Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations

Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations

by Kathleen M Woodward (Editor)


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Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations by Kathleen M Woodward

Like other markers of social difference, age is given meaning by a culture. Yet unlike gender and race, the subjects of age and aging have received little sustained attention in western culture. Central to Figuring Age is the crucial question of how women are aged by culture. How are the ages of women constructed in terms of the body and relations between generations? How are older women represented in a visual culture dominated by images of youth? How do psychoanalysis, rejuvenation therapy and hormone replacement therapy, the fashion system, cosmetic surgery, and midlife body-building shape views of aging as well as of the older body itself? To what extent is aging a culturally-induced trauma? The contributors come from literary and cultural studies, social theory, film and television studies, art history and performance theory, and the arts themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253334503
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/28/1999
Series: Theories of Contemporary Culture Series
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kathleen Woodward is Director of the Center for Twentieth Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. She is the author of Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions and At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. She is also the editor of Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis (with Murray Schwartz) and The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture.

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Figuring Age Women, Bodies, Generations

By Kathleen Woodward

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1999 The Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-21236-8


The Marks of Time

Nancy K. Miller

Q. How do you feel about growing older?

A. Any woman who says she doesn't care about aging is lying.

— Catherine Deneuve (1995)


What does a woman of a certain age see when she looks at herself in times mirror?

Four faces, four bronze autoportraits by sculptor Sheila Solomon. (Figure 1.) They belong to an installation called Time/Pieces: nineteen sculptures and two drawings that engage with the questions of women, change, and time. Solomon conceived the work as an "organic whole with the pieces resonating and amplifying one another. ... The organization of the works is circular," she writes, "in that it reaches back into my past and extends forward into the future." (The face covered by hands is the last of the series, completed in 1992, although it is not the last piece of the installation.) Between the portrait covered with hands and the uncovered one (1990) exists the task of face work: dealing with ones face as it changes over time. Solomon's heads and figures embody the vision of a woman who looked at herself head on — and from all angles — in midlife for more than a decade. I want to speak here of aging as a project of coming to terms with a face and a body in process — as an emotional effort, an oscillation that moves between the mirrored poles of acceptance and refusal. An emotional project, that like Solomons never stops, and also an act of the imaginative mind.

Heads bear an intimate and complicated relation to the bodies they crown. Solomon insists that the wood pedestal is integral to the sculpture. Like the aging process in human beings, the appearance of the base evolves. The wood keeps working; it develops cracks. When I first saw these pieces, I caught my breath and thought: this is a woman not afraid of the mirror. As Solomon said later in response to one of my questions about Time/Pieces, "my body has been good to me." How we interpret the bodiliness of aging is intimately bound up with the story of seeing ourselves as women in the first place. "I don't think I know a single woman," Barbara Grizzuti Harrison writes in An Accidental Autobiography, "who knows what she looks like" (16). For many of us, an archaic but tenacious private shame haunts our vision.


In an extended memorial note to the writer Alfred Chester, Cynthia Ozick meditates on time's betrayal: "Passing my reflection in a shopwindow," Ozick writes, "I am taken by surprise at the sight of a striding woman with white hair: she is still wearing the bangs of her late youth, but there are shocking pockets and trenches in her face; she has a preposterous dewlap; she is no one I can recognize." In this portrait of a writer (a contemporary) as a minor literary light — a coming of age story set in postwar New York — Ozick never returns to the question of her own face in the shopwindow (this is the reflection one might have thought to be the referent behind the essay called "Reflections"). But no. The experience of mistaking herself for another (who is that woman looking back at me in the mirror?), someone other than herself — "a woman with white hair" and a "preposterous dewlap" — seems to interest Ozick only metaphorically, as an example of how we can be surprised by time. She calls this discrepancy a "generational pang": the realization that the minds that currently interest her belonged to "little children" when she was learning — precociously — to think and write (79).

In Aging and Its Discontents Kathleen Woodward comments on Freud's "shock of recognition" upon encountering his elderly double in the mirror, a "dismaying" experience that he recounts in a note to the essay on "The Uncanny" What Freud sees, Woodward argues, is "the image of the Other, to use Beauvoirs terminology, an image Freud would prefer not to recognize" (65). Following Woodward's rereading of Freud, we can wonder whether the way Ozick dismisses the shock of coming up against her face in the mirror, the alacrity with which the writer immediately moves on to questions of memory, might not also be a form of repression that leaves intact the belief that in her unconscious — like Freud's — she is forever young. Ozick goes on instead to delineate different models of identity. She is not interested in a "fixity of self" but rather "platonic enclosures"— islands, as she puts it, "independent of time, though not of place" (79). It's one of these "platonic islands" that allows her to remember the writer Alfred Chester as he was — when he was young — and she was, too.


There's a color photograph that captures the style of emotional entanglement between my mother and me in the mid sixties. (Figure 2.) My mother is about the age I am now as I write. In the photograph, two women look at each other across their war. We are alone, fixed in our struggle. My father loved this picture, which he had enlarged from a color slide and framed. It hung in the dinette and presided over meals. Its a good picture, he said.

