How I Dropped The Ageing Cloak Of Invisibility And Found A Much Needed Sisterhood After 50
By Dr Louise Pendry, AFA Member
As I’ve grown older, I’ve morphed into a slightly different person physically and mentally. Physically, like most of us, I’ve noticed a few changes in my body. I’ve spotted wrinkles and saggy bits which didn’t use to be there, a few aches and pains. My hair is pretty grey now. In a society that favours youth and traditional stereotypes about beauty, I’ve wondered if I’ll become invisible. As feminist writer and poet Marge Piercy notes…
The CIA should hire as spies
only women over fifty, because
we are the truly invisible.
We pass through checkpoints
as if through spider webs
with only a slime of derision. (Piercy, 2006)
A chilling prospect! I’ve considered if that will be my lot, and how I would feel if it is. Maybe it would be easier, in a way, to just blend in more as I age. There’s a lot to be said for slipping under the radar. Some women genuinely relish this prospect, an age where they can finally be free of so much public scrutiny. But it’s not for me. It turns out I am just not ready to dissolve away and lurk unseen around the edges of my own life drama, a bit part player who’s passed on any leading roles to the youngsters. I have found this phase of my life slightly daunting. I want to celebrate and enjoy getting older, however I choose to do this, yet feel in a way stymied in my attempts by a society that prefers we women age in a quiet and seemly manner, making as few ripples in the status quo as possible. So it’s to my delight, and for reasons I’ll lay out in this blog post, that I’ve reached a point where I realise that invisibility is not inevitable. I’ve discovered, too, that positive ageing, however we choose to define that, is more than possible. The secret lies in the sisterhood, in women supporting each other unconditionally as we enter this phase.
The term ageing is imbued with different meanings across the life span. We are ageing from the moment we are born. Landmark milestones, as we move from babyhood to childhood to young adulthood, are all greeted positively. But after around 40, as a rule, ageing sucks. Society teaches us, especially as women, that we must fight the signs of ageing, that it is a battle that can be won, provided we take appropriate steps (make up, styling, hair dye etc.) that allow us to stave off visible decline that bit longer. We must declare war on our enemy: age.
If I’m honest, I didn’t give any of this very much thought until my late forties. I just went along with it, dressed in age appropriate attire, used the beauty creams, wore make up, and dyed my hair. The kind of stuff many of us do. But something within me was shifting. A small voice was trying to be heard, one that encouraged me to query what I had to this point accepted unquestioningly. I think for many of us, this period of midlife is associated with certain shifts, both good and bad. We come to it via any number of routes. Perhaps we’ve seen one too many dictatorial posts cautioning us ‘What NOT to wear after 40’, perhaps we’ve come to realise that there is only so much No.7 Beauty serum can really achieve on our burgeoning wrinkles. Perhaps we are tired of the constant maintenance required to keep our traitorous grey roots at bay.
I think it was a combination of these things for me, but probably the trigger was the grey hair part. Let’s be clear though, this is not a blog post about going grey. Like Jacynth, I’m a passionate believer in women being free to do as they please in terms of styling, and not be dictated to. I totally get why dyeing our hair is popular, and support women’s choices either way. I mention going grey only because my experiences of doing so have opened the door to a far bigger issue for me: the realisation that women can endorse positive ageing, however we decide to do it, whether we choose hair dye or grey hair, clothes from our daughter’s wardrobe or from the M&S Classic range. And I’ve come to recognise that, as women, we can make a huge difference to our fellow women simply by the way we respond to their choices.
"When we don't conform to conventional stereotypes about how we as ageing women 'ought to look' we risk personal attack and abuse... and I think, sadly, it comes from other women much of the time."
So what follows is based around what I’ve discovered, both via my lived experience as a fifty-something woman and as a psychologist, about the incredible (and as yet untapped in my view) power of the sisterhood to fight gendered ageism, to grant us the freedom and self-confidence to age on our terms.
In both my research and my daily life, I’ve observed how difficult it can be for women deciding to behave in a slightly different way as they age, maybe dress a different way, or have a certain hair colour. When we don’t conform to conventional stereotypes about how we as ageing women “ought” to look, we risk personal attack and abuse. We are vilified for “letting the (female) side down.” This seems to be the case whether we are deemed to be “mutton dressed as lamb” or “letting ourselves go”. We can’t win! Where does most of this abuse come from? I think, sadly, it comes from other women much of the time.
