Episode 1: The Power of Greyscale
In this episode: What gray hair says about us and the aging world we live in.
The debut double episode features Dana Capell (Senior Education Developer, Trent University) and Andrea Charise (Associate Professor, University of Toronto Scarborough) talking with Sally Chivers about:
- Lisa LaFlamme and our own gray hair
- Dove and Wendy’s Canada #keepthegrey
- going Rogue aka growing out white hair
- aging before our students’ eyes
- biopolitics and the New Woman
- the power of imagination to change an aging world
Dana Capell 00:03
Yeah, I went to even those lengths. Even when going to the grocery store felt like you were going to endanger your life, I was going to this outdoor little window to pick up my products.
Andrea Charise 00:15
We have to imagine that a better older age as possible, and then do all the things we need to do to implement the conditions for that transformation. But, without imagination, we stop exactly where we are.
Sally Chivers 00:36
Welcome to Wrinkle Radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your Host Sally Chivers, and I am so glad you're here. This is our first episode. It's double barreled. I am riding a learning curve with the help of Dana Capell and Andrea Charise. We are talking about the power of greyscale. Remember She-Ra? Well, it's not that but there are superheroes.
Sally Chivers 01:09
Do you remember the first time you spotted a gray hair? I sure do. At literally the turn of the century, I was standing in the dimly lit hallway of an especially dingy apartment. I had just become Dr. Sally Chivers, at the tender age of 28. And, the irony, I had just defended a dissertation about older women in Canadian literature: an expert in aging! or so I thought. On my way out to celebrate, I put on my 1950s jacket with the lamb's wool collar and turned to admire myself in the hall mirror. But, wait a second. Was that a piece of straight tinsel on my head? No way because I didn't have time to put up a tree that year. It couldn't be a trick of the light because there was none. Against my dark brown hair it really popped. A shiver started at the soles of my feet, crept right through my stomach already shaky from the dissertation defense, and into the very scalp that was betraying me. My first gray hair.
Sally Chivers 02:24
I reached up to grab it wondering if this was going to hurt like plucking an errant eyebrow hair. And then it dawned on me. I couldn't. I mustn't. Aging is good. Aging is to be celebrated. I had just told a pretty skeptical supervisory committee and roomful of grad school friends that. I was going to publish a book about that. I had to own this imposter of a truss. I shrugged and sighed. What's the worst that's going to happen? I asked myself, you'll finally look old enough to be a professor? No such luck.
Sally Chivers 03:06
Four years later, at the still very tender age of 32, I finally landed my dream job as a university professor, earning a few more gray hairs navigating a hostile job market. I moved back across the country without my cat, but with my boyfriend. He watched me walk up to my department to check my mail in my own actual mailbox and said, "Wow, you're actually a professor." I probably had a bit of a strut in my thrifted cardigans and flea market shawls. I finally treated myself to new boots. I'd cut my hair short to showcase the spry silver threads collecting up there-- not quite enough to be a streak yet, but I dyed a few other streaks orange to sort of bring it all together or show I had an edge or something.
Sally Chivers 03:55
I arrived at my first seminar, coffee mug in hand, relieved I found the room on this maze of a campus, and plunked myself at the head of the table. We went through the rituals of the first day: figuring out who's there and what we'd learned together. This was it. The life of the mind. I was actually a professor. Any questions? I asked. just beaming. No questions. Just one comment. "You don't look old enough to be a professor," said the bearded guy in the ripped green sweater to my left who, to be fair, was probably only a couple of years younger than me. "Yes, yes, I do." I muttered. "It's just that this place hasn't hired anyone for a while." I stretched my aching mouth further into a laugh but I went home and wept.
