I used to cloak my age like a closely held trade secret. When asked to confirm my date of birth at a pharmacy or doctor’s office, I’d omit the year. At alumni events, if my name tag had my graduation year on it, I’d conveniently lose it. If anyone dared to ask how old I was, I’d politely tell them it’s no one’s business but mine.
About a year ago, I finally admitted to myself that such subterfuge was rooted in fear. Specifically, I was concerned about my professional longevity. As being on television and social media videos became a bigger part of my job, my age became a bigger worry. Once, while trying to use large sunglasses to hide the telltale little bumps from a fresh Botox injection in the “11s” between my brows, I asked myself if I’d go through that pain and expense if I weren’t on TV. The answer was no. That was my last cosmetic jab.
And as I approach my 50th birthday at the end of this month, I’m done hiding my age. Call me Sally O’Malley.
There is a reason we as women think so much about our age: Society won’t let us forget it. Take, for example, the recent kerfuffle over CNN’s Don Lemon proclaiming presidential hopeful Nikki Haley to be past her prime. (He later apologized, sort of.) Also recall the firing of popular Canadian news anchor Lisa LaFlamme, which was curiously timed after she let her hair go gray during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her former network, CVT, denies that was the reason. But she was replaced by a 39-year-old man.
According to an AARP survey, 2 out of 3 women over 50 say they have experienced discrimination.
That bias isn’t just an annoying drag. Research shows that gendered ageism takes a physical and mental toll on those who experience it, increasing the risk of anxiety, mental distress, high blood pressure, substance abuse, and even cognitive decline. The burden of such discrimination weighs even heavier on women of color because the intersection of gender, age, and race is always a perilous collision course.
Then there is the gaslighting. The older women get, the more they are admonished to age gracefully, told to dress their age, and excoriated if they show signs of artificial enhancement. (Leave Madonna alone!) But at the same time, society renders them invisible if they don’t look like J.Lo.
All because the value of a woman is still, in many ways, skin deep.
“Ageism hits women harder, in part, because women are valued by their appearance,” said Anne Barrett, a sociology professor at Florida State University.
So when, exactly, is a woman in her prime? Lemon said to google it. I did, even though I didn’t need to. The answer is never. Particularly in professional settings, women experience ageism from the moment they enter the working world until long after retirement. No matter what age a woman is, it’s the wrong one.
When I became a lawyer at the age of 25, I began wearing high heels, literally trying to occupy more physical space to be taken more seriously by opposing counsel and judges, who were usually male. I was still mistaken as a student or a defendant, or insultingly asked: “When did you graduate law school?”
In my 30s, after switching to a career in journalism, I felt another age-related land mine for women: the reproductive years. I was once asked during a newspaper job interview if I intended to start a family soon and told that if I was, it probably was not a great job for me. (I guess he missed the line in my resume about being a former employment discrimination litigator.) Friends my age would hide their pregnancies behind oversized blazers and work bags as long as they could, lest they be passed over for plumb work assignments and projects. A working womb was seen as a workplace liability.
What comes later is scarier. So much so that the immensely talented actors Jennifer Coolidge and Michelle Yeoh had to take precious time during their recent respective award acceptance speeches to remind older women that they still have worth. So much so that I paid someone to put botulism in my face. The cold reality is women are punished for aging far more often than they are celebrated for it.
And given the country’s current trajectory, when lawmakers in states like Florida are pushing bans on even the discussion of sexism and ageism in schools and universities, it’s not likely to get better any time soon.
So I’m doing my small little part by coming out of the shadows. You’ll have to take me and my 11s as we are.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.