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Men vs. Women: An Age-Old Debate

by Jenny Smith

Back in the days of hopscotch during recess and tooth fairy money filling up the piggy bank, everyone always wanted to sound more grown up. Whether it was "I'm seven and..." or "I'll be ten in 2 months, 2 weeks, and 5 days," we always said and did anything to make ourselves seem older.

Birthdays were celebrated with parties and decorations and presents galore, and making a wish before blowing out every candle on the cake was a must. However, as the years go by and there's less and less room on the commemorative dessert for all of the waxy sparklers to fit, many people begin to stifle the natural maturation process, but this convention especially applies to women. Instead of "I'll be 35 next month," the recurring statement ends up being "29...again."

Like so many other aspects in our society, there is a distinct dichotomy between the male and female perspectives of growing old. In an essay called "The Double Standard of Aging," American literary theorist and political activist Susan Sontag explains how although everyone is affected to a certain extent, men rarely become terrified about aging in the way women often do. However, this is rightfully so. There is so much less pressure placed on men to "age gracefully." In contrast, women are expected to swallow some sort of nonexistent magical pill of eternal youth.

Two studs, no matter what the age.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Smith.

A standard women's magazine advertisement targeting a more mature readership is jam-packed with ways to slice years off of your appearance, but these ploys are becoming more prevalent in publications that have a younger demographic as well. An Aveeno Positively Ageless ad proclaims, "Wake up to firmer, younger-looking skin," implying that if you look in the mirror after waking up and see limp and aged skin, you had better be doing something to fix it.

Other features stumbled upon while perusing through a medley of glossy pages were "The Wrinkle Free Diet," and "DIY Light Therapy," which are at home treatments that claim to reduce hyperpigmentation and eradicate wrinkles. In a two-page spread on "Stem Cells...The Future of Skin Rejuvenation," Director of Women's Affairs from Voss Laboratories, Dr. Nathalie Chevreau, is quoted saying, "20 and 30 somethings are using these high-tech emulsions so that they will always look young...40 and 50 somethings are using them to look like they are still in their 20s and 30s." At this point, it would be no surprise if teenagers started worrying about their unsightly smile lines showing up in high school yearbook pictures.

In addition to the perpetual attempt to turn back time, beauty remains of utmost importance; and of course, anything old is not beautiful. As Sontag states, "Being physically attractive counts much more in a woman's life than in a man's, but beauty, identified, as it is for women, with youthfulness, does not stand up well to age." Instead of women being encouraged to learn something new or expand their mental horizons, they are merely placed on this demeaning scale of external standards. On the other hand, a man's acceptability does not necessarily equate with being handsome. Older appearing men can be just as manly and attractive, especially since masculine qualities like autonomy and competence continue to grow with age, whereas a woman's femininity inevitably plunges.

The struggles of being a woman.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Smith.

The February/March 2008 issue of Hallmark magazine featured an article written by a man who spoke about this notion from a unique perspective. In the piece called "Beauty's Fool," writer Chip Brown describes how "learning to understand what the eye appreciates is a lifetime's journey." He explained how women's beauty, as observed by men, becomes different as they age. It's about artifice and perception, and it is based more on illusions than truths. Men don't put on makeup to cover their dark spots and crow's feet, while women are willing to spend hundreds of dollars to perpetuate this semblance of youth and attractiveness.

When scanning through the pages of Elle, any inspector will be hard-pressed to find a woman in the high-fashion clothing ads over the age of 30 - and that's even pushing it. When it comes to modeling the latest trends, sex sells; and apparently, what is sexy is youthful. In the spreads that feature men and women together, this feminized child-like beauty is stressed even more, and it is paired with the idea of visible sexuality.

The blissful years of youth.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Smith.

In an ideal world, when a young couple gets married, they happily raise a family and grow old together, and with every new stretch mark and gray hair, their love continues to strengthen. However, since an ideal world doesn't exist, the odds of this happening are often minimal. Instead, as many men begin to bald and grow middle-aged bellies, their desire to be with someone who has long blonde hair and picture-perfect features creeps up on them. The unfortunate truth is that these strong urges for a younger and fresher woman leave their more ripened significant other obsolete and sexually disqualified.

Just as all other forms of female discrimination, women are placed in an undying double-standard of aging. Growing old should be filled with contentment, self-reflection and earned wisdom, but instead, many women acquire new-found anxiety, self-consciousness, and by giving into all of the appearance-perfect pressures, a depleted sense of discretion. Men can get away with basking in the glory of their years, but they expect their female counterparts to strip all of those years away.

Women can't cut a break. If a girl is too young, she is constantly striving to appear older and more developed, but if a woman is too old, she is in a continual struggle to regain the blissful appearance of her youth. It's almost like, "damned if you do, damned if you don't." However, instead of accepting this detrimental pattern, take a stand - challenge the cyclic subordinated effect of being a woman and break the double bind.

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