Sally Chivers 04:56
Now at 50 I still look young for my age if you squint and use the right filter, but the gray strands are definitely streaks. No one's mistaking my middle aged body for a student's figure. I don't miss people telling me I look 16, which is another gem of a career highlight that I might get into in another episode. But I'm still waiting for the automatic respect I imagined green sweater guy would have given me if I did look like a professor, which I now realize involves having a beard, silver or otherwise. I miss imagining that as I aged into dignity I would garner respect, thanks to the crop of tinsel poking out evermore askew from my scalp. Turns out that doesn't happen for women, no matter how gorgeous, accomplished and well loved. They may be.
Sally Chivers 05:47
Don't worry, I'm not talking about myself now. I'm talking about Lisa Laflamme. The, if not always beloved, always respected, anchor of one of Canada's two mainstream news shows. As some listeners well know, on August 15 2022, Lisa Laflamme tweeted, "I have some news", and attached a video announcing that CTV news had shocked and saddened her by deciding not to renew her contract after 35 years. I'll admit, I haven't watched that kind of news in a few years, and I noticed something about her look different. Her hair! Gorgeous, satiny silver threads. She had done what so many women did when the COVID 19 pandemic kept them from their stylists: she had grown out her gray. And as the public scandal of her sudden departure continued to grow, it became clear that CTV just might have fired her for it. A quick disclaimer: Bell Media is satisfied after an investigation that was not the case. Regardless, as Lisa flam put it, "at 58, I thought I'd have a lot more time to tell all the stories that impact our daily lives." And so did we, because even though the rest of us Canadian women aren't getting treated better as we age, somehow we thought Laflamme would be immune to the gendered ageism we fight all the time.
Sally Chivers 07:18
To be clear, Laflamme has shown no signs of slowing down. Not that anything would be wrong with that and not that slowing down should mean being out of a job. She maintained her devastating pithy interview style through crisis after crisis, showcasing the grit and determination that had enabled her to hold out until her predecessor Lloyd Robertson, retired--retired and was not fired--at the age of 77. No surprise, LaFlamme's plight met a bit of a public outcry, especially when news broke that her hair was the issue. CNN and New York Times covered it. And when the Canadian news makes news in the US, it's kind of a big deal. Dove Canada got in on it. They posted a video drawing attention to how women with gray hair are edged out of the workplace, but the image that ended their video was a full color photo of a younger woman, maybe 30 fading to grayscale. "Join us." Dove implored, "turn your profile picture grayscale and tag "keep the grey" with an E because it's Canada. Without initially knowing this was sparked by an ad campaign. I was bemused to see people on my social media feeds turn their profile pics to grayscale and heartened to see people who feature profile pics that emphasize their actual gray hair celebrating with an exuberance that could warm the greyest heart.
Sally Chivers 08:47
But what really got my goat was Wendy's Canada. 10 days after Lisa LaFlamme's devastating Twitter announcement with the emoji laden phrase "because a star is always a star" Wendy's tweeted out a new profile picture featuring their iconic young freckled face, whose famously red pigtails were muted into a distinguished silver. "Oh, for crying out loud," I declared to anyone who had listened to me. "They are missing the point. She's still young. She still looks young. She's a child. She looks like a child. Where are the wrinkles? How ridiculous to think just hair color makes someone older."
Sally Chivers 09:43
But now that I've stopped my knee from jerking, I realized silvered Wendy raises a separate issue, if by happenstance. So I reached out to a couple of kick ass women in my circle to explore what difference going gray makes even, or especially, when someone looks otherwise too young to have it.
Dana Capell 10:12
It's really expensive to get your hair dyed. And it is it's such a pain in the butt to find a time where I could give up two hours of my day. It's a huge amount of time. And it's a huge expense and it's not worth it. And I should just look my age. Like it's pure vanity on my part, like, there's no question that it's pure vanity. And I don't have that in many ways, but I do in this one way, like I just don't, I'm not ready to have the amount of gray hair that I will have if I do this because it's not going to be subtle. It will be dramatic. I'm warning you, it's gonna be dramatic.
Sally Chivers 10:57
That's Dana Capell, a Senior Education developer at Trent University. And one of my closest friends. I was lucky to get to talk to her on the occasion of her 49th birthday.
