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Do You Suffer From "Age Shame"?

Get over getting older.

To invite joy and happiness in, we can break the vicious circle of shame, silence, stigma and secrecy that surrounds who we truly are. And that includes how old we are.

Consider the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that still holds sway in many circles when it comes to the subject of age.

Women have long been shamed for growing older—which is, after all, everyone’s wish. Women have actually been taught to conceal their age, to joke and even lie about it, to treat it as a shameful little secret.

”Oops,” someone said, introducing me awhile back. “I almost gave her age away!” I was heartened that no one in this audience laughed. Almost immediately, I found a way to casually share my age with my listeners. If a light-skinned African-American person was introduced by joking, “Oops! I almost gave her race away!” we’d find the implications distressing rather than amusing.

What’s interesting is that so many women still collude with the notion that if we are over a certain age, we shouldn’t tell. We may fail to say proudly, or at least matter-of-factly, “I’m fifty-two” or I’m seventy-six” or even, “I’m thirty-seven.”

By staying silent, we perpetuate the notion that there is something shameful or lesser about growing older. We further shame and disempower ourselves, and all women, by agreeing that it is best to conceal the number of years we have been alive.

You get beyond shame by telling. Yes, there can be negative consequences. You may not get the job you applied for and deserve. Someone may stereotype you, or decide to not ask you on a date. But I guarantee you won’t be censured, castigated, shunned, or imprisoned if you casually mention at the next party you attend that that you’ll turn 51 next month. So maybe you can start there.

You can share your age with others much the same way you share what work you do, or where you grew up. If you do so, you'll be in good company. On her 74th birthday, Maya Angelou said on the Oprah Winfrey Show that her breasts were in a race to see which could get to her waist first. The audience of women laughed, immediately and uproariously. They loved her combination of candor and humor because it didn’t leave a whole lot of room for shame.

Gloria Steinem got a similar response when she mentioned lightly in a keynote address that she has reached the age where she can’t remember how she liked her eggs. You can probably think of other people you admire, like writer Anne Lamott, who use a kind of a self-deprecating humor that is actually empowering because it strips away something hidden for everyone to see and refuses to skulk around in silence and fear.

Considering the horribly shaming messages that people receive around issues of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, the matter of age may seem like a trivial one. But it’s not. Colluding with the notion that older is lesser disempowers women, convincing us that we are less valuable with each passing birthday.

What would happen if all of us openly shared our ages without reticence or apology? What if, together, all women refused to treat age like a shameful secret or a “confession”?

I believe the world would change tomorrow.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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