The other day, a Next Avenue reader asked me my age in response to an article I had written called 9 Worst Things About Being Over 50, which summarizes the key challenges of growing older and presents a host of possible solutions.
I have to admit, the thought of answering that question in such a public arena gave me pause — big pause. Next Avenue gets a lot of traffic, so I knew that hordes of folks would likely see my reply. And since our article commenting system relies on a Facebook interface, the option of whether or not to click the little box that allows a reply to hit my personal wall forced me to consider just how many more people could become aware of my age if I were to enable the amazing ripple effect of community.
What caused my hesitation about going public was not a concern for “privacy,” in the way we typically think about that topic — for example, when we share a Social Security number. Instead, my qualms stemmed from longstanding cultural inhibitions, family traditions and the widespread ageism that infuses our society.
Phrases and practices long embraced and bandied about by prior generations and in the literature I read while growing up suggested that it flies in the face of propriety for a woman to confess her age. For example, this quote: “a lady never reveals her age or weight.” And this line from Oscar Wilde in A Woman of No Importance (1893): “One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would do that would tell anything.” Or this from Oliver Goldsmith in She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which I read in high school: “Oh, sir, I must not tell you my age; they say women and music should never be dated.”
At the same time that my generation was still being steeped in these tired social taboos, we were doing our damnedest to let it all hang out and escape from every possible iteration of hiding. So, even if baring one’s soul and body had begun morphing into virtues while I was maturing, there were still plenty of mixed messages about birthdays and age.
Further complicating things, as boomers began entering adulthood in droves, youth worship picked up steam and the veneration of and respect for elders waned. These concurrent trends meant that anyone who lifted the age veil after 50 could be seen as less vital, less capable and less desirable. That fear has stuck with many boomers.
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My family baggage made age revelation even harder. My mother has always appeared a great deal younger than she is (the gift of genetics and a very vibrant spirit) and rarely shared her actual age with outsiders. My father’s second wife resolutely hid her age and no one, including her children, knew how old she was until about three years ago when we discovered documents confirming her birth year and the fact that she was six years my dad’s senior.
Despite all this, the way life is lived has long seemed far more critical to me than any numerical marker. Over time, I came to see that if you are proud of where you are in life, you should own your age and be a role model for all, including younger generations. Every single year has huge value — growth, healing and improvement are not only essential, but always possible.
I staunchly believe in this approach to aging: a can-do, positive attitude; a belief that things can change for the better; deep-seated gratitude (regular acknowledgement and counting of blessings); a loving heart; clear-eyed wisdom and concerted action rooted in insight.
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I’ve come to realize that the best way to combat my baggage about age and society’s aggrandizement of youth is to look each birthday squarely in the eye, make sure to do everything I can to feel as good as possible about where I am in life and what I’m doing to safeguard its gifts (that includes helping others grapple with the challenges of growing older) — then sing my age from the rafters.
So, here goes: I’m 57 (in three months), happy as hell to be here and I’m not going to hide it anymore!