Dana Capell 11:11
The first time I realized I was going gray was on my birthday. It was when I was turning 30, which at the time felt really old to me though now it just sounds like I was baby. I was a teacher at the time. I was teaching high school. I remember telling one of my students that it was my birthday. And she asked how old I was in a way that only high school students would. And I said, Well, how old do you think I am? And again, in a way that only a high school student would she confidently said, Well, I think you're 30 and I said your right, and that's fine. But usually people thought I was younger, because I had kind of a baby face. And I was one of those people who, you know, the custodian was always like, where's the teacher in the room? And I, you know, they didn't even notice that I was. And so when I said like, how did you know I was 30 I'm usually people think I'm younger. And she said, Well, you Your face looks really young, but you have gray hair. And I had not noticed that I had gray hair. I kept it cool. Like I maintained composure. I had a lovely birthday, but I did go home and make an appointment to get my hair colored. And that was the first time that I ever really thought about it.
Sally Chivers 12:31
I've known Dana for about 18 years. And I've known her to wear makeup about 18 times in those 18 years. As she described it to me she's not a salon person
Dana Capell 12:43
I was like, Oh, well, what would one do if one wanted to color their hair I don't even know. And so I think I finally found this salon. And I remember it being kind of an intimidating place. And, you know, I had an appointment with this guy who had like, crazy scissors. And I don't know, he was something and this is in Washington, DC. And it was kind of fancy. And it felt very extravagant to be going. We didn't have a ton of money at the time and extravagant in terms of time, like it just took a long time. And I didn't really have it. And I remember thinking like I just want it to look like my hair color. Like I don't want something crazy. I just want my hair color. And I couldn't really figure out what that was. And it just was never quite right. But it just looked so much better. And still today, every time I go in and I get my gray roots done. I just feel so good afterwards. Like it just makes me feel. I don't know. Like I'm myself again. And I'm fancy or something I don't know.
Sally Chivers 13:47
As I was listening to and reflecting on Dana's interview, I kept going back to Simone de Beauvoir. You might know her as the French philosopher who wrote The Second Sex. She also wrote a book about aging. And in that book, she talks about how we don't really notice ourselves growing older from the interior, but the signs of aging on our bodies--on our hair, for example--other people interpret those changes and reflect them back to us. And it's when we internalize those that we start to feel older.
Dana Capell 14:23
I do remember having dinner with a couple of other teachers who actually were younger than me, but closer to my age, and them saying like, Oh, it looks so good. You should have been doing this. It looks amazing, which only reinforced to me that like oh, if I want to hang out with these people, like I gotta keep up and they were they were younger than me for sure. But, you know, part of it, I think is, in teaching at the time--I have no idea if this is still the case because I haven't been a teacher in a school for a really long time--there was sort of a divide between new teachers and older teachers. And a new teacher was somebody within like, you know, five years of, of coming into the field and, and there were a lot of wonderful older mentor teachers that I had. But there were a lot of really disillusioned grumpy ones too. And, you know, it didn't tend to be the younger ones who were grumpy and disillusioned, like, we were just happy to have a job at that point. And so I do think there was this sort of sense of like, okay, here's the people that I'm with. Yeah, I think I think that may have had something to do with it that I had, that I had noticed that there was something about me that was giving a signal that maybe I wasn't who I felt, maybe I was going to become grumpy and like put tape down on the lines where people should have their desks. And you know, never think of a new idea of my teaching again, which is a terrible thing to say, because I've had wonderful, older mentors throughout my career every step of the way. But there's something about it that it just made me feel older than I was, even though it was exactly who I was.
Sally Chivers 16:10
This conversation about hair, of course, isn't only about hair, and we'll get to that more in the next interview. But in addition to the really thoughtful reflections about how her hair related to her situation professionally, Dana also goes back repeatedly to this sense of who she actually is, and how it shows through her hair. And that became more and more poignant, as our conversation continued.
