THE BLOG
10/16/2012 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Air(Brush) Apparent

The other day, in the midst of a meeting of my paper's editorial staff, I found myself waving my feminist card in a manner reminiscent of when I used to referee kids' soccer games and had to deploy the whistle-yellow card combo. (More often than not, the recipients of said cards were not kids at all, but the grown-ups coaching them. But I digress.)

Anyway, back to the meeting: That week's cover story was about the local congressional race, which is hotly disputed and heavily watched, as recent redistricting means the seat is decidedly in play. The longtime incumbent is a woman, a Democrat, in her 70's. And the race has been a slugfest. Thanks to the flow of cash from corporations -- um, I mean people? -- special interest groups, the national parties and the campaigns themselves, one can hardly catch a post-season baseball game (go Giants!) without being subjected to a slimy back-and-forth of ads. (Is this what it's like to live in a swing state? My deepest sympathies.) So, long story short: This particular cover story was about this race, and the cover design, in lieu of photographs, used an illustration -- two toy-like robot bodies throwing punches at each other, with caricatures for heads.

Stay with me: point coming soon.

We were discussing the story when an editor, a man I deeply respect and tend to agree with on most issues, said, "I have a problem with the cover. She looks so young! It's like we're showing favoritism."

It was at this point, dear reader, that the whistle was deployed. "Would you say that about a man?" I asked -- at which point a chorus of rabble-rabbles erupted, ultimately resulting in my never getting around to making my point. (I should add: I enjoy a hearty rabble-rabble session as much as the next editor. In fact, I brought it up precisely because I love a good rabble-rabble. You know, and because I did have a point.) The caricatures made both candidates look cuter, more cartoonlike, and yes, younger, than their real selves (such is the destiny of a caricature), but what bothered me was the implication that to make a woman look younger is to give her an advantage. Not an actress or model, mind you: a politician. (Nor, I suppose it's worth saying, a woman in a political battle against another woman. Her challenger is a man.) That, for women, what trumps everything is appearance. That age can only be a disadvantage; that to look old is the worst handicap of all. And that, if one wants to help an older woman out, give her the proverbial leg up, the kindest thing one can do is to deploy Photoshop's airbrush tool.

Now, I don't think this editor was actually saying any of those things, but I do think that within his off-the-cuff remark was crystallized the message women are getting, at all times and from every conceivable direction. There is an entire industry devoted to the "fight" against aging. (As though there's a chance of winning that battle. And when you consider the alternative -- um, death -- do you really want to?) And that industry is a big one. And it is aimed at women. (For aging men, marketers offer Viagra, and pretty much leave it at that.) And it is insidious. Because, for all the new-found opportunity and the plethora of options women now have open to us when it comes to answering the rather significant question of "What Do You Want To Do With Your Life?" (a bounty which, as we've written, is generationally new, leaving us without much in the way of road maps or role models), we are left to figure it all out against what amounts to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. (Ask any game show or action movie producer how to create suspense, and the tick-tock is it. In real life, instead of suspense, we get stress. Which, you know, leads to premature aging. But I digress. Again.) As I've written before, I believe it all comes together in a most counterintuitive way: Our fear of aging is almost worse the younger we are. After all, when we're told that our value does nothing but go down as our age creeps up, every day that passes is a marker on a road to invisibility. Irrelevance. Tick tock.

Is it any wonder preventative Botox is a thing?

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, who was talking about how she's taken to pointing out men who are aging badly -- "dumpy looking dudes," I believe were the words she used -- to her husband, because it irked her how much pressure women are under to look good and "age well," and she wanted him to share in the misery. While I wouldn't say that's the best strategy I could conceive of, it's certainly... a strategy. But I'm not sure a redistribution of the pressure to Anti-Age is the best we can do. What is the best we can do? I'm not sure. None of us wants to look old; and I have no doubt we all appreciate a photo -- or drawing -- of ourselves that makes us look younger than our years. But it's worth thinking about why. And surely blowing the whistle every once in a while can't hurt.