Images of Aging
Images of old women in literature and myth are almost universally negative. The terms crone and hag continue to evoke powerful images when reading English literature. Fairy tales from a variety of cultures convey the idea of evil and dangerous old women (e. g., Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White). Indeed, witches in literature (most of whom are women) were regularly assigned the role of foiling the efforts of protagonists.
European and early American history also are replete with examples of harsh and often cruel treatment of older women. Until the turn of the 19th century, the life expectancy of most women was 45-50; therefore, a woman in her 30s or early 40s would have been considered old. If her husband died, his property, land, and the income from related enterprises were accorded to his male heir. Often, an American widow found herself relegated to a room in the farmhouse now managed by a son and his wife and children. Civil authority, abetted by the church, similarly mythologized the dangers of older women during the witch trials of Salem and surrounding New England communities.
Currently, there remains a general anxiety about aging in the dominant American culture. Americans speak frequently about mid-life crises, empty nests, and even, occasionally, male menopause. Products designed to disguise the physical signs of aging are a large part of a multimillion dollar cosmetic industry. Makeup in the form of concealers, rejuvenators, moisturizers, and exfoliants promises to delay or hide the fine lines of aging. Most hair color products for men and women are designed for the coverage of gray, including special products for men’s moustaches. Cosmetic surgery continues as a booming trade (chemical facial peels, facelifts, and tummy tucks). Recent clothing developments include corsets that control a man’s growing paunches and prosthetic inserts to create the illusion of muscular development in the otherwise flattened middle-aged buttocks.