What a forty-year-old feminist looks like

"It's time to stop playing into this woman-hating, ageist society that scorns women for doing what comes naturally," writes Ruby Hamad.

“It’s time to stop playing into this woman-hating, ageist society that scorns women for doing what comes naturally,” writes Ruby Hamad. Photo: Stocksy

Many years ago, when I was immersed in the agony of deciding whether or not to run away from home, I asked myself, “Imagine how you will feel about this when you’re forty. Do you want to look back and wish you’d gone the other way?”

The truth is, back then “40” was the most abstract of concepts. Like most young people before and after me, I didn’t really believe I would ever actually be that old.

And yet, here I am.

Ruby Hamad.

My younger self assumed that people who were 60 or 72, or indeed, 40, just accepted their ages; in the same way I thought I would never actually get old, I also felt that older people were never really young.

But now, looking at those two digits, side by side on my computer screen, I feel they have nothing to do with me. Perhaps this is partly because I always get mistaken for someone much younger. I have seen jaws literally drop open when I tell their owners I was born in 1975.

You don’t look 40!

But what is 40 supposed to look like? Are there a certain number of wrinkles around the eyes and lines about the mouth we’re meant to get when the date clicks to this fateful number that separates “older” women from their more relevant counterparts?

Nora Ephron named her book I Feel Bad About My Neck in reference to these visible signs, namely the lines that accrue around women’s necks somewhere in their early 40s. That title alone reveals how deeply we socialise women to hate themselves, to fear the process of ageing.

It is a toxic brew. Take one part idolisation of youth and one part infantalisation of women and you create a poisonous cultural concoction that sees women at their supposed peak somewhere between 17 and 22, where, in Britney parlance, they are not girls but not yet really women.

So women do everything in their power to stymie time’s relentless march: the botox, the facelifts, the shading. And no, feminists are not immune. Vocal, active, dyed-in-the-wool women’s liberationists worry about getting old because of how poorly society treats older women.

It’s not without warrant, this paranoia. Centuries of western folklore have depicted older women as wizened hags whose outer appearance is the physical manifestation of an inner ugliness. That supposedly “feminist” reimagining of Snow White from a few years ago climaxed when Charlize Theron’s gorgeously youthful Queen Ravenna transforms into a hideously wrinkled witch before our duly horrified eyes.

Talk about not being able to win; everyone ages but only terrible women get old.

Naturally, it irks me, this undue emphasis put on women’s appearance and the ruthless mocking of women for either showing their age or trying not to show it. And yet, I still feel a flush of gratitude and a misplaced sense of pride every time I’m told I look much younger.

Given the nature of my work, this makes me feel more than a little guilty. I’ve dedicated many column inches to challenging the obsession with women’s looks and youth, but I’m nevertheless susceptible to its spell. I feel flattered and sometimes, when Gen Y’s in their early 30s and even younger assume I’m part of their generation, even relieved.

Why relieved? Because it means they must still see me as relevant.

For this reason, I have been guilty of not always correcting people’s impressions. I have never lied about my age, I’ve just sometimes refrained from volunteering the information.

In my writing, for example, references to my upbringing have been couched in vague terms like “growing up in the ’80s” and being a “teenager in the ’90s.” Well yes, I was a teenager in the ’90s but only for the first half of it.

While I don’t feel bad about my neck (yet), what I do feel bad about is the impact ageing will have on my career. And then I feel bad about feeling bad, like I am letting myself and other women down by not publicly embracing the process.

The truth is, I turned 40 last month and it scares me. Not because I hate getting older in itself or because I am more cognisant of my own mortality. And it’s certainly not because I don’t like the way the years and the experiences they brought with them have shaped me and altered my perception of the world. I didn’t identify as a feminist until my early-thirties, became a professional writer in my mid-thirties, and embarked on my first mature, long-term relationship in my latethirties. I would not want to deny my 20-year-old self any of these future experiences.

No, I am afraid that my opinions may soon be considered unimportant. And for someone who makes her living out of publicly expressing her opinions, that is a terrifying prospect.

My fears amplified when Germaine Greer made her comments on Monday’s Q&A, about feminism being primarily focused on women of reproductive age, which I still am but not for much longer. Reproductive rights is an issue that has long been central to my feminism; will young women soon no longer care what I have to say about that?

Out of fear, I let people make their assumptions and allowed myself to pass for someone much younger. But to keep doing this willingly is, I fear, a betrayal.

Sure, it may superficially benefit me to be mistaken for a younger woman, but this doesn’t help women in general, or even help me when we get right down to it.

It’s time to stop playing into this woman-hating, ageist society that scorns women for doing what comes naturally. Rather than guiltily “pass” as someone young, I will challenge our conceptions of how older women (which I assume I am now?) should look and act.

Although some will praise me for this, I still fear negative reactions because I know humans are not the rational actors they think they are. For all the western obsession with “reason”, if all those psychology studies tell us anything it is this: what humans think they think and what they really think are often two diametrically opposite things.

Employers may think they are equal opportunity, but they often gravitate to the white male candidate. White liberals may swear they are not racist, but many subconsciously assume light-skinned people are more intelligent than dark-skinned people.

And I may get some compliments on this story but, deep down, will readers think I’m passed it?

Time to hit publish and find out.


Henry Sapiecha

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