Titilayo Olurin: Defying Age Shaming and Marriage Stereotypes
“What is this?”
It was a dress. One of those cute floral dresses that I owned and loved to wear. Light and comfortable, it seemed like a perfect choice for a movie date with my big sister and her family on that warm Tuesday afternoon in December. But my mother didn’t think so, and she made it clear.
“What is this you’re wearing?” She pursed her lips. “You better go and remove it.”
I was aghast. It felt like someone had lit a flame to my insides and I was ready to explode. This was not secondary school when I had no say in the choice of dresses I wore. Then, it was what my mother bought for me or nothing. Now, I was a grown woman who bought whatever she wanted to wear.
“I’m over 30! You can’t tell me what to wear,” I blurted out defiantly, ready for a fight.
My mother was not going to let that slide. She gave me a look that I understood too well and said slowly as if to make sure I got her point, “Exactly! You’re over 30. That’s why you shouldn’t wear this. ”
Her words hit me hard, deflating any fight I had in me, and I immediately went silent. I would later wonder if her bias against my wardrobe choice was truly influenced by my age or if it was just an excuse for her distaste for the dress. Well, because she is as conservative as they come and would never approve of me wearing anything above the knee regardless of my age.
“Dress your age”
Of course, my mother meant no harm and wasn’t by any means trying to age-shame me. After all, I brought up my age, not her. Yet, by emphasising that my age was the sole reason why I should not wear a dress – and not because it didn’t fit or it was inappropriate for the occasion or it looked ragged or obnoxious – she was in a sense saying to me, “Dress your age!” But what is wrong with dressing your age?
“By following stringent rules defined to “dress your age”, you may be missing out on telling some of your stories through your style,” says writer and Professor of Criminal Justice, Alissa Ackerman, in her article, ‘Why “Dressing Your Age” is Nonsense.’ Style has no expiration date, she insists, and rather than stressing over your age, focus on having fun and expressing yourself with your clothes. A sentiment shared by entrepreneur, former personal stylist and founder of Well Dressed Life, Megan Kristel, in her article, ‘Stop Dressing Appropriately For Your Age.’
“Your age should never be the sole factor in deciding what to wear,” states Kristel, who is of the opinion that personal style, body type, lifestyle, quality and fit far outweigh the age factor when considering the appropriateness of clothes.
Is it really age-shaming?
Dressing is just one subject associated with age-shaming. There are others, including marriage and childbirth, jobs and careers, love and dating, health and lifestyle, morality and religion. The list is endless. It would seem that society and cultural norms dictate to a large extent how these issues should be addressed based on one’s age – whether old or young. While this applies to both sexes, women have it harder. For instance, a woman in her 30s or 40s, sometimes late 20s, is considered to be going against the “norm” for remaining single. Haven’t we often heard it said that a woman’s biological clock ticks so fast that it waits for no one? So, I understand where my gynaecologist is coming from when he asks when I’m getting married. it doesn’t make me any less uncomfortable. But I am mortified when a friend, family, neighbour or colleague asks the same question. Unsolicited questions, suggestions, comments and advice about a woman’s marital status from others who think she is “too old” to be single are not only prying but are also ageist. Some would argue, though, that these are well-meaning family or friends who show concern the best way they know how. Is it really concern or sheer age shaming?
Here, recognise the signs of age shaming.
When people say things to make you feel weird about your age
Disparaging remarks about your age can make you feel too old. Some people may come at you playfully, with friends making jokes and saying things like “You should already be off the market” or “When are we eating rice?” Others are less subtle and say things like “At your age, you shouldn’t still be single” or “Why are you still working for someone at your age?”
When people give backhanded compliments
The last time someone said to you “You have a great body for your age”, you probably thought of it as a compliment. But this is no compliment. Neither is “You are (insert age) and still look so good.” These are really just insults that draw more attention to how old you are than how good you look. Would it be such a bad thing to say that one looks good or beautiful without adding the age refrain?
When people discriminate against you based on your age
Imagine losing a job that you are suited, qualified and experienced for to someone younger and less qualified because you are “too old” for it. There is the other end of the stick, too, when you are told that you are too young for a role, position or job even when you are most qualified for it. Believe it or not, there is such a thing, and although less common, it is also age-shaming.
When people reinforce age stereotypes
Once, my mother approached a cashier at a store to replace the USB cable for her iPad. He looked at her briefly, and without even asking for the model of her device, he said rather disdainfully, “We don’t sell the old type here.” What he did was assume that, since she was an old woman, she must have been using the old model without even confirming it first. That’s the age stereotype right there.
What can you do?
Now that you recognise age-shaming signs, what can you do? Be confident in your skin no matter your age. That way, no one can make you feel less about yourself. Ignore the ageist comments, and reject stereotypes. You should not feel unfulfilled because you aren’t married at 30. You are not a failure because you haven’t set a clear career path for yourself at 40. And you are not stuck on “old school” moral, political and religious beliefs, values or principles simply because you are 50.
Also, do what makes you happy, as long as it is not illegal or insane. Apply for that job, smear on red lipstick, study that course, start that project, business or career. Whatever you do, don’t let ageist remarks keep you from what you love. Above all, as you read this now, stop the shaming – age shaming, slut shaming, body shaming, fat shaming, victim shaming, tech shaming and job shaming.
Next time you’re tempted to shame someone for their age or make excuses for people who do, think of these words by Justin Myers: “Remember that your sneery ageist put-downs are boomerangs: every single one of them is on its way back to you, at full speed.”
Featured Image by Alexandre Silva