Dana Capell 16:41
I actually think gray hair is really beautiful on other people, like I love it. I have had, there was a woman at my son's school, who had the most beautiful gray hair and, and she let it go gray, and I mean, our kids were in kindergarten at the time. So you know, we were, we were certainly both going gray earlier than many people. And I just thought she looked gorgeous. So it's not like I don't like it on other people. I do think that in my head, there's this difference between good gray and ugly gray. And I don't know why I've decided that my hair is the ugly gray. There is something about my hair that I've always wanted different hair. My whole life I wanted different hair. And I have no idea if it has to do with. I mean, the thing that just popped into my head is I have Jewish hair. Like I have curly curly hair like I have. I don't, I'm never gonna have that beautiful like blonde, straight shiny hair. I don't even need it to be blonde, like I love your hair like the beautiful straight chestnut hair, I don't have it. I don't know, maybe there's something there that I've never really thought about.
Dana Capell 18:02
Like I've always wanted long, straight, beautiful, shiny hair. And my hair is like, cuckoo, like it's it's curly. And when it rains, it becomes ginormous. And you can't brush it, which would make it nice and silky. But you can't do that with curly hair like you don't brush it. So for a huge number of years. I mean, I can't even tell you when I started drying it straight and I thought it was straight. I was really convinced I was doing a very good job of it. And at some point and it was It wasn't that long ago, in in adult years, like maybe 10 years ago or maybe less. I just stopped and I just started putting some stuff in my hair and scrunching it and letting it curl. And it felt really radical to me to do that. And I remember thinking like, oh, I look so different. And I do remember someone saying to me like, it doesn't actually look that different. And I was like, wait a minute, but I've been putting all this effort into, you know, blow drying my hair. And I've got these different kinds of blow dryers and different kinds of brushes. They're like, it doesn't really look different. And being a little bit like I thought all these years I was very successful.
Dana Capell 19:19
And it's funny, because when I was telling a colleague that I was doing this interview on my birthday, she said but you don't dye your hair. And I said that of course do. And I said did you see me a week ago and she said you don't have any gray hair. I'm like that's just because I just got her color. Do you remember me a week ago? Not a sense in the world that this was something I thought about did would take my time. But in my head everybody had been looking at my hair for the last week thinking like and then when I got to die, they were probably thinking like, oh, you know, somebody's got her hair color. So I think it is totally in my head. Maybe it's sort of like the straight versus the curly hair. Like, I think I'm fooling everybody by dyeing my hair, and that I look so much better. Maybe I don't, maybe it's all just in my head that like, you know, oh, this makes such a difference. And other people are like, well, of course she's the, you know, 49, of course you look every bit of it.
Sally Chivers 20:16
I wanted to have this conversation with Dana about her hair because there was this sort of golden opportunity during the Coronavirus pandemic, when people weren't able to go to salons for her to let her hair go gray and see how it worked out. And she chose not to take that opportunity.
Dana Capell 20:36
At some point when it was when we were still on complete lockdown. And I mean, you know, like, you were only allowed to go to the grocery store and things like that. My hairdresser contacted me and said, How are things going? And I also know him personally. So it was totally fine. I said, Oh, it's going great. But my hair is killing me. And he said, Oh, well, you know, we're offering Do It Yourself kits. So even before we were allowed to go back to the salon, he mixed my color and I went and picked it up at an outdoor window downtown and brought it home and Finis put it on my hair. And oh, like I just felt so much better afterwards. It was just such a fantastic treat. So yeah, I went to even those lengths, even when you know, literally, like going to the grocery store felt like you were going to endanger your life, like I was going to this outdoor little window to pick up my products.
Dana Capell 21:38
So of course, I had to ask Dana, when might she grow out her gray, or if it's not just something that's never gonna happen for her.
