Sunday, 24 July 2011

Is there a polite term for . .

older women?

A week or so ago I blogged about Emily Harrison - a brilliant young poet. In the course of this blog I described myself as 'wrinkly' and a 'crone.'

Francis commented - quite reasonably - that these are derogatory terms; I belittle myself by bringing up my age in this way. These are not terms I would use to describe a man. She's right - I wouldn't use them to describe a man. And there I stop, and think - I'm not sure what words I would use to describe a man my age. Geezer? Certainly not. 'Pensioner' sounds far too old, and doesn't include gender. Drawing attention to receding hairlines is too personal.

And - taking this a step further - 'wrinkly' and 'crone' are not words I would use to describe anyone other than myself. I use far kinder words when thinking of my friends. Mostly I use their names - that is enough to underpin the feisty, independent, funny women that they are. At a push they are 'older women' - that gives them dignity, gravitas.

The trouble is that I don't feel dignified. My head is still somewhere in my twenties. But I know my body carries all the indignities of its sixty years. I walk down the street and men look through me. I am sure my grandchildren will, before long, ask if I remember the Romans. And the only way I know to manage this dissonance is to laugh at myself - at the incongruity of dancing round the kitchen while waiting for my hot chocolate to cool down; the way I rub my arthritic knees and then think, maybe, I should go to Nepal in the winter and trek the Annapurnas.

Which leaves me in a quandary. I don't feel I fit the term 'older woman' - it smacks of common sense, and comfortable shoes. So, what do I call myself? I'm happy to laugh at myself, and to use terms like 'wrinkly' and 'crone' - I'm happy in my own aging skin. And there are huge advantages to landing, healthily, into late middle age. Women my age are invisible. We sit in corners in cafes, and people take no notice. We earwig conversations - during a recent trip to America I scribbled, word for word, an argument between three women regarding the need to affirm the self-esteem of their teenaged daughters, all of whom were launched into serious diets. They talked as if I wasn't there. (In evolutionary terms, our usefulness lies in caring for grandchildren. And if invading soldiers are unable to see us, we are more likely to keep those children safe.)

So - how to incorporate all these advantages of aging? 'Crone' - maybe is too harsh; it smacks of Macbeth's witches. But 'wrinkly' - that feels, to me, a wry way of laughing at myself. It doesn't take the realities of age too seriously.

But I do take Francis's point - maybe I have not done other older women any favours.

So - what words would you use? For older women - and men?


  1. This is not, of course, restricted to women or men of whatever age - the question of what we are allowed to call ourselves, and how and whether it differs from what others are allowed to call us, is one of the most vexed we face. I tend to follow the principle that we may call ourselves whatever we wish, and will regularly (as will my wife of herself) refer to myself as a fruitloop or nutjob. Reclaiming taboo words is as old as the hills as it were - think, amongst others, of the word "Tory", and in current times terms such as queer. The only time I've come across real venom was from the recent "slutwalk" when many women objected in the most vociferous terms to any attempt to reclaim the word slut. Their argument was, as you suggest, "think of how it reflects on others". I have to say, my immediate reaction (and it's conditioned by years of being an outsider in most groups of which I am consiered part, and long experience of majority-led peer pressure) tends to be "why am I always to think of how the things I *do* affects others when those others never consider how the things we *do not do* affects me?"

    So I would say call yourself whatever you want to call yourself. Group and category status is overrated as a concept. you are you before you are your age, your gender, your race or status or anything else.

  2. Dan - I agree, mostly. I can call myself whatever I like, but no-one else can.

    But does that include on blogs? Do I have to think about how I 'represent', if you like, older women. It's one thing to laugh at myself at home, but hard to indicate that tongue-in-cheekness on paper, to people who have never met me.

    So - write as if age doesn't matter? Often I do, but in that piece it was very relevant, since I wanted to think about that joy of discovering talent in one so young, when one is old enough to be beyond envy. And age is a huge issue in the book - so yes, there are times when it matters. And maybe I need to be careful how I phrase things when I am trying to think about how things are for other older women. But that won't stop me taking the piss out of myself at home!

  3. To me, your gentle, self-effacing wit shines through that post. Then again, being hoisted by my own pet toad, just as it is not someone else's place to tell me how to refer to myself, it is not my place to tell someone else not to be offended. It's a minefield!

  4. A minefield indeed. And I seem to have stepped on one. Do hope Francis joins in - I'd really like to hear her point of view.

  5. Hello Jo: Oh dear, I didn't mean to start something ... I was against the self- disparagement more than against the terms, largely because I agree with Dan, that you are who you are before you are your age, race, gender etc., and that who you are shines through your writing. Not taking yourself too seriously doesn't mean that you have to laugh at yourself...heavens, I'm really sounding like a grumpy old woman now, aren't I? (I assure you that I am wearing long high-heeled boots: not at all sensible).
    By the way, why not just "older" rather than "older woman"?

  6. Frances - I'm glad you did start something. How else do ideas get an airing? I've found it interesting to think about this - and I'm not sure I have an answer. I don't see myself as being self-disparaging, but if that's the button I press for someone else, then I have to think about that.
    Like all writing, I suppose - it becomes a slightly different story from the one we think we have told once it is in someone else's head.
    So - thank you, for prompting me to think about this.

  7. To me, wrinkly is gender-free, but I still don't like it. It sounds like someone sitting in the corner in a wheelchair smelling faintly of pee, which is not a vision any of us welcome.

    On "crone", we were on Crete a couple of years ago and kept spotting little crones in black doing their shopping or (true story) whizzing around the island on their mopeds. We decided we needed a name for the male version, whom we mostly saw propping up bars, muttering to themselves or anyone who'd listen. My daughter hit on the word "mone". So now we have crones and mones.