Photo credit Jeannie Cole
There was a brief moment there, must of been my early 20s, when I thought that women of a certain age were not subject to the same contradictory demands and humiliations as younger women. I believed that we all would eventually reach a point when projecting the right image on the outside wouldn’t require such a difficult balance act within. No more: act friendly but not over-eager, look attractive but not too sexy, and be confident but not overbearing. Ah, ignorance. You’re not quite bliss, but you are certainly low-maintenance.
Well, ladies, it doesn’t stop. Luckily we have Annabelle Gurwitch to guide us through the pleasures and horrors of being a woman over 50. The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss spoke with Gurwitch about her new book of essays “I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50” and why 50 is not, nor has ever been the new 40. (Sorry 40, this also means you are not the new 30.)
Elissa Strauss: Why did you write this book?
Annabelle Gurwitch: I realized I was surprised by all these things I was feeling after I turned 50. One day you look in the mirror and see your mother’s face, and it’s not just her features, it’s her attitude, and you think I am in a different moment now. And I don’t just mean that in a neurotic “I should spend all my money on La Mer cream” way, it’s so much more. You start asking yourself big questions: am I happy in my life? Have I gotten somewhere? Each essay is about realizing who I am in this new moment.
There must be a good side to that too, right?
Yes, I saw that I had certain definitions of myself and who I should become that were really limiting me. I realized that this age was allowing me to say that I have to finally let go of those things, otherwise I will be unhappy.
So, I’m about midway through my 30s and recently discovered that the whole 40 is the new 30 thing is a lie. Reading your book, it seems like 50 is the new 40 never stood a chance, even as a fantasy.
This saying is such a pervasive canard in my opinion. At first, I used to like it. I thought “Yes! Sounds good to me.” But it is reductive, it is doing us a huge disservice. Because it isn’t true.
Our biology is different than our culture, which focuses so much on youth. And yes, we are living longer, but at 50 I said goodbye to my fertility. It’s serious and I just wasn’t prepared for it. Not that I wanted to have more children, but I had to accept the reality that there is no turning back.
How is aging different for women?
For many us women who had children later, we are finding ourselves in the what they call the Sandwich Generation. We are taking care of our kids and our parents at the same time. This particularly impacts women who are still the primary caregivers. Also, I still have to work because of the downturn in the economy and we have to retire later.
But there is this other thing that happened, and it is about sisterhood. I have never so urgently felt the need for my girlfriends and my sister until this age. Gender equality has made it so men and women share a lot of experiences now. But this moment when our biology changes, that is something only shared by women, and only women understand.
And what about the obsession with looking young on the outside?
What are we supposed to look like? What are we supposed to do?I don’t have any answers. I am trying to walk a middle road. I know it is ridiculous. When I say I just want to look like the best version of myself, what does that mean? Was it when I was 30? There is no winning.
Gloria Steinem had a facelift. I point that out in the book and when it happened I thought: “What a betrayal!”
The fact is, we like it when it is good work. I think it is mistake for any of us to judge any of us for what we do. It is a slippery slope.
My favorite scene is you shopping for high-end skincare products and a luxury department store, and the particular combination of shame and empowerment that that experience entails. Why are we so intimidated by ladies whose job it is to sell us very expensive things?
I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with Jewish mothers. My mother always told me I had to get dressed up otherwise I wouldn’t get good service.
This book made me think a lot of the mothers who came before me, and the things they did to take care of themselves which mostly consisted of large jars of Ponds cold cream. Now that I am thinking about them, why did earlier generations of Jewish women all have these huge breasts? Where did they go?
Really though, they had a gained a position of respect with age, and I have been thinking a lot about that lately. I put on the bottom of my business card “Since 1961.”
Okay, since this is the Forward, let’s go Jew. You speak a lot about feeling Jewy, looking Jewy, but at the same time you are an atheist. What is your relationship to us Heebs these days, as you get older?
There is something very Jewish about my sense of humor. I am a secular, humanist Jew and yet still I am getting more Jewish every day of my life. It started when I had my son Ezra and worrying about his eating. At 16, I am still wake up and make him breakfast every morning. Now the word “oy” is in every email — all those old Jewish person sounds are starting to come out of me.
I think this is about going deep into my roots. As you get older you become more and more like your real self. I think I was running away from it.
This interview has been edited for length and style.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
50 Is Not the New 40