‘Do you mind if I ask how old you are?’
It was an off-the-cuff question from an eighteen year old boy. He faltered a little by the end, realising too late that he might be breaking etiquette, crossing a line. I’m his employer. It’s none of his business. I probably should have reminded him of that.
Instead, I laughed. I’m a modern woman, right? This question shouldn’t scare me.
‘I turned fifty this year,’ I said, keeping my tone neutral.
‘What, really?’ he dared to say. ‘If you don’t mind me saying so…’
At this point I realised I should have stopped him. I should have reminded that whipper-snapper, younger than my oldest child, that he didn’t have a right to ‘say so’. He could have received my honest reply and continued the train of thought that caused him to ask me in the first place, mid-conversation, packing customer groceries in our workplace.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so, you look good for your age.’
Now that he’d said it, I did mind, actually, that I was supposed to feel flattered by the gaze of a young man, barely a man, still a boy, and his nod of approval that I was holding my age well. To him, it was a compliment. Why should it make me feel unworthy, invisible, insulted? Not just for myself but on behalf of all women my generation. Who was he measuring me by?
I could have said, ‘Now wait a minute.’ I could have I said, ‘Why should I care what you think?’ I probably should have said something, anything but, ‘Thanks,’ and let it slide because that particular subject is just too big and too loaded to even go there with five minutes left to seal the boxes, load the van and hit the road.
I drove my delivery route, stewing that I hadn’t put him in his place, reminded him of his privilege and why words like ‘feminism’ are still relevant and useful in day to day life.
Would he even say that to a man? Or a younger woman? No doubt he said it because, at eighteen, fifty seems old. A generation ago we would have expected to have grandchildren by mid-life, and grandparents are old, right? I suppose when I was naive and eighteen I thought fifty was old, too. Not ‘elderly’ but definitely the wrong side of ‘young’.
The prospect of getting older doesn’t scare me. It’s all still a bit of an unknown, this stage I’m at, like another puberty only more dignified, that my hormones are shifting and my body and skin are changing. Certainly, silver hair and smile lines have been with me for a while now. I don’t pretend I can wear crop tops, short skirts and scoop necklines anymore. Make-up is less flattering. My waist is thickening and none of me looks or feels toned anymore, but I don’t care, because I still feel young, most of the time.
I value my health and for certain the prospect of becoming less healthy as I age does scare me. But having wisdom and patience, order and serenity, in my life is a happy pay-off. Given the chance, I would never choose to return to my younger self except to say, ‘You’ll be alright. Everything will be okay. Love yourself a little more.’
Maybe today wasn’t the day to give a young man a lesson about patriarchy. I’ll leave it for someone else another time. Someone more invested in the value of his gaze. In my mind’s eye, I will match this short blog with a beautiful image of a middle-aged woman, but do you think I can find one among the creative commons that’s real and relatable, and not a business headshot?
Fuck it, I’ll post one of myself. Eye bags, braces, smile lines and all. This is fifty. This is me.