I experienced some of this when I stopped dyeing my hair. So much so, in fact, that I felt the need to seek out support of a more positive kind to counteract the views of those who were making me question my decision. In my research as a psychologist, I’ve spent several years researching online communities and what users get out of them. I’ve noticed how online discussion forums can really support people experiencing a stigmatising issue or life change, whether it is for example becoming a parent for the first time, or adjusting to life with a chronic illness. Research suggests that going grey is perceived by many as a stigma, especially women, and indeed, forums exist for precisely this issue, too. So I found and joined a closed Going Grey group on Facebook.
Not that I had any intention of doing more than just lurking initially. That is what is so good about such groups, it is entirely up to you how involved you get. Watch from the side-lines or dive right in, it’s your choice. I figured I’d pick up some tips from others’ posts, maybe in time ask a few questions myself, and then I’d leave. Except that this is not really what happened at all. I did start out lurking though, and one thing I noticed was that women seemed happy to post pictures of their progress and that others in the group would invariably say comforting things to help them stay the course.
At this early point, I could actually see very little that looked terribly good about the process. Just as I’d envisaged, there appeared to be no miracle route through. Honestly, it seemed like a stretch to imagine I would be able to do it at all. But I wanted to try. So I went online to amass the stuff I’d need to see me through the early months: my Going Grey Survival Kit (headbands, root powder, scarves). I dusted off my knitting needles and made a few mad hats. I wore those hats everywhere! Still, I hated my hair. Hated feeling so unkempt. I wished I could go online and buy a dollop of courage and confidence alongside the various products I had acquired. My meagre reserves of both were just not up to it, especially at the start. Occasionally, I dipped into my online group. They all seemed so upbeat. Why? Honestly, I felt at first that I’d joined some kind of positive psychology mutual support group, never a negative word uttered. Oh please, we all look like total crap here! Do these women really believe we rock these grey roots? I was not convinced. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to post a selfie anyway. What harm could it do?
And that is when things slowly began to shift for me. The “Like” notifications piled up, and feedback arrived that my grey hair was a lovely shade of silver, that it suited my skin tone, and brought out the colour of my eyes. Really? I paused a moment and looked in the mirror. For the first time, I started to see what they meant. Small steps, maybe, but it was a turning point, an incremental shift in my mind-set. Yes, I still had by now over an inch of grey roots emerging, and I still felt like crap about it most of the time too, but the silver lining (see what I did there?) was that some features were apparently being enhanced and not diminished by going grey. This process might after all have a few unforeseen benefits. Small crumbs of comfort, but crumbs nonetheless.
"Support your sisters, we are stronger together"
Let’s not get too carried away just yet. I questioned my decision daily. I started posting about my doubts to the group. Always they found something positive to say that would make me at least consider carrying on. They weren’t just churning out platitudes for the hell of it either, they genuinely believed it. What’s more, if I ultimately decided it wasn’t for me, there was no judgement on their part, it was unconditional support. This helped me. Others in the group frequently comment on the benefits of this positive and safe online sisterhood space. Here’s a recent representative observation: “Good golly, don't you just LOVE women supporting other women? One can have a bad day in the ‘real world’ then come to this page and get a much needed boost! Whether making your own post or reading others. No fake stroking, just genuine, caring, support. This is how life should always be, support your sisters, we are stronger together!” Indeed.
Social networking is a funny old thing. I’ve always thought that Facebook “Likes” are cheap. Really, it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to hit the like button. And we can easily become somewhat addicted to this culture of likes: “Someone else likes my post, or (even better) loves it. Yay me”! We can become notification junkies. Objectively, too, most of the time at least, I find it rather vacuous to just hit the like button. Does the person genuinely like the post, or are there other motives at play here?
