Aging, your author’s bluntly-honest, not-entirely-tactful, and dearly-missed father-in-law used to say, ain’t for sissies. As someone with more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can attest to this firsthand. The body starts breaking down in all sorts of unexpected ways; the mind wanders off to Lulu land more frequently than we’d like to admit; young whippersnappers run rings around us in all ways that whippersnappers may run.
… but I’m a dude—and that means it’s just easier for me. Older men are granted a kind of societal clout simply by virtue of their gender that women don’t enjoy. Graying men are often described as wise, established, and “silver fox” handsome. (Still crossing my fingers for that last one.) Women of the same age share no such common, stereotypical positives.
Far from it. American society is youth-obsessed, for sure, but it’s mainly obsessed with young women. Ms. Orbit—she of my same vintage—often describes the experience as one of “becoming invisible” and feeling “no longer relevant” to the outside world.
Just about one year ago, we spotted a small hand-written sticker attached to a residential parking sign post in Lawrenceville. The text was a simple double-entendre: Menopause is HOT. That got a snort-laugh out of yours truly and I bagged it for the road.
That little teaser was quickly followed by an array of more elaborate, hand-colored stickers spread on lamp posts and electrical boxes. They all contained simple messages proudly addressing the very uncommon subject—either in wider culture or here at the street level—of middle-aged women as real, present beings: Aging is Sexy; Crone; Menopause.
We don’t know who created these subtle, gently-subversive little works. None of the pieces we’ve found have any attribution and the Orbit hive mind was unable (or unwilling) to name names. We’re also left to interpret the artists’ message.
We do know the statements are attention-grabbing and hilariously out-of-context—seeing the word menopause bedazzled and glorified in the leftover spaces where taggers dwell is objectively funny.
Ms. Orbit and I have discussed the matter much in the course of our relationship, crossing into deep middle-age, and specifically with her experiences as a woman and an artist. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the rest of the story over to her:
Middle-aged women become invisible to a degree. But, rather than lamenting that fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of the invisibility, because it means a certain kind of freedom. It means the freedom of not having to matter to men, not worrying about being pretty, sexy, feminine enough, thin enough, demure enough, not too loud, not too opinionated. Men no longer care what I look like, sound like, say, etc. When I was younger, I often stepped outside the lines by being too loud, too bold, too feisty and was admonished by men and sometimes by other women. Now, those folks no longer care what I have to say or how I look and I feel the freedom to be fully myself, on my own terms.
There are a lot of younger women now who are proudly and publicly themselves in a “give no fucks” way and I love it, admire it fully—Lizzo comes to mind. Of course, I have had my moments of feeling the negative side of aging and have grappled with thoughts that “I’m no longer relevant,” but the flip side is you can choose to matter to yourself and the important folks in your life. It’s beautiful to live without needing external validation. I wholeheartedly praise the artist or artists behind these stickers because it’s a way of shouting “We’re here! We exist! We matter!” and being proud of that. Ageism is real—just like racism and homophobia and sexism—but you counter that ugliness by fully owning and celebrating who you are.
When Suzanne Werder and I did the Drawn Together: A Coming of Middle Age Story in 62 Portraits show this past April, the reaction from women over 50 who came to see the show was intensely positive, almost incredulous—they felt seen. “You showed your wrinkles, and bags under your eyes!” Now, we didn’t set out to make a point of our flaws, but in just drawing each other everyday, we can’t escape our truth: that we are getting older and we are not supermodels, and we’re okay with that.
That show did a lot to make me more comfortable in my own skin. There’s a lot of push back culturally against the notion that people are supposed to look or act a certain way, that our world is supposed to mirror the narrow scope of idealized bodies in traditional advertising. Now, it’s more common to see images of people of all sizes, colors, ages, abilities, and sexualities represented, and the power of that is huge. It makes us realize that we are all relevant and beautiful and always were.