Dana Capell 21:46
So I am thinking about letting my hair go gray. And it's very scary to me. Because I'm scared I'll look so different. And I'm scared of like the transition period that my hairdresser discussed, like that line is gonna go all the way down my hair, and it's gonna look really bad before it looks good. And I also have this dream of long hair. So I don't like to cut my hair too short, which would be the right, the first step, I think to, to making it work. So I'm scared of the transition period. And I'm scared that I will look you know that I'm an instantly going to age 15 years, you know, and that scares me. Because I am working. And I do like I have crossed the divide now. Like I am older people in the office now like, I don't work in a school, but if I was I would be on the other side of that divide. And I'm constantly fighting my impulse to be grumpy, and, you know, oh, that won't work. And so I feel like, Oh, I feel like if I if I look that way, then that's just one more reason maybe for for people to look at me and think like, oh, I don't want to be like her, you know, like that's, like, I'll hang out with the new people not with her. I think that's silly. Like I know, I have a lot of wisdom to give. I know I have a lot of experience and that I'm way better at what I do now than I was 15 years ago. I know, I know, and I'm better at handling so many things in the workplace. But I still feel like this would just be one more sort of confirmation that I'm on the other end of my career than I used to be.
Sally Chivers 23:50
Wrinkle Radio is a podcast about aging. And it's a podcast situated in age studies. If you already know what that is fantastic, I'm so glad you're here. And we can delve more deeply into this together. And if you don't know what age studies is yet, well then fantastic pull up a chair. We're going to keep talking about what age studies is, and what age studies scholars do over the next several episodes. A short form is that age studies is similar to women's studies, gender studies and Critical Race studies. But with age always at the center of inquiry. Dana's interview demonstrates age studies in practice, by starting with a strand of gray hair, and teasing out what it means for a woman at work. And for a Jewish woman living in a decidedly non Jewish city. She deftly demonstrates that you can recognize the value of experience, honor how you improve with age, and still fear what signs of aging on your body say to the world about you?
Sally Chivers 24:59
At Wrinkle Radio, we don't fight aging. But we do fight the forces that tell us aging is something to fear. And who better to help us do that than a superhero?
Andrea Charise 25:14
I used to have a very distinctive and delimited white streak just at the front of my forehead, which I think was the occasion for a hairdresser to say, Oh, you're like Rogue, who I gather is a Marvel superhero, obviously has great hair. And so it was interesting to sort of see that as the go to kind of referent like, Oh, you look like rogue, who's a superhero, who, again, has this sort of pop culture cachet, as opposed to, oh, are you going to do something about this? Or what are we thinking in terms of your hair color here, which is another way of engaging with hair whiteness, hair silvering, graying, howeveryou wish to refer to it.
Sally Chivers 26:01
That's Andrea Charise, Associate Professor and Associate Chair research in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. I don't know my Marvel very well. But I do know that Andrea is an age studies superhero. She artfully balances politics with joy and humor. I've never left a conversation with her without expanding my vocabulary. Her book, The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population, and the 19th century British novel is a veritable masterpiece. But it was a tweet about her hairdresser loving her for being like Rogue that inspired me to invite her to talk to me for this episode.
Andrea Charise 26:47
The last time I dyed my hair was in, I'm going to say 2009. That would be the very, very last time. And the reason I was doing it then was really out of play. And then I had you know, as I'd really taken on, in some ways, a professional identity as a researcher in the field of aging studies. And then in my other life, as well as a medical researcher in geriatrics, it was occurring to me that the matter of embodying my own research was something I could do through my hair. And so I thought, You know what, let's just start from zero and see what happens? So I actually, I shaved all my hair off, like, right down, right, right down. That in itself was, I think, quite startling to people, especially people that knew me beforehand. In any case, I loved it, it was, it was really liberating. It was really exciting. And then as my hair grew back, two things happened. The texture of my hair really changed. It became really curly, and really wavy, which, which was totally news to me. And then as I had kind of suspected and hoped the salt and pepper that I'd begun to see really began to grow and evolve into the patterns that would take me, you know, into now 12 years later. So on the one hand, I've had really strong positive responses to Oh, I love it. Oh, you're Rogue that's so distinctive, great, you know, that kind of energy, the other version of that positive response, but that has, I would say some more kind of telling nuance is, Oh, I love your gray hair. It looks so good on you. I could never do it. Mine would never look that good. But I love it on you.
