Honestly hurts when you're gettin' older, or whatever SZA said.
Lately, my mom has been pestering my sister and I about marriage. It’s nothing too serious, just seemingly casual inquiries about our love lives and not-so-subtle reminders that she can help us find potential suitors if we need it; nothing that I can't handle after being the daughter of an immigrant mother for two decades. I do find it suspiciously comical how my parent’s attitudes on romance flipped, right as my sister entered grad school and I entered the latter half of my college experience. Two decades without parentally approved male contact and then all of a sudden I’m supposed to be “talking to people”? As my sister and I navigate adulthood, I can't help but notice many of my parents’ cultural attitudes come to light.
Take a recent conversation I had with my mom- one of many about marriage and partnership. She insisted that my sister and I have to find men who are “established”. As in, men who have a career, a house, etc. I then asked her if she had ever met a 20-something in her life.
Adamant as ever, my mom continued. “When women get older, they are done, they’re over. But men, in their 60s, 70s, they’re still going. They’re still strong.”
The mouth hung open.
“That…doesn’t seem right.”
She paused and rephrased her statement. “When women get older, and they have one, two kids… their bodies change. And men, they start looking for something new.”
Maybe there was the slightest saving grace in her first statement, given the fact that men do tend to be physically stronger than women in old age, but to say that women are “over ''? That they’re “done”? I found nothing justifiable in that, nor in her latter assertion. Both seemed to me to be the result of wider cultural narratives about women.
When women get to a certain age, typically their thirties, they begin to lose what makes them worthy in the eyes of a patriarchal society. As reproductive functions slow to an eventual stop and the natural signs of a life fully lived appear: wrinkles or saggy skin, women can no longer serve the gender roles made for them: the sex object and the mother. Without fertility or sexual appeal, aging women are resigned to powerlessness and shame.
When men age they continue to be valued as leaders, as careersmen. They face much less ageism in the workplace. They become CEOs and legislators, they even cultivate a new kind of sex appeal. I mean, there’s a reason the phrase “Men age like fine wine, women age like milk” exists. Women, it seems, don’t age. We expire.
My parents' sudden embrace of all things romance was no coincidence. As my sister and I age, we enter the stage of life where we shift from being just their children, to being wives and mothers. This, as patriarchy would dictate it, is the natural next step in our lives. Miss it and you’ll regret it.
I clearly remember the day my sister got accepted to Emory University’s public health program during the pandemic. Ever quick to stifle her excitement and happiness, my dad sat down and grilled her about her academic and life plans. Despite her explanations, he kept circling back to asking her when her career would begin, and when she would begin her life. “Beginning life” implying marriage and kids, of course. As if all that would be left of her by the time she was a horrifying thirty years old, would be a shriveled up uterus.
Strong as ever, my sister remained firm. “Would you be saying this if I was a guy, Papa? That’s sexist.”
My parents' casual misogyny reminded me of an increasingly popular beauty trend that came to my attention through its recent fame on TikTok. As the stigma around plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures decline, young women are warming up to the idea of ‘preventative action’ towards the physical indicators of aging (namely wrinkles) in the form of “Baby Botox”. Baby Botox is a fine tuned version of Botox. Involving smaller units of filler and precise injections, it offers a subtle, personalized and friendlier alternative to the classic cosmetic operation. The danger lies, most notably, in Baby Botox’s brand. Plastic surgeons hail the procedure as an anti-aging treatment that smooths out fine lines and prevents the formation of future wrinkles (as well as current ones from getting deeper), all for a more youthful look.
Though traditional Botox users are middle-aged women, the average consumer seems to be getting younger, creating a phenomenon “not seen five years ago,” no thanks to influencers and social media driving beauty trends. There's a sense of desperation in our generation to prevent aging, as if youth could be preserved akin to an Instagram photo capturing a moment in time forever. It’s reflected in the modern skincare craze and the success of an ever-growing $168 billion+ anti-aging industry.
In true liberal feminist fashion, many women tend to shrug their shoulders and repeat the “let-women-do-what-makes-them-happy” mantra. But this is ultimately a disservice to ourselves, as this resigned attitude completely ignores the implications of these social norms beyond their individual impact. Cosmetic procedures sustain the notion that the clock is ticking for women. To maintain the illusion of power and freedom, we protect the most important asset we are taught that we possess: our beauty. (Which, in many cultures including the West, is synonymous with youth.)
While there’s not much women can do to slow fertility-related aging, beauty can be sustained with the right practices, leading women to believe they’re “empowered” by such procedures. The reality is that we’re simply lengthening the time we’re desirable as long as we can stretch it. We don’t ask ourselves why we feel the need to get these procedures in the first place. Or, why our worth is so defined by our appearance that we undertake risky permanent/ semi-permanent procedures that only serve corporations and men’s sexual fantasies. We end up trying to find loopholes in the rules of patriarchy instead of demanding their erasure.
It’s funny, because for women it’s always a catch-22. Refuse to submit to beauty standards and you must simultaneously accept your eventual undesirability and societal irrelevance. Play the game and you’re ostracized by wider society for getting cosmetic procedures and end up sacrificing a part of your humanity. It’s a double-bind, as @rogueweasel on TikTok puts it eloquently:
Fear of aging permeates both sexes, though its impacts on women are far more complex. I feel the alternative lies in the way some cultures welcome aging. Funlayo Alabi recalls how where she grew up in Nigeria, aging is celebrated with a sense of “power and accomplishment”. Women don’t shy away from the increasing double-digits; they wear them proudly as evidence of their maturity and gratitude for life. Elderly women are respected and revered as wise and valuable members of society. Molly Crabapple also writes about the strength and resilience of aging women in her reflection “On Turning 30”:
“Staying alive has power. The years should give you competence and toughness along with the battle scars. You've survived. Fuck anyone who would keep life's beauty from your grasp….Yes, you get older, but you can also grow tougher, kinder, braver. You can claw out the life you wanted. But as you age, the world will tell you you're less worthy, even if you know that's a lie. If there's one thing society won't stand for, it's for a woman to be content.”
I was working at my parents’ store this past winter break when I overheard my mom and a customer laughing and discussing buying property from a particularly difficult man in the area.
“Getting some land and building a house for my girls…that’s my dream,” she had told the customer before they left.
After the conversation, I pressed her for more information. She told me that she actually did own a local residential property and jokingly asked if I wanted to live there. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. In that small town? I didn’t think so. As she sobered up from the lighthearted conversation she began lecturing me on owning property in the future.
“Make sure that wherever you live in the future, your payments are going towards owning the house, not renting it...”
I nodded and continued to work.
“Because in this world, women have nothing.”
My head snapped up at the tears in her voice. Her face had crumpled and her eyes were red. I watched her in silence as she dabbed at them with her shirt before composing herself and walking away.
I’ll be honest, when I hear my mom say and do misogynistic things, I want to be mad at her. I often am. But, to the absolute dismay of my younger self, I also sympathize with her. Just a bit. I know it’s out of fear when my mom advises my sister and I to get married to “established men”, fear of the hopelessness and worthlessness she feels in old age, as so many women do. For all the misogyny she internalized and never questioned, for all the misogyny she perpetuated, if this is how she views the world, then what must she think of herself?
I pray you & I don’t end up the same.
Nabiha Nur is a copyeditor and writer at Rowdy Magazine. She's a big fan of sci-fi, noodles, bollywood songs, and Shrek 2. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.