At 26, I walked through the doors of the middle school I worked at and was met by the scrutinizing look of one of my coworkers. She squinted at me as I approached, words of admonishment ready on her lips until I stepped closer, and then… "Oh, Erin! I thought you were a student!" She laughed, saying that she was about to get on my case for my lack of uniform. Another co-worker, standing near us, laughed as well.
I'm sure I smiled and said something polite and silently tried to convince myself that being mistaken for a twelve year old was some sort of compliment.
Nearly two years later, the weekend after my first week teaching high school, a woman at church asked me if I wore my "mature clothes" so that I looked less like a high schooler. I gave her a tight smile and told her that I did in fact have work clothes.
Apart from insulting my looks, I am greatly troubled by these interactions, both with women older than me, and what this says about how we see one another.
In a society that has capitalized on competition, a predatory web of industries has woven, spun, clung to the psyches of women. They leave our minds cluttered with all of the demands and requirements that these industries deem women must meet in order to be attractive, to be wanted, and even to be considered good workers.
Age is given the same degree of status as ability, or work ethic, or moral standing. Age is something that all women envy in one another: young women, to have a few more years in the hopes that they'll be taken seriously; older women, to have fewer years behind them than ahead, to feel once again the promise of youth.
These ruthless industries have planted in women, from an early age, the desire to stay young and the fear of aging. Anti-aging creams and serums sit in rows next to make up and foundation and lotions. Looking young over thirty is celebrated. Looking young in your twenties is condemned. Age equals value, these industries convince us, when we are young and impressionable. Then, as we age, the same industries which created such putrid anxiety around aging when we were young, exploit us when we get older. Look a certain way, the industries hiss, then you will be valued.
In speaking to other women about my career, my age is treated as a moral flaw. It is used to tear down my confidence, or as an excuse to dismiss what I have to say.
Perhaps there is some deeper crisis going on in women who dismiss their younger counterparts for an aspect of themselves for which they have no control. Perhaps in recognizing that younger women are now at an age to have stable careers and valid opinions, they must face their own mortality. They must face that they no longer hold qualities, for which they have no control, that our society has deemed to make women valuable. And so, they turn the weapons that have been used against them all of their lives: the high demands on their looks, the poisonous pairing of youth and beauty, onto those younger than themselves.
I don't have an answer. There is no moral of this story other than to say that in a world where it is much harder to be a woman than a man, women should in all ways support one another. We should be able to turn to each other to celebrate each victory and feel rallying solidarity in each defeat. We should know that we are not alone. Women before us have met the challenges of being female, and women after us will meet them as well. And no matter your age, we stand together.