It’s summer time, it’s hot as balls, and every woman on earth has been forced to revisit the annual question: Is it OK to wear less clothing even though you’re gross? This season gross could mean almost everything on your body, but for older women, the anxiety centers mostly around their upper arms.
In a recent LA Times piece, KC Cole asks:
In the heat of summer, women of a certain age are wondering whether it’s OK to abandon sleeves and let their upper appendages just hang out. Or is concealed carry the only option?
Does it matter how toned you are? Or is crepe-paper skin even on decent biceps enough to make you “disgusting,” as one woman put it. And the older you get, the bigger the quandary.
She goes on to recall a brunch on a sweltering day where she was the only woman present who’d gone sleeveless. She inquired with a friend who confirmed that she too had been perplexed by the modesty, given the heat. Cole then describes an internal debate common to many women who are old enough to remember feminism’s second wave, or in my case, were taught women’s studies classes by its proponents—an era when being objectified, on purpose or otherwise, was considered a barrier to progress, not a choice that could happily coexist alongside it.
It goes something like this, and I’m paraphrasing: Didn’t we bust our asses to stop having to worry about how we looked only to find that a younger generation of women is more than happy to slap on a coat of lipstick on and tell us to cover up our gross arms?
Feminists want to look good too. But for some people, it’s hard to get beyond binary. You’re either against lipstick (and women as sex objects), or for it.
She discusses feminism’s much heralded (and critiqued) right to choose: “Heels or Birkenstocks, leggings or sweats, stay-at-home-mom or corporate exec.”
“Is bare arms one of those feminist dilemmas?” she asks, “Or is it more a matter of simple vanity versus sweltering head?”
Never underestimate vanity, but as long as I can remember, I’ve heard directly or otherwise messages about what women ought to wear, ought not to wear, ought to flaunt, ought to be ashamed of, ought to cover up, ought to reveal. It starts out early on with “rules” about fashion—slips under dresses, no white after Labor Day, socks and sandals. Then as girls get older and head toward puberty, it becomes about showing off and to what degree—working what you got, or leaving something to the imagination, and every iteration in between. For every way you could imagine dressing or presenting yourself, there is some corresponding piece of advice out there about whether this is ok or outrageous, shameless or tasteful, slutty or elegant.
But often, it’s the phrase “Well, she can pull it off” or more often, “she can’t” that tips the scales. Being able to pull off some feat of fashion or sexuality or display is a combination of things—sometimes it’s implied to mean literally the person has the right body to wear a certain thing, other times it’s attitude. Often it’s both.
An old woman with firm biceps but loads of wrinkles intimates to Cole that it’s all about attitude, while her therapist advises her to get a face lift and cover up. For the rest of her life.
What it should be is no question to ask anyone but yourself. I won’t pretend that the pressure to stay young forever and sandpaper away all signs of aging isn’t real, and enormous, and pervasive, and unavoidable. But it’s also incredibly tiresome, and one hopes, a private decision made by consulting your own particular cost-benefit analysis that no longer falls along ideological lines, unless, you know, for you, it does.
Being old and in public is not a crime. I think the aesthetes among us, while ridiculously good at calling a spade a spade and noting how it should be improved, are in many ways simply the product of a lot of internalized shame. Do what you will, think as you like, but stop pushing your stringent code of self presentation on other people.
Commenters are really good at being commenters, offering up every response from “Let ‘em flap” to “The Victorians had the right idea.” More reason to go your own way.
But it reminds me: Once I recall reading a line in Vogue about a piece of advice the author had heard. It said, essentially: No woman over 35 should ever wave goodbye. You know, because her arms might jiggle.
And though it was a nothing line in a longer piece about I dunno, being the right kind of old and classy, it has stayed with me as a particularly insidious, hostile kind of nonchalant dictum.
The smoothing out of all of one’s edges has deep symbolism in the path to full femininity. No rough parts on your body—all skin must be smooth, soft, supple, and callous- or errant-bump free. The smoothing out of one’s facial expressions signifies youth, a visage not yet literally creased and weighted by having lived. And the covering up of one’s body as a way to disguise any flaws is a statement in itself: I know I don’t have the right to show my body as others do, I cover it out of respect not just for myself, but for others.
And this, I think, it was bugs me more about advice to women to control their bodies and image for others pleasure or approval. The way women are burdened not only with looking good, with eradicating all signs of wear and tear, but also the burden of not making the world unpleasant for others by looking bad. Who suffers when a jiggly arm waves goodbye? Who suffers at the sight of a varicose vein or an untoned thigh? Who really suffers?
Sure, what are we as a civilization if not a group collectively bent on beating back nature at every turn, staving off the overgrowth, stopping the clock. Sometimes this is an admirable goal—most of us want to live. But we are so deeply hostile to the aging woman, and this is particularly tragic, because if our best choice to appear ageless is to suffer in sweltering heat, to stop waving goodbye to our loved ones so as to not offend with motion, then are we not dead already?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.