly by women who have been at the receiving end of it. And many victims prefer to keep silent about it.

The visual aspect is the first checkpoint. The actress Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu who plays Sylvie in Emily in Paris, grabbed a lot of attention recently, wearing a nude dress and the comments section of the thread was overrun by people  expressing intense surprise that women of a certain age can or should dress daringly.

Not-so-great expectations

It’s that old mutton- dressed- as- lamb trope. The general expectation is for older women to dress soberly, lay off the sequins, delete  neon colours from their wardrobe. I`m not for a minute making a case for glittering embellishment, fire-engine red monochrome outfits, hair dyed an improbable dark above a face wonderfully creased with the linesof life. However, when it comes to telling women what they  ought to wear when they cross a certain Rubicon, that’s a bit much. Has anyone told older men to lay off those checkered Bermuda shorts, cowboy hats, way- too- tight tees,and suchlike?

Leroy-Beaulieu, 58, recently remarked, “Women in that world, as they age ….they get looked at as disposable goods.“ Yes, celebrity women do have it hard, having to deal with the twin whammies of ageing and falling off the visibility matrix. However, it`s equally hard for the rest of that particular segment to be called aunty overnight, to deal with patronization/condescension/gratuitous sympathy,  as well as that definite endgame vibe.

Wrinkles, grey hair, glasses spell doom to more than the woman`s sex appeal. Leave alone the visual charms, jobs no longer come her way in a discriminatory culture where she is judged as much on the way she looks and as on her work qualifications.

Falling off the map

As women age, they fall prey to much mental tumult and hormonal challenges, even as most of them  fall off  the map of visual appreciation. Now,  everything about them is measured on the for-your-age scale. How tech-savvy you are, for your age. How effortlessly you can run/swim/do aerial yoga, at your age. How amazing that you still appreciate a lurid potboiler novel, TV show  or movie, at your age. And then, there are cruel words like `cougar` for an older woman voices her admiration for an older or younger man.

The infamous  male gaze has not left the building, it has merely shifted its focus; now,  it either looks at ageing women with unconcealed disinterest or looks through them.

I`d love to say that it`s mainly men who have this discomfort with ageing women but that’s not true. Way too many women are quick to castigate those of their gender who try to break free of that tinfoil box our culture  has pushed them into.

The average urban woman who is ageing is not exactly all about cool confidence, in her mind or in her attitude. Add to that the pressures of an ageist society and it can become a very heavy burden to bear.

Dilution of identity

This dilution of a woman’s identity is nothing short of painful. But she can and oftentimes does push back. As women of a certain age rapidly recede from the general public gaze, it brings along a certain freedom for them. Freed of most domestic and child-rearing compulsions, freed of the relentless necessity to always shine in the public gaze, freed of the personal and professional worries that plagued her some years ago, there`s a whole new spring to her step now. The time for standing at the crossroads, for facing a dizzying number of life choices, are over.

Actresses might no longer land plum roles in films and television shows but like Gillian Anderson and Sushmita Sen, when  they do come back, they do it in style.We have great role models around us like Shobhaa De, Dimple Kapadia, Neetu Kapoor, Ratna Pathak Shah.

It`s no fleeting self, as many ascribe to the ageing woman. It’s a more centred self. If she`s not commanding attention with her mere sexuality, she is,with  her authoritative presence, her hard-won calm. As a psychologist put it, she is no longer an object, she has become all subject.

This appeared in the In Perspective section of the Deccan Herald on 9 March 2022.



ageing in an ageist worldDeccan HeraldDimple KapadiaGillian AndersonIn PerspectiveIs age just a number?Neetu KapooropinionPhilippine Leroy-BeaulieuRatna Pathak ShahShobhaa DeSushmita Senwomen and ageing

Sheila Kumar • March 9, 2022

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  1. Jean Rego March 14, 2022 - 5:03 am Reply

    Thank u Sheila .
    So reassuring

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