Not long after after my mothers death, more than fifteen years ago, my sister and I began fighting over the best way for my father to lead his new life alone. (The building was going co-op, and he needed to decide whether to buy the rent-controlled apartment he'd lived in for fifty years.) My sister turned on me and said bitterly, "You're just like Mommy, you'd kill to get what you want." I'd never thought I was anything like my mother — I identified against her, with my father — but now, in my fifties, I think maybe my sister was right. I can see how I have become my mother. It's not so easy to know who you are like — and sometimes this resemblance changes over time.

Going through my mother's clothes after her death, I found in the pockets of every coat (and she had many, many coats) the traces of her commitment to personal comfort: a crumpled-up kleenex and a wrapped coffee candy. I was struck by the regularity with which these items turned up. Recently, taking some of my (many) coats to the cleaners, I emptied out the pockets and I found in each a crumpled-up kleenex (the same leaky nose) and a box of Ricola mints (the same need to have something in our mouth).

My mother lives in my pockets and also in my face. In the mirror, I silently measure with her the spreading pores, the advancing crepe, lines that crease even earlobes. I think: in fifteen years I, too, could be dead. Of course that doesn't tell me what I need to know. How to live with this face — our face — in the face of death. How to live without that other against whom we think we know who we are.

In the Elle interview from which I've drawn my epigraph, Catherine Deneuve responds to a question about cosmetic surgery: "By the number of surgeons in Paris who claim to have operated on me, I should look like the bride of Frankenstein. That said, I find it wonderful to slow down the marks of time — so long as the face matches the rest of the body You have to look at yourself objectively" (158). What does it mean to have your face match the rest of your body? Should you have your body fixed to match your face? Or is it the other way round? Above all, what would it mean to look at yourself objectively? "Flow is it possible to look at our bodies objectively," Harrison asks, "(and with love)?" (31).

Deneuve's understanding of objectivity is at war with her commitment to delaying the visible signs of the aging process. To an earlier question about turning fifty, and whether she would lie about her age, Deneuve responds, "I never hide my age — its a question of pride. I'm often struck when people say, 'You're so youthful!' — as if they saw me as an image, not a human being. There are people who don't seem to realize I've been around for quite a while. They must have some idea of my age, but maybe my face doesn't correspond with their notion of what a fifty-year-old woman looks like." But what does fifty look like? People who think that they know what fifty looks like — old, unattractive, a face bearing the marks of time — are surprised by Deneuve's "youthful" face. Deneuve's face in which the marks of time have been "slowed down," maybe even erased, is not a face in which "fifty" has been allowed to appear. But what is "fifty"? Like the famous Steinem remark around the event of her fiftieth birthday — "This is what fifty looks like" — fifty exists in the eye of the beholder.

Carolyn Heilbrun notes in her biography of Steinem, The Education of a Woman, that Steinem was in fact repeating the quip first uttered when she turned forty adding at fifty, the less frequently quoted words: "We've been lying for so long, who would know" (355). In another interview, Deneuve answers the question about plastic surgery and lying about age a little differently: "Of course I've had some face work," she admits. She says this, she adds, so that "other women won't feel demoralized." You confess that you've had some plastic surgery so that other women won't feel bad about looking their age. With a little face work, you too could look like Catherine Deneuve! At sixty, Steinem at least had the grace not to say this is what sixty looks like (great, let me tell you, from eyeballing her across a seminar table); the only face work involved, Heilbrun reports in a rare footnote (377), was having some fat removed from her eyelids so that she could wear her contact lenses early in the morning before television cameras.

The two streaked blond icons — feminine and feminist (though Steinem's appearance is also "feminine") are and aren't talking about the same thing. Aging — in public, visually, doubt very much that Deneuve enjoys the arrival of age spots on her hands and enjoys their presence, the way Steinem says she does, as the friendly proof of the wonderful experiences she's had over a lifetime. Still, both famously gorgeous women point to the same question for the rest of us mere female mortals: how do you know what you look like over time? How does time produce its own scrim of interpretation, or rather, what resistance can one mount against the narrative of decline? Especially when female icons — Deneuve, Jackie O, like all media-produced images — are carefully adjusted not to age over time.