Sally Chivers 28:33
Yeah, this was the point when I wish that I had brought Dana and Andrea into the same room to talk together. But I'm still learning how to do this podcast thing. So baby steps for now.
Andrea Charise 28:45
And that to me, you know, obviously I think in most cases, I can only guess but in most cases, I think is obviously is intended as a compliment. To me it's what's evident in a not so close reading of that is a reluctance to fully embrace the fact that a graying hair, especially coming out of a woman's head might be something that is intentional, something that's desirable, something that is sexy or chic, or that response has always interested me because it's not like I got some, you know, a flyer one day saying, you're going to have great gray hair, grow it out. Oh, phew. Okay, well, all right with that. I mean, what I try to say is as kindly and as inclusively as I can is, is, I think what you're just admiring is gray hair. And this is what it looks like. And this is what it looks like for me. But it's also just what gray hair looks like.
Sally Chivers 29:43
So that's for the people who were being nice about her gray hair. But of course there were other responses.
Andrea Charise 29:50
I had a number of men and women alike in the in an older generation say What are you doing? Stop it! like whatever this experiment is don't. I was told my partner would leave me. I was told I wouldn't be eligible for jobs. I was like, um, I'm in academia, like, people are allergic to youth in academia. But, you know, there was a sense that and on the one hand I'm being I'm being a bit silly and playful in saying this, but, you know, what we see in an example, like Lisa LaFlamme is the stakes of having gray hair or, or white hair, that might be dependent on your employment setting. Right, you know, I'm not in marketing, I'm not in a, I'll put it this way. I'm not in a, in an overtly lookist industry. Right? And yet any of us that are in the teaching professions know, that part of our jobs to be looked at a lot at the front of the classroom and to be looked at, and assessed in terms of our looks against or in, in play with our claims to intelligence and our right to be at the front of a classroom, especially a classroom that's in a university. It really seemed to confuse my students. At that time I was in a teaching assistant position, so sort not quite a peer to my to my, you know, first, second, third, fourth year undergraduate students, but also, you know, not a professor like I was kind of, in between cohorts, and, and my students were, I could, I could tell, and some that were courageous or indiscreet enough to share their feelings with me would say, you know, you seem so young, but you your hair is, you're obviously old, but you seem. So it was, it was, it was very much a kind of a point of amusing confusion. So it's interesting now, having had, you know, almost sort of a, conducting my own, n of one social experiment, to watch this evolution of responses to my hair, and to also recognize without drawing an equivalence by any means, but to have experienced, you know, as a, as a white cisgender woman, the the power of hair to speak something about you out loud, and at a time where debates and you know, really important social conversations are happening around natural and black hair, I am interested in the way that there is still at and remains a, an inordinate and maybe still somewhat unsettling interest in what growing out your white hair means. And what that supposed to sort of say about you. So again, without drawing an equivalence to really important debates around natural hair in the black community, I would say that something that is resonant is the power of hair to say something about you, without you yourself uttering a word about what it means. So that's where I would say the political valence of gray hair, white hair might lie today,
Sally Chivers 33:11
Andrea is particularly gifted at linking patterns from the past to the present day, especially around what we call in academia, bio politics, which in the very simplest sense, and read Andrea's book for a more sophisticated explanation, but in the simplest sense refers to the intersection and overlapping of power, especially political power, with the body: bodily expressions, bodily autonomy. That's what Andrea is talking about in her answer about the whitening of her own hair, as a woman working in the university and particularly young woman with whitening hair. But we also talked about why it's important to study the past. And some of her findings from doing that.
