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Kristen Houghton

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Challenging the Gender Inequality of Aging

Posted: 02/03/11 08:51 AM ET

"Around the time I turned 40, I noticed a new group of males were finding me attractive. It happened as much in the boardroom as it did in social settings. Not at all shy, this group, comprised of men well into their 60's, would ask friends and acquaintances if I 'was available.' Being newly divorced I found it flattering but also disconcerting. What about the 60-ish women? I knew some very attractive women in that age group; why weren't men interested in them first? That question bothered me then and bothers me still. Why don't older men want to date older women?"

The woman who wrote this e-mail to me is describing the issue commonly known as the gender inequality of aging. It happens often and it's been around for centuries. The older male and younger female issue has always been an accepted part of relationships.

In a society where the term "cougar" is currently used to denote sexy and attractive women of a "certain age" who are in relationships with younger men, it can seem incongruous to think many older women are not in any type of relationship at all; that they are overlooked by society's men. The reality is that not all women are cougars. Being a cougar has its requirements.

Cougars are a select breed mostly comprised of celebrities and financially well-off women who, as they age, have the resources as well as the money to remake and refresh their looks. This is not to say that a woman in her 40s, 50s and 60s is not capable of looking fantastic and being sexy; not at all. Look at Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren, both of whom who shun plastic surgery. They look beautiful at their age.

But, if you are the average woman, your income may not be enough for the upkeep, and it is the upkeep that is a cougar cornerstone. So while an older woman may be sexy and attractive, she's not the hot young woman an older man is looking for.

For your information, any cougar who says she got her new look through diet and exercise is not being truthful. Diet and exercise certainly help but it is the scalpel and fillers that created the new look. I'm certainly not against cosmetic surgery; I believe you should do what will make you feel good about yourself. But I do think it gives false hope to women trying to make changes through healthy eating and increased activity, when celebrities say they have never had "work" done. They have.

In a "look-what-I've-got society" that values fresh looks in cars, attire and possessions, it is no wonder that the trophy woman is sought by older men. And it is a time-honored tradition that men of a certain age (and income) will seek younger women. Maybe subconsciously it goes back to the time when a woman was only prized for her healthy ability as a prospective brood mare; the union of older men and younger women was accepted and commonplace.

Of course today, dating a younger woman is more of a status symbol for the older man. Having children is not necessarily the goal of a relationship. The aging man will look for someone who makes him feel younger. It's almost a business deal. He's got money, assets, power, Viagra and security; she's got youth and beauty. The life experiences, attractiveness, intelligence and poise of a woman his age doesn't quite compete with youth.

So where does this leave the woman "of a certain age?" In a bit of a quandary, to be sure; society has two attitudes on aging: one for men and one for women. Men are "allowed" to age and women are not. The older man with a "touch of gray," as the commercial says, shows maturity, dignity and wisdom. He is allowed to show some visible signs of aging; it's accepted and appreciated. And while the older woman has just as much wisdom and dignity as her male counterpart, she is seen in a different light. Her maturity and any signs of aging are viewed as a message that she is getting old.

You only have to look at commercials for beauty and hair products to understand that the inequality of aging is very apparent in advertising. The woman is encouraged to use Botox, fillers, mini-vibrators for under-eye puffiness, and a host of other youth-oriented products to make her attractive. Her body image is also addressed by weight loss programs geared for women only. Men are told they simply need a bit of hair color and they're "back in the game." It may seem unfair but it is reality. An aging woman is less desirable.

The financial power of older women is comparable (sometimes higher) to that of men their age and more than that of their younger counterparts. While the high maintenance required by cosmetic surgery may not be an option, their spending power is still formidable, yet even this fact doesn't prevent a subtle prejudice to female aging.

Outside of giving up and resigning yourself to become an invisible member of social gatherings, what can be done? Competition with younger women is not an option. It is too reminiscent of high school girls competing for a boy's attention. It was unpleasant then and would be degrading now.

If there is strength in numbers then the woman over "a certain age" has a lot of company. Helping to create a culture where aging for women is seen as natural and positive would be a good start. Allowing the older woman to be valued for her contributions to society and her incredible wisdom would be beneficial to all. For this to happen we need changes the media's (and Madison Avenue's), perception of older women, not old stereotypes from a bygone era. The face and form of an older woman can be seen as just as beautiful as the face of one younger. A rose-bud and a full-blown rose both have their own special beauty; why not women?

As I get older I'm anticipating a day not too far off when a woman of "a certain age" is admired and lauded for her intelligence, her experiences, her business savvy and skills... as well as her unique ability to totally rock a knock-out outfit and wear four-inch-heels.

Equality in aging is essential in 2011. Let's get it started now.

To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at Kristen Houghton.com and visit her Keys to Happiness blog. Also, take a look inside her book, "And Then I'll Be Happy!" You may e-mail her at
kch@kristenhoughton.com.

Read the book that's sweeping the country, "And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First"

 
 
 

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