Can you see me now? Time to stop judging each other and value middle-age women

It's time to stand up to society's emphasis on appearance and the "policing" of the way other women look, says Joanne Seiff.

Women need to treat each other with respect instead of 'policing' one other based on appearance: Joanne Seiff

In two recent encounters, Joanne Seiff says she realized she was being 'policed' by other women based on appearance. 'They had a notion of how women should dress and look and they wanted me to conform,' she says. (Indigo Photo Club/Shutterstock)

I was on quick trip to the grocery store recently when I noticed another woman giving me a once-over — and not in a good way. 

She was younger than me, with dyed hair, full makeup and decked out in a co-ordinating outfit for the grocery store.

I, on the other hand, wore a black pea coat and a toque — over my hand-knit Icelandic sweater, overalls and red boots. My hair is graying. I don't wear cosmetics most of the time.

My reaction? I think I smiled — and I might have laughed. What was she looking at?!

Later, I was at a special physio/exercise class when another lady there — who was older than me — said that I looked "shaggy" and needed a haircut.

These encounters stung. I realized that these women were "policing" me. They had a notion of how women should dress and look and they wanted me to conform.

I'm not having it.

Women are encouraged to live up to unrealistic standards of beauty, especially as they age, Joanne Seiff says. (Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock)

For most of us, hitting middle age comes as a surprise. We didn't prepare for it. Suddenly, we're halfway through our lives, or perhaps even farther along than that. After all, who knows?

Our TV and social media role models paint this impossible image of a woman in mid-life who always wears makeup, touches up her highlights, exercises and primps for appearance's sake. She buys expensive clothing and overdresses.

I find this image ridiculous.

For one thing, I'm not chasing my youth. I may have been considered "more attractive" then, but I don't miss being harassed on the street, catcalled, or even touched without my permission on public transit.

As a young adult, I often wore dark colours to avoid attracting attention. When my mom urged me to wear brighter shades, I told her that I wasn't advertising. And really, that is what it felt like — draw too much attention to yourself, and you'll regret it. 

Obviously, this isn't how it should be, but since there's still plenty of harassment out there to go around, society hasn't changed enough to feel safe in that regard.

An expensive pursuit of youth

A second reason I don't buy this media image of women is that it's expensive. In Manitoba, haircuts that cost more than $50 are taxed more. This is a tax on women, because women's haircuts cost more than men's. Hair colouring, perming, or other special services cost more. 

The pursuit of youth is so powerful that some people even pay a lot of money to shoot themselves up with Botox or get plastic surgery to find some stylized "perfect" image. I'm not there either.

If you have allergies or chemical sensitivities, all these beauty processes must be avoided anyway. There are also other potential health risks to the chemicals involved in dyeing and processing hair. Beauty can be dangerous — I get hives just from using the wrong shampoo!

Wear what you want, what's comfortable and lasts, what makes you feel strong — but please, stop judging people on their outfits, haircuts or eyeliner.

Makeup is expensive too, and when I wear a lot of it, my skin complains. It gets on my clothing. Maybe I'm not careful enough to air kiss everyone — but I also don't wear lipstick because I don't want it on my partner or children.

A third issue is all that fancy "new" clothing — our society throws away things at an alarming rate. My handmade, thrifted, mended, comfortable clothing helps me exercise, work, and care for those around me with ease.

When I buy new clothes, I look for natural fibre, high-quality things that will last a long time. High fashion isn't top on my list, although I may sport a sort of grunge style.

So why are those women policing me and my image? Perhaps they're insecure or uncomfortable with theirs. 

Worst of all, as women age, we lose our currency in our society — and it's scary. We earn less, draw less respect from others and often fade into the woodwork.

The media shows us images of older women who succeed — by their appearance. 

'Look each other in the eye'

Instead, I hold up images of older women I've met along the way.

Their hair was often proudly salt and pepper, long and braided or short and stylish. Many wore timeless (perhaps expensive) and comfortable, handsome, flowing outfits. They were confident, hardworking and powerful. That's who I wanted to become.

At the local Foodfare this week, my cashier, roughly my age, saw something real in me. Suddenly, she was telling me of her autistic child's challenges and how some don't understand where she is in life.

I too am related to kids with challenges. I looked at her, and empathized. I said, "I hear you." I also wanted to say "I see you."

We can stand up to this emphasis on appearances and policing of other women. Look each other in the eye. Value women's hard-won successes and work. Compliment women on accomplishments and skills. Treat each other with respect.

Wear what you want, what's comfortable and lasts, what makes you feel strong — but please, stop judging people on their outfits, haircuts or eyeliner. 

Please, look me in the eye — and value me as a person. My grocery store dress-up skills aren't anyone else's business.

Unless it's a compliment, your judgments say more about your self-image than they do about mine.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Joanne Seiff is the author of three books. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.


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