Andrea Charise 34:05
To think about the aesthetics of senescence is to take seriously how the body really is the opportunity to think both artfully, as well as through a more conventionally scientific lens, about experiences of aging. And that's something that really began to take off and take on steam, give off steam. I'm trying to use steam metaphors as widely as I can really over the course of the 19th century. And so that's why that book is focused as it is on that historical period. One of the reasons the literature, writing, and culture more generally of 19th century Britain has been so compelling for me is that in many ways, to the extent that we can look at 19th century Britain as a source of real inheritance for a lot of very persistent western ideals or Western outlooks, particularly as it regards scientific and medical knowledge, there really is there, one can say a great deal about the dangerous sort of searching for origins. And obviously, history is more complicated than sort of going back and spotting a moment saying, Aha, everything came out of there. Occasionally that happens. But as we all know, usually it's more complicated than that. That said, when we look to history, there's an opportunity in that place and time to see many phenomena, several phenomena that are familiar enough, in our own time, while also having the kind of clarity of the time elapsed, that's offered up by by history by sort of saying, Oh, well, that was something that happened 150 years ago, for both to be familiar, but also de familiarized in a way that sometimes allows things to be assessed or experienced with whether it's more clarity or at the very least a kind of a helpful arm's length view. And one of those phenomena, for me, of course, has been our own contemporary inheritances of aging, and the meaning of aging. These are very much ideas that especially when it comes to the expression of women's aging, or the cultural significance and the cultural interpretation of women's aging, in some ways, we really are, Michel Foucault was right, we really are those other Victorians. And really even earlier than that, in my view. It is interesting, I think, to to look at these, you know, especially these kinds of terminal decades of centuries as just one way of kind of organizing very complex human patterns.
Andrea Charise 36:48
And one that I talk about in my book, The Aesthetics of Senescence is the emergence of what was called the New Woman, which really was a very meaningful precursor to kind of first wave feminism. These were the women that were, I should say, the white women, in particular, that were agitating for white women in the British Empire, to have the right to vote and participate in spheres of social life from which they had been truly and very aggressively separated, certainly over the course of the 19th century. And much earlier than that, as well. What was an interesting phenomenon for me, and this is what I wrote about my book, a lot of people began writing about New Women, as old women in disguise. And the way a very typical news article or an opinion piece would go and one of the things I do in my book is kind of catalog this pattern, a very common axe to grind was with the so called New Women that were going around wearing knickerbockers and riding bicycles and doing all sorts of odd and outrageous things. And what would often happen in the framing of the New Woman is, she looks young, she appears athletic. She appears to have smooth skin and bright eyes and all of these things, but don't be confused. Underneath, she is degenerate, senile, her ovaries have shrunk. And it would go on and be this rather extraordinary: don't trust the outside because inside she's a senile hag, and I'm barely editorializing here. But again, what it was was a very deliberate and very age motivated tactic for undercutting the progress of women's rights and feminism more generally, at that time been really interesting for me in a phenomenon that I've called the making of the counterfeit woman. She looks real, she looks young, but don't be confused: underneath it, she is this sort of wizened embodiment of not just individual degeneracy, but of national degeneracy.
Andrea Charise 38:57
And that to me was where in particular, we see, it's not just that ageism is a, what can we say is sort of one of many annoyances, right, that that people must endure, right? It goes deeper than that. It became a way of saying, a person that's like that a person that disguises their age, is in fact a danger to the social fabric. They must be searched out and identified for what they really are at and that is this, this danger to the nation itself. And that, to me, was a moment where thinking about aging, and particularly where those points were important to the construction of cisgendered female identity in particular, where that very evidently for me was one of the kind of key stones of what would become the eugenics movement in the 20th century. And when I saw aging and youth and what I call, you know, counterfeit youth working in that way, that was for me a flag or a reminder that I take with me to this day that ageism is not just like not liking white hair and making fun of people with wrinkles, that it really does have very strong and nefarious bio political outcomes and motivations that have profoundly distressing implications for a society that allows them to perpetuate themselves.
