Stereotypes of individuals are pernicious for countless reasons and serve no useful societal purpose. Some will argue that not all stereotypes are negative and that there are some that convey positive impressions of certain categories of individuals. However, even seemingly benign or positive stereotypes contribute to some of the same divisive results as negative stereotypes. And the current climate calls out for even more diligence in combatting stereotypes.
I want to talk about my experience as an older woman as we are one of the groups most often depicted dismissively.
Before doing so, it's worth highlighting just a few of the negative impacts resulting from reliance on and perpetuation of stereotypes. They:
- allow some individuals or groups to characterize and categorize others without ever getting to know or interact with them;
- provide a false sense of superiority to individuals clinging to them;
- harden, rather than ease, societal divisions;
- create an "echo chamber" potential so that those about whom the stereotypes are applied have to fight vigorously to avoid absorbing the burdens and limitations of the particular characterization.
Negative stereotypes abound about older individuals and some of he harshest and dismissive ones are aimed at older women. My women friends who, like me, fall into the AARP cohort often talk about our common experiences of poof! suddenly becoming invisible.
We are often literally, as well as figuratively, not seen. When does this happen? The examples are endless but a few common ones are being ignored or kept waiting longer or simple not heard when we're waiting for service in restaurants or stores. Does this happen only when there are other younger appearing individuals being helped? Yes, sometimes but not all the time.
So what's the answer? Yes, it should be easier as we get older to handle responses from others that can range from the merely amusing to the outright discriminatory. Rather than just being pissed off (a naturally understandable reaction), what can older women do to reclaim any lost visibility?
First -- and most obviously -- each older woman's response must be one with which she's comfortable and that feels authentic to her. So the first -- and maybe the most uncomfortable step -- is to take time to think about one's true self -- the way one wants to be seen as opposed to the way others see or want to see you.
So I did this kind of soul searching and came up with several affirming approaches. I wanted to express what the creative instincts I've long seen as a core part of who I am. The most visible reflection is that I'd always wanted some bold hair color. I've given full vent to that with that with a big swath of hair now colored teal/emerald green with a smaller swath of royal purple. I've had this color combo for nearly 2 years, have never tired of it and love that it reflects me, right now in my life. And one of the continuously unexpected joys is the spontaneous positive reactions from younger women who say something along the lines of "I love seeing an older woman doing that!"
My teal/emerald green/purple streaks aren't an attempt to be cool or younger. No, they're my way of visually expressing part of the person I am and want to be. I'm not suggesting this approach for other older women; no, but what I am suggesting strongly is that each of us, to the extent possible, think about the person we want to be, how we can manifest that to the world and by doing so, fight back against the stereotype that older women are, or should become, less visible. Let's each find the way or ways that give voice to our individualism by embracing being older women who have the joy of being who we want to be.