Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking

The M Word

Ma’am - the other four-letter word

Posted Sep 24, 2015

shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

My cousin is recently divorced, very successful, attractive, a lawyer, has an Ivy League education, and slightly over 40 with no children. A supermarket employee recently called her ma’am. My ultra rational lawyer cousin lost it:  “I do not look like a ma’am!” she ranted. I tried to comfort her by saying the kid (in his 20’s) was trying to be respectful.  She wasn’t buying it, and even though I was trying hard to sell it, neither was I, because when men call women ma’am, most times, it is because they have desexualized them. Why is this so disturbing to many women?

Gender Perspective

Free Usage Google Images
Mick Jagger: The years have been brutal and the weekends have been worse
Source: Free Usage Google Images

There is a gender bias with this that is politically disturbing. When men age they become more desirable, when women age the opposite is true. However, not all older men are distinguished. Some of these old male rock stars look like a blurry aerial photo of Hurricane Katrina. Even then, they do not get the criticism that women do for daring to have a laugh line.  Procreation is the reason for this.  After a certain age women can no longer produce offspring, while men can theoretically procreate until death.  

Procreation should not be the prime human agenda concern in these days of overpopulation.  However, our biology still has that early evolutionary mindset, which is not likely to change in our lives. So from one perspective, this manifestation of ageism is just the sexist bi-product of our dysfunctional social species whose biology discordant with its technology and sociology. In addition, even though society's easier on them, men aren’t embracing becoming ‘distinguished’ looking either, hence the successful sales of Grecian formula, hair plugs and convertible muscle cars. So it goes beyond reproductive biologic function.  

A Sociological Perspective  

Permission Artisan of Beauty Beverly Hills
Skin removed in a tummy tuck 
Source: Permission Artisan of Beauty Beverly Hills

So why do we binge on the sweetness of the grape of youth, and try and purge the sweetness of the wine it makes when vintage is added.  Granted, it’s sad when getting lucky means walking into a room and remembering what you came in to get. But how about the wisdom of knowing you can’t save the world, but you can save yourself by being a decent, healthy human being who is kind to others, which is actually saving the world – and that self-awareness is all of the recognition you need.  Surely that is worth something. Yet there are no magazines on the stand featuring centerfolds that are wise and self-satisfied. Plastic surgeons are the only physicians these days that are consistently making money.  In addition, they are only making money on cosmetic procedures, because Americans spent 11 billion dollars last year on “face lifts, Botox, and breast augmentations alone – that's not even counting the lip injections, the men removing the man boobs resulting from bad diets and sedentary lifestyles, butt implants, cheek implants, etc. etc. etc. implants.[1] Dr. Tim Neavin, renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, says:

"Sometimes it's challenging for men and women to accept aging because the media feeds us the beauty commodity on a hourly basis.  Plastic surgeons are equally guilty for artificially recreating the physical norm. However, no knife, needle or pill can replace the inner beauty of wisdom and resilience we earn as the clock ticks away."  

Brain Perspective

Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

Part of our obsession with age is procreation based, and monitored and driven by Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), which is a part of the reward circuitry of the brain; it monitors our basic needs, such as eating, breeding, and socializing.[2-4] More dopamine, (the brain’s happy dance drug) is released on the anticipation of reward.[5] The anticipation of procreation rewards from older women is less than with younger women, hence the lack of VTA appeal. However, the VTA is a subcortical structure, so it doesn’t think, it just responds to environmental and bodily cues. Thus it is easily tricked, which is why masturbation is rewarding. The VTA misinterprets the bodily cues of masturbation as breeding and releases dopamine.  This is because the cortex, which also houses visual imagination and higher cognitive processes has figured out how to trick the rudimentary subcortical structure into releasing dopamine on the antiipation of something that is not going to happen.   So why can’t the cortex influence the subcortical portions of the reward system to value aging women?  Conceivably the constant influence of the media’s pro-youth message dissuades the cortex from wanting to intervene. Living in an industrial society, where the most valued years are the prime work years may also be a contributing factor.    

 University of Michigan M Club and Levchenko LTD
Source: Permission: University of Michigan M Club and Levchenko LTD

Youth and prettiness are social currencies.  No matter how educated or wealthy you are it is better if you are also pretty.  That is why my cousin was so disturbed. Being called ‘ma’am’ announced the end of the power of pretty because we don’t distinguish between pretty and beauty.  Pretty is a thing that comes with youth, beauty is a force that accompanies age and wisdom. Humans are a whole consisting of individuals, and in our individual life processes we have moments of prettiness, ugliness, beauty, youngness and oldness, which is an inconvenient truth for Madison Avenue, so they try and obscure it with a constant generic message that beauty is limited to pretty, which is a lie.  Regrettably, studies have shown if you tell a lie often enough, humans will believe it even when the truth is presented.[6] We have to be who we are, and accept that the Universe is wiser about our journey than Madison Avenue that says you can’t be this, you can’t be that, you’re too this, you’re too that, you're too black, you're too old, and you're too fat. 

Shutter stock Purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon
Source: Shutter stock Purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon

Our world is brutal. We need every weapon and all currencies, which is why people, and particularly women, try to cling onto youth and pretty.  However, the most important currency is a sense of self and respect for the life process and the beauty within. You have to accept where you are, and move forward trusting the Universe. A woman's worth is more than the ability to give birth. So take a lesson from Barbara Bush, and wear your gray hair proudly. The ma’am distinction is not the older woman’s problem, it’s society’s problem. And that is merciful because it doesn’t matter what society thinks about women, what matters is what women think about them selves.  Remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

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UCLA Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the David Geffen School of Medicine


1.      Plastic Surgery Expenditures 2013. Available from:

2.      Bossert, J.M., et al., A role of ventral tegmental area glutamate in contextual cue-induced relapse to heroin seeking. J Neurosci, 2004. 24(47): p. 10726-30.

3.      Polter, A.M. and J.A. Kauer, Stress and VTA synapses: implications for addiction and depression. Eur J Neurosci, 2014. 39(7): p. 1179-88.

4.      Ting, A.K.R., et al., Ventral tegmental area GABA neurons and opiate motivation. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 2013. 227(4): p. 697-709.

5.      Wise, R.A. and P.P. Rompre, Brain dopamine and reward. Annu Rev Psychol, 1989. 40: p. 191-225.

6.      Lynn Hasher 1, D.G., Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1977. 16(1): p. 107-112.

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