A few years ago, I met an old woman in a remote Mayan village in the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico. We talked a little and smiled a lot, made easy friends, and at the end I asked how old she was. She raised puzzled eyebrows, “How...what?” She looked at her son to make sure that with the little Spanish she spoke, she had heard my question well. She had. She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know such things.” She doesn’t understand age, her son hurried to explain. Stunned, I turned to his young bride and asked about her age. 53, she said, or 58, and giggled. She looked no older than 25. I realized then that in that village where one of the most culturally isolated Mayan tribes, the Maya Lacandon, had lived for thousands of years, no one knew their age– or cared to.
For many months afterwards, I wondered: What would our Western lives be if we didn’t worry about how old we were, and instead simply grew older, like the moon fades with morning? And what if, in a culture like the one I was born to, women, both young and old, lived free of the oppressive notion that their beauty and worth only decrease with age?
A tough one to hypothesise about– this idea has been so tightly woven into the societal psyche, and we contemporary women have been steeped so deep in the cultural preoccupation with youthfulness and the bias against the aging woman, that we have become our own oppressors by coming to stand for the very idea that tyrannizes us.
I could easily call this the Aging Woman syndrome, inflicted upon us by our society’s objectifying eye. To be sure, the consequences of aging plague our male counterparts as well, yet not nearly with the same severity. It is women who take the big blow, and it is for a very good reason. Patriarchy has many deeply embedded and subtle ways of keeping women away from their power. This is one of the sneakiest and most debilitating of them all.
Aging Woman is a not only a devitalizing syndrome, but also an archetype in the modern world. In the shadow of this archetype where our world lives, Aging Woman is a woman’s experience of feeling impoverished, diminished, marginalized, and disempowered by the fact of aging.
It is not really about how old a woman is. I myself have suffered from the Aging Woman syndrome since I was 16 or so, without knowing it as an illness. If you are a woman, you’ve suffered from the syndrome when you were 19 and when you were 26 and when you were or will be 34 or 51. You have held the relative fear or the absolute horror of rolling into bottomless abyss of Aging Woman, knowingly or unknowingly, since the time you developed a sense of self. Or, rather, since the social environment you grew up in told you what is important about yourself.
I imagine that each day you, like me, have moved through urban life surrounded by oversized portraits of exalted youth– very young women whose bodies void of curves and shapes parade as the most desirable form of woman. In your casual conversations with friends, the Aging Woman syndrome has been embedded in the language so deeply that it has become the language: “Oh honey, you look so much younger than your age”, and “No, I almost can’t see your wrinkles” and “How old would you think I am if you didn’t know me…” and “Nobody ever believes i am 45,” and…
The resulting world? Women putting themselves under the knife to get remodeled into a younger version. Women casually putting themselves and each other down for having aged– and that being the accepted vernacular. A woman’s “mirror talk” with herself: staring into her face to detect each new sign of deterioration, and the inner monologue that accompanies that, which reduces her to, “I am less each day.”
But the most costly consequence is not simply a woman’s wellbeing and self-esteem. It is much more than that. A woman who has been convinced that her aging is also her fall, that with aging she becomes progressively less worthy, desirable, creatively able, and gorgeous is a woman who will invest her attention and energy accordingly. She will feel increasingly disempowered or at least not truly aware of the tremendous inner wealth and power that have come with her maturing. She will remain disconnected from the deep well of feminine knowledge that lies within her own matured body.
Because, in all truth, the aged woman is a woman in the peak of her power. The older a woman is, the deeper access she has to the timeless wisdom of the feminine, to her inner witch, to her priestesshood and her capacity to mother and serve humanity. If she is not imprisoned by the ailing beliefs that she is “no longer”, a woman in her midlife is crystal-wise, skilled, aware, and deeply connected to the feminine mysteries rushing through her body– a reality much larger than herself alone, yet tangible and alive in her very womb, breast, hips, and voice. She is not a “reasonable” or obedient woman, nor she cares to remain pleasant, agreeable, and voiceless.
She is a powerhouse able of miracles. Does our world encourage her? I’ll let you answer that.
I spent the few years before turning 40 with severe symptoms and often debilitating discomfort with the reality of my getting older. And today I am writing this from the other side of the “big 40” when one is suddenly zoned into a new major category: Women over 40. Looks like my multi-vitamins too have been changed to Women-Over-40, and my doctor feels like I should be getting a mammogram soon. I have also been told all my life that once on this side of 40, my baby-birthing capacity will decline to near zero, I should expect to be much less attractive, have decreasing energy and increased risk for ailments. I have expected diminished charisma and overall appeal in my social presence. All in all, it should be all downhill from here...
But something has turned upside down and inside out in this first year in my 40s. I have come to a full body and mind realization of the truth about Aging Woman. I have worked very deliberately with my symptoms, with the deprecating self-talk and with the shocking evidence of this syndrome in my women peers. I have dissected within myself the centuries-old conditioning that has brought us here. And I have seen the striking truth that hides beneath my fears: My agedness– emotional, hormonal, intellectual, and yes, physical too– is the greatest power I have experienced as a woman. Having lived long enough to connect to my inner resources, to discover and rediscover myself amidst the collective, to find my instinctual wisdom and learn to trust it, to follow my passionate path and fall and ache and rise again, I am standing today in the most deeply fulfilling and influential stretch of myself. I am a force.
I have never felt more sensual, more attractive, creatively driven, at home in my skin, or more powerful in my life. Although it isn’t my path or my purpose to birth babies, I feel my body strong and productively capable for many years to come. My sexuality has reached a maturity and a way of expressing that is nothing short of exquisite. I have developed an unsuspected ability to lead with grace, humility, and impact. With my hormonal and emotional systems settled in a new way, I have come into a whole new ability for balance, wisdom, giving, and service.
I see this also in those women around me who have recovered from the Aging Woman Syndrome. They are the women who have taken their power and bodies back from the invisible giant who makes them look tiny. They stand up much grander than the scared shadow of patriarchy, and are living on the leading edge of social change. They have dropped the small talk and are holding this Earth in their arms, weaving a new basket for humanity and for those to come after us.
You choose, sister. You chose now and every stretch of the way. Are you squeezing yourself and your gift into the patriarchal corset or are you rising taller and taller into your power each day? Are you talking yourself down, or are you changing your language to match your maturity? And, most importantly, are your an ally to your daughters and sisters in deconstructing an old paradigm, or are you perpetuating the disempowering illusion of the old world?
From where I stand, I myself can no longer encourage or even tolerate the Aging Woman Syndrome. I will call you out on it. I will ask you to look deeper. It is my responsibility to speak truth when I see it. I see your agedness. I see you getting older. It is the most powerful thing I have witnessed.
I need you on this side.