I found my first gray hair when I was thirty—the same year my children were born (coincidence?). And those hairs have continued to multiply throughout my life—and theirs (again I ask, coincidence?).
Over the years, as the grays have increasingly grown to dominate the browns, I have received a number of compliments on my hair—usually in a public restroom (the great accidental sorority house of women everywhere).
“I love your hair,” a woman next to me will say. To which I always respond, “Thank you.” Which she will generally follow with a comment like, “You’re so BRAVE.” Or, “I’m not brave enough to let my hair go natural.” To which I reply, “Not brave. Just cheap and lazy.” And then we both chuckle a bit—and I encourage her to give it a try. “Embrace the gray,” I say. “You’ve earned every single one of those babies!”
I share this story to shine a light on what Internalized Ageism looks like. It’s not like the overt “OK Boomer” ageism of the recent past—or the “We could hire you, or we could hire someone who’s 25 and pretty” ageism found in the workplace (and yes, that statement was actually made to a former C-suite professional looking for a job in marketing).
We hurt ourselves with ageism
In many ways, it’s worse than that—because Internalized Ageism is often so subtle and insidious, it’s corrosive to our own mental, physical, and emotional well-being. In fact, research conducted by Dr. Becca Levy, professor of public health and psychology at Yale University and author of “Breaking the Age Code,” reveals that negative self-perceptions of aging result in poor health outcomes, hearing decline, poor memory performance, and shorter life spans.
Conversely, her studies reveal that positive self-perceptions of aging can improve memory, thinking, cognition, mood, self-confidence, overall functionality, and longevity (adding seven-and-a-half years to a person’s life span). SEVEN-AND-A-HALF YEARS!
Yet, according to the FrameWorks Institute’s 2015 “Gauging Aging” report, ageism may be the only form of discrimination in which the perpetrators are also the victims—and they fail to recognize it (another example of Internalized Ageism).
How many times have you forgotten something and attributed it to having a “Senior Moment”? Or struggled to learn a new skill and rationalized it by saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? Or commented about a celebrity by saying, “She sure does look good for her age”? Or remarked about a friend or loved one, “He’s STILL (fill-in-the-blank here) working, driving, traveling, skiing, cycling, etc.”? Or given someone one of those “over-the-hill” birthday cards to “celebrate” their latest trip around the sun?
While any of those behaviors may have seemed innocent to you at the time, they are actually negatively coloring the way you view aging—and older age—and they are prime examples of Internalized Ageism.
What can we/you do about it?
The first step is to RECOGNIZE IT WHEN YOU SEE IT—OR ENGAGE IN IT. While you may not have realized that some of your beliefs, statements, or actions were ageist before now, now you know, so you can do better going forward.
The second is to CALL IT OUT—IN THE MOMENT—much in the same way you might a racist, sexist, antisemitic, or homophobic comment. If someone made a derogatory comment to you or about you, would you just sit there? Or would you respond (politely, of course)? Why treat ageist comments any differently?
The third is to HELP EDUCATE PEOPLE ABOUT IT IN OUR LARGER SOCIETY. Make people aware of what ageism looks like, how it adversely affects both the quality and length of their lives, and what they can do to change the narrative.
Which brings us to our fourth and final recommendation: Changing the Narrative has an entire campaign dedicated to Internalized Ageism, including a link to a FREE, half-hour webinar that will introduce you the AgeSmart Inventory©, a tool for introspection, reflection, and conversation about individual values and judgments about age.
Getting back to my hair, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate all the compliments (after all, who doesn’t?). But at the same time, it makes me sad that there are so many women (and men, I dare say) out there who would love to go gray—or try new things, or learn new skills, or pursue new opportunities—but are afraid to, simply as a result of Internalized Ageism.
Let’s work together to put a stop to it, shall we?
Barbara Raynor is an award-winning writer and strategic marketing and communications specialist with a particular passion for Adults 50+ and the challenges they face as they grow older. Based in Denver, she fervently believes AGING IS LIVING and frequently writes and speaks on topics related to aging and ageism.
Read her blogs for Changing the Narrative.