To resist the narrative of decline requires an active, arduous engagement with the general cultural assumption that we are at our most beautiful or desirable at a youthful moment and the rest is downhill. Here is a picture of me at twenty-eight. (Figure 3.) For me this photograph represents one of Ozick's "platonic islands." It was taken at a turning point in my life — my decision, post-1968, to go to graduate school, and the brief fantasy of making my life with an artist, a man who later became a famous sculptor. My father had this photo framed. When he died I brought it home and set it on a sideboard (vintage sixties teak that also came from my parents' apartment) in my study. When students come to see me at home, they unfailingly comment on the picture. "That's you?" they ask, hesitating on the threshold of disbelief. "Yes," I say lightly, "that's me when I was young and gorgeous." Then, evading the invitation to flattery, they say, "you still have that look," the warning in my eyes that says, "cross me at your peril." They've told me that they fear the look that summarizes what one of my students called in the acknowledgments to her dissertation, "my impossibly high standards" (on the other hand, how scared could they be if they tell me about it?). Sometimes, too, I think that they are comforted by the contrast between then and now. However unconsciously, they know that they are young women — many of them beautiful and sexy as well as smart — and enjoying their beauty, now. At the same time, I also know that their youthful looks don't mean as much to them as they do to me; just as I take my books for granted while theirs are still before them. When I was twenty-eight, I didn't think I was young and gorgeous. ... I was just twenty-eight and worrying whether I would ever be happy. (Books were not visible on my horizon of expectation.)

At the end of her sixties, Carolyn Heilbrun offers a meditation on the narrative of decline inspired by her discussion of Steinem's fiftieth birthday:

Turning fifty, both in anticipation and actuality, is a watershed in a womans life. Nor is this metaphor merely cliché. A watershed marks that place where waters run toward opposite seas. Rivers that once arose from the event of birth become different rivers, moving toward the sea of death. Wallace Stevens has written that "death is the mother of beauty," but certainly in Western culture youth is the prized gift, and aging, the deprivation of youth, is regarded as cruel loss. First comes despair at the aging body, and particularly the aging face, a despair whose alleviation can be sought either by impersonating youth with the aid of drugs, surgery, or makeup, or by abandoning all hope of a youthful appearance and accepting with wry humor the inevitable expanding and sagging. ... Only recently and gradually has the possibility emerged in female consciousness that something might be gained for women at the cusp of fifty. ... For the woman turning fifty ... the reconsideration that surrounds that moment may and often does provide sufficient impetus to reenvision her life. (355–56)

The body, the face, the eyes, the breast. Vulnerable zones for women aging. The breast shows the marks of time but more important becomes — randomly, rampantly — the target of cancer for many women. There's an odd way, as we'll see, in which breast cancer arrives as a crucial part of the aging process for too many women. (Sometimes, of course, it marks the end of the process altogether.) In part as an effect of breast cancer, in part as an effect of therapy, in her early fifties, Steinem set out to reenvision her life; it entailed "looking within." Though readers often find Steinem's new-found interiority naive or sentimental, we might understand more usefully the trope of turning inward, "looking within," as a way of turning away from the mirror (maybe putting your hands over your face), as a resistance to tracking the damage to that face long enough to think about, say, how it is that we came to think we knew what our face — or body — was.


How does any woman know what she looks like? How does she learn to recognize what she looks like — from the outside? The look of the look in the mirror. She begins, for most of us, as Adrienne Rich (after Beauvoir) has famously argued, by observing her mother whom she examines by body parts, as though in childhood she had intuited the anatomy of female destiny:

I saw my own mothers menstrual blood before I saw my own. Hers was the first female body I ever looked at, to know what women were, what I was to be. I remember taking baths with her in the hot summers of early childhood, playing with her in the cool water. As a young child I thought how beautiful she was; a print of Botticellis Venus on the wall, half-smiling, hair flowing, associated itself in my mind with her. In early adolescence I still glanced slyly at my mother's body, vaguely imagining: I too shall have breasts, full hips, hair between my thighs — whatever that meant to me then, and with all the ambivalence of such a thought. And there were other thoughts: I too shall marry, have children — but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently. (219)

There was no getting away from my mothers body. After a bath, she would emerge clothed simply in a towel: a white towel tied around her waist. She would often lie on top of the bed in the towel and read or work the crossword puzzle. When my sister and I were little, we would walk in on her during her bath; even much later, we would come barging in (her word) with a request, since in the tub she was almost always in a good mood. Later, I remember thinking that her body resembled our saddle shoes, two-toned: tanned, freckled arms and legs from playing tennis, pale torso and white, pear-shaped breasts, erect, darkish pink nipples. The body I remember is not the half-submerged body of my childhood memories, though; it is the mothers body seen from my adolescence, the body I saw at twelve and thirteen as I waited for my own body to reveal its secrets.

"Did your breasts always sag like that?" This is not a question I ever admitted asking, though I'm sure it was on my lips as I stared down at my mothers stretched-out form, studying her body. Years later my mother, still walking through the apartment with a towel tied around her waist, would tell that story laughing, as proof of what she had to endure from her hostile daughter, but also with the confidence of a woman proud of her breasts. If I ever grew breasts, what — or whose — would they be like? Both grandmothers were all bosom. Their breasts filled their entire chest (a "C" at least, if not a "D"). My mother edged up to a "B." My sister and I barely made it to an "A." Where did the breasts go? The alphabet in reverse in three generations.


Excerpted from Figuring Age Women, Bodies, Generations by Kathleen Woodward. Copyright © 1999 The Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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