Susan Sontag - 'On Women'

On Women Ageing


“For most women ageing means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification.” Susan Sontag

I remember that as a young second wave feminist, we never gave a thought to being old. We can probably blame it on the arrogance of youth. The  incredulity that you will ever age. The feeling that you will live forever. We were soaring with strength and feeling invincible, fighting for the rights of women – for gender equality, the right to higher education, employment, control over our reproductive rights with contraception and abortion. These were all fundamental women’s rights and we were totally justified in fighting for them. They were issues that directly affected us. But we never really realised that they were primarily issues affecting younger women. We were essentially advocating for feminism for younger women. 

The issues that affected older women never even crossed our minds. And why would they? At the time, there was nothing approaching a feminist perspective on ageing. The ageism, the invisibility, the loss of value, the toxic combination of sexism and ageism that bars older women from the workforce, the homelessness, the poverty, and what Forbes describes as the “woefully understudied “ health issues specific to older women.  

Feminists in the late 20th century simply did not see older women. They were invisible to us, just as now that we are older, we have become invisible to the rest of society.

But there was one woman who did write about women ageing. It was Susan Sontag, a highly esteemed and controversial American essayist, critic, novelist and filmmaker. In 1972, when she herself was a beautiful and very cool young woman at the centre of  New York cultural and social circles, she had the intellectual depth to explore what happens to women as we age. With razor sharp insight and devastating language, she denounced the double standard facing women compared to men. 

Sontag’s writing is particularly relevant today because we are witnessing the consequences of this double standard of ageing. 

Below is an excerpt from her essay ‘The Double Standard of Ageing’ (1972)  re-published in the book ‘Susan Sontag – On Women’. 

‘The Double Standard of Ageing’

“It is particularly women who experience growing older (everything that comes before one is actually old) with such distaste and even shame.

The emotional privileges this society confers upon youth stirs up some anxiety about getting older in everybody. Getting older is less profoundly wounding for a man, for in addition to the propaganda for youth that puts both men and women on the defensive as they age, there is a double standard about ageing that denounces women with special severity. 

Thus, for most women ageing means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification.

Since women are considered maximally eligible in early youth, after which their sexual value drops steadily, even young women feel themselves in a desperate race against the calendar. They are old as soon as they are not very young.

Ageing is much more a social judgement than a biological eventuality.

Ageing is a movable doom. It is a crisis that never exhausts itself, because the anxiety is never really used up.

Added on to the pressure felt by everybody in this society to look young as long as possible are the values of ‘femininity’, which specifically identify sexual attractiveness in women with youth. The desire to be the ‘right age’  has a special urgency for a woman it never has for a man. A much greater part of her self-esteem and pleasure in life is threatened when she ceases to be young.   Most men experience getting older with regret, apprehension. But most women experience it more painfully: with shame. 

For the normal changes that age inscribes on every human face, women are much more heavily penalised than men…In women this perfectly natural process is regarded as a humiliating defeat, while nobody finds anything remarkably unattractive in the equivalent physical changes in men. Men are “ allowed” to look older without sexual penalty. Good looks in a man is a bonus, not a psychological necessity for maintaining normal self-esteem.

The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair is a defeat.

This is not to say there are no beautiful older women. But the standard of beauty in a woman of any age is how far she retains, or how she manages to simulate, the appearance of youth.

…Society allows no place in our imagination for a beautiful old woman who does look like an old woman…An older woman is, by definition, sexually repulsive – unless, in fact she doesn’t look old at all…

The double standard about ageing converts the life of women into an inexorable march towards a condition in which they are not just unattractive, but disgusting. ..

Ageing in a woman is a process of becoming obscene sexually, for the flabby bosom, wrinkled neck, spotted hands, thinning white hair, waistless torso, and veined legs of an old woman are felt to be obscene.…a withered repulsive crone. 

There is no equivalent nightmare about men.

..Men are not subject to the barely concealed revulsion expressed in this culture against the female body – except in its smooth, youthful, firm, odourless, blemish-free form.

Women have another option.They can aspire to be wise, not merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be strong, not merely graceful; to be ambitious for themselves, not merely in relation to men and children. 

They can let themselves age naturally and without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from this society’s double standard about ageing. Instead of being girls, girls as long as possible, who then age humiliatingly into middle-aged women and then obscenely into old women, they can become women much earlier – and remain active adults, enjoying the long, erotic career of which women are capable, far longer. 

Women should allow their faces to show the lives they have lived. 

Women should tell the truth.”




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