So why is it that, after a while, I started to engage in similarly positive behaviour? Was I just following the sisterly herd here, was I turning into a notification junkie? Perhaps. But I think instead what was happening is that I was – like other members of the group further down the track - starting to see the process of going grey in a more positive light. I looked at pictures of others just starting out and I realised how encouraged I had been by those early affirmations myself. What might I say that would be similarly uplifting? Because I had to be sincere in my own comments, I engaged in a kind of mindful looking, I suppose. I resisted the temptation to simply stop at the skunk stripe that immediately caught my eye. As I scrutinised others’ pictures more closely, I looked past the very visible emergent grey roots to the person beyond; always, there was something else I noticed. This approach is akin to psychologist Ellen Langer’s views on mindfulness: moving beyond gut reaction conclusions that shut down alternative interpretations, and instead consciously opening our mind to consider possibilities that might be harder to access.
"Focusing attention on what is good, or has the potential to become good, is a powerful antidote to a society hell-bent on people – especially women - criticising one another."
Research tells us giving compliments benefits both parties, provided it is genuine and heartfelt. It’s been documented that people giving social support, for example, may themselves experience reduced stress and improved health. In fact, psychological research by Stephanie Brown and her colleagues suggests people who regularly give help and advice to family and friends can even live longer! However, I was less interested in these longer-term benefits than I was in how such kindness impacted my own sense of self in the present. If I’m honest, being nice on purpose is not my default setting. I’m attuned to spot errors, and to come up with solutions. It’s not a great way to be, I don’t think, you are primed to find fault. As I started being kinder, I realised, I started feeling better about myself too. A lifetime of being Eeyore cannot be eliminated at a stroke, but it is possible to modify certain patterns of behaviour over time if the will is there. Engaging in this process of mindful positivity is something I’ve taken away from my experiences of participating in these online groups.
Whilst I can’t be sure, this tendency to see the positive in and to pay compliments to other women in the group does not appear to be motivated by the expectation of receiving similar comments in return. I have been struck by how unconditional such kindness is within these groups. There’s a modern Hebrew slang term that encapsulates beautifully what is going on here: Firgun. Definitions speak of “genuine, unselfish delight or pride in the accomplishment of the other, a generosity of spirit, an empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person.” A defining characteristic of firgun is the total absence of ulterior motives or negativity. Writing in the Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley urges us to “Fill the streets, the pubs, the comments with your own #firgun plaudits. Don’t focus on the negative. Break out of that insidious social media bubble of negativity, snark and scorn.” In a world where its opposite, schadenfreude, seems so pervasive, it is a joy to discover a place that has no time for negativity. In a nutshell, online firgun rocks! Groups like these provide timely evidence that social media activities need not seek to ridicule or berate others. Focusing attention on what is good, or has the potential to become good, is a powerful antidote to a society hell-bent on people – especially women - criticising one another.
Paying increased attention to others in the group also reminded me of some of the basic social psychology I’d learned as an undergraduate about how we perceive ingroups (those we belong to) and outgroups (those we don’t). In classic studies by Henri Tajfel and others, it’s been shown that merely being assigned to a group, even if it’s on a trivial basis such as preference for a particular artist, makes us feel more positively towards that group. It becomes our ingroup, our tribe. This can have a number of consequences. For example, we develop a strong allegiance to our ingroups, and are motivated to boost these groups, either by bigging up their qualities, or by belittling those groups to which we do not belong. It does depend on the group, but for some, outgroup negativity is not such a feature. However, the supportive vibe characterised by paying compliments to women in the group is a defining feature of most, and I suspect it does much to boost the collective self-esteem of group members.
Whilst I’ve used the Going Grey groups as an example in this blog post, it’s purely because that’s the group I have most personal experience with so it can best illustrate my point. I know both from my time as a parent and my research more generally, that it’s definitely not only here that such sisterly positivity can be found. Groups for parenting, menopause, and postnatal depression for example all fulfil a similar function: women bound by a similar issue who are uniting and empowering each other, both online and offline. (If you want to see this in action, watch this inspirational clip about mums from a Facebook parenting group: http://www.scarymommy.com/online-mom-friends-meet-for-the-first-time-video/ ). It got me thinking, what if the unconditional and mindful positivity among women that we see in some online groups could be more of a mainstay of our offline interactions, too? What if, instead of women tearing each other down over perceived “style crimes” they could practice some of the principles we see in such groups?
"If anything, it seems offline bitchiness can actually be a behaviour which is reinforced and rewarded rather than rebuked"