Sally Chivers 40:36
This is a point when I was relieved to be reminded of the stakes of what seems like such a surface topic of gray hair. Yes, there is an aspect of the trivial to it, there certainly is a lot of privilege in being able just to seem to worry about this. But there's also a strong politics of aging that we can find in all of the discourses and experiences that we're talking about in this episode.
Andrea Charise 41:03
To the extent that the remarks that I've experienced about the choice I've made to grow out my white hair, to the extent that that has anything in common with the kinds of editorials I was describing, to the extent that they have a commitment to invisibilizing women's experiences, and very particularly invisibilizing aspects of women's bodies. That to me is the flag of this not just being about white hair, not just being about what you look like on a day to day basis, but where your body should be, how it should appear. And if it doesn't appear in the places and in the ways that are prescribed for that body, that such bodies should be invisibilized in some way. That, for me, is the connection. And I always try, the reason I retain my interest in the historical is because I can't see that far into the future. I won't say that my my, my witchy powers are not yet that strong. But it really helps to look at history to see a little further into the future, or to see what the outcomes of certain logics or patterns of thinking might be. It's not ever just about white hair. It's not ever just about what someone should look like. It's about what that means for bodies that don't adhere to very prescribed ways of appearing, or placements for those bodies, and what the nation needs to do with them. If they don't follow those implied rules,
Sally Chivers 42:45
Our conversation got into some pretty gritty details about what there is to fear and not to fear about growing older. And I'm saving some of that for future episodes because they really could spin into entire topics have their own. But we ended on a really hopeful note about what is to be done. So I'll close with one of the best explanations I've ever heard about why to do age studies, why the arts matters in doing age studies, and how the imagination is key to changing the world.
Andrea Charise 43:25
I think one of the reasons I stay with aging, and its various iterations, you know, as a topic for thought and consideration, is that it it forces me to be honest about the limits of the human. We can be, as you say, hopeful that things will change, hopeful that large scale global transformation is possible. Of course, yes. One must, for one reason or another, you know, hold on to that possibility. But I think for me, and maybe even this is also the reason why doing this work in a really strongly arts led way has remained so important to me is that aging and the arts alike don't offer us easy answers. Sometimes I think there might be sort of a sense that, oh, well, the arts and aging. It's all happy endings, you know, or, you know, there's a sense that well, we all die happily in our sleep old and wise and you know, taken care of and I think for me, one of the reasons the arts as an approach to thinking about and understanding-- building my own knowledge about aging--why that's that's stayed with me is because it is a daily test of my own commitment to trying to live a life that is true and thoughtful and real. Authentic, I suppose, at the costs that that requires, right? And that is to be as clear eyed as possible about things that are really, really scary. Things that may not end up in a golden sundrenched evening moment when I close my eyes at the wise old age of 44, whatever, whatever, whatever my wise old age is going to be. And I think, to really like use the capacity of the human imagination as it's manifest through these aesthetic expressions of art and creativity more broadly, to both sort of test how far we can think into our own futures. To think about our own aging is kind of impossible, right? But the arts allow us the very best technology, we have to try to do something that is absolutely outside of human capacity. And that combination of the arts as a means for thinking about aging is precious to me. And I think, a really essential modality of our knowledge of of aging and older age, if only because it reminds us that without thinking more carefully about aging, we can't find our way out. We can't find our way out in any way, you know, we have to train our imagination to get us into a better older age. And no randomized control trial is going to help with that.
I couldn't have said it better myself. And I don't think anyone could have said it better than Andrea Charise and Dana Capell. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to both of them for joining me to talk about the Power of Greyscale. When I first saw people graying out their profile pictures, I never would have thought that it could have led to these incredible, long overdue conversations with people I have admired for so long. This has been Wrinkle Radio. I'm your Host Sally Chivers. Please like, subscribe, tell your friends, tell your family, tell your colleagues, tell your students. You know better than I do how to get the word out there. And remember, don't panic. It's just aging!
Episode includes music from freesound by Graham_Makes - CC 4.0 license and aluroso. from artlist by Duce Williams, Ziv Moran, Sun River, and Michael Shynes.