My niece got married last week, and the day before the wedding her mother - my sister - was fuming.
It was about her dress. She'd looked everywhere, in every store she could find, and couldn't find a thing she liked. "Mother-of-the-bride dresses are hideous," she complained. "Brown or wine or dark blue, dripping with beads."
Worse, the cocktail dresses she saw were all black and sleeveless, as though to mock her and say: "We know women your age have flabby arms they want to hide, so don't even come near us."
"It's like we're invisible. It's so patronizing," lamented my sister, who finally resorted to wearing a lacy blouse with a skirt she'd found on sale at Talbot's, reduced to $7.50. (She looked great in it, too.) "If I squeezed myself into one of those black dresses," she said, "I would feel like mutton dressed as lamb."
"Mutton dressed as lamb" is a phrase tossed around on a blog she's addicted to, "The Thoughtful Dresser," by a British writer named Linda Grant who writes about the relationship between women and their clothes. One of Grant's pet peeves is the frumpy clothing designed for women over 45. "Do middle-aged women wear dreary clothes because they don't know better and the scales would fall from their eyes if you showed them Marc Jacobs, or do they actually like this sort of thing?" Grant blogged. "Do they look in the mirror and think, This is fabulous. I look great. Or is it that they actively wish to buy and wear clothes which make them look anonymous, invisible, and so blank that they are a gray mist in the air?"
This is a good question and one I think about myself, especially at airports, which seem to be a magnet for frumpily and drearily dressed older women. Why does air travel compel these women to wear flesh-colored orthopedic shoes with Velcro straps and shapeless stretchy pantsuits, and to fix their hair back in tight and tiny pin-curls? (The only thing worse than mutton dressed as lamb is mutton dressed as mutton, as one of Linda Grant's blog readers astutely noted.)
I think the real question is: Why do so many women yield to the conventional stereotypes of getting older?
I think the real answer is: It's hard not to. This is an ageist society. Youth is the domain and privilege of the young, and it has an expiration date, which seems to be getting younger all the time. Older people who don't act old are derided, said to be denying their age, refusing to grow up.
"As the baby boomers age. . ." How many articles have I read that start out this way? Is aging all baby boomers do? Are they all surrendering their iPods at 50, installing grab bars in their bathrooms, signing up for bus tours?
It would seem so, judging from AARP the Magazine, read by more than 35 million Americans. I read it from time to time and rarely recognize my own vast cohort in it. It gets me profoundly depressed. There's a feature in the current issue about Maria Shriver's father's Alzheimer's disease. There's another on personal finance called "50 Thrifty Ideas." (They included cutting your pills in half, and rigging a flashlight to the toilet seat if you visit the bathroom a lot at night.) And who dreamed up that useful service piece on how to defend yourself with a cane? (Um, brandish your walker?)
Americans, it seems, still don't get the new face of getting older, even those who purport to represent them. The Canadians are doing a little better and this country can probably take a lesson from them. Moses Znaimer is the new president of CARP, roughly the equivalent of the AARP, representing the population he refers to as "Zoomers." (Boomers with "zip." A bit cutesy, but at least he's trying.) Its mandate, he writes in Zoomer Magazine, is to establish a "new vision of aging for Canada." "You are a Zoomer," he says, "if you still look forward in life and to life and remain open to new things."
I didn't notice any articles about geriatric martial arts in the magazine, but I did appreciate the fashion piece about what French women can teach us about living with less. Think carefully. Shop sparingly. Dress stylishly. They showed pictures, too, and all the tops had sleeves.
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.