Ashton Applewhite will speak at the Senior Planet Exploration Center on February 26, 2014.
Ashton Applewhite is on a crusade. A journalist and author, her mission is to raise awareness of ageism in America and get people young and old to join her in speaking out against it. Like the activists of the civil rights and women’s movements, Applewhite looks for discrimination and also self-discrimination, scrutinizing everything from media representations of age to her own responses to the realties of aging. Her radar is fine-tuned; she exercises it on her Tumblr, Yo, Is This Ageist, and on her longstanding blog This Chair Rocks (formerly known as Staying Vertical).
“This Chair Rocks” is also the title of a talk that Applewhite is touring. With empathy and humor, she explores our fear and loathing in the face of the inevitable, sharing a stew of statistics, personal anecdotes and stories from her research, which she began in 2007.
We spoke with Applewhite, 60, over tea in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she lives.
You’ve said that you started researching aging – becoming what you call “an old person in training” – because of a desire to avoid repeating your own mother’s experience as she aged. But then it evolved.
My mother was not a happy woman. And when someone asked me once why I had started this project, I blurted out that I didn’t want to end up like her. What I realized after much head banging was that my own internalized ageism – my fear of aging –made me think that getting old was what made my mother depressed. It was really depression that made my mother depressed, but I projected my own fear about getting old onto her.
I think most people are afraid. One of my key objectives is to tell them, Listen and educate yourself, because then you will be less afraid. If you can come out of your foxhole and look more neutrally at the landscape of aging, you are in a better position, because fear makes us stupid. Nobody ever does any smart thinking – or anything political – when they’re afraid.
Where do you think your fear of aging was coming from?
I think it comes from a society in which being old is viewed universally as being a dreadful thing. Ageism starts really young, when we’re kids – with an absence of role models, with making fun of older people, and with age segregation. If kids aren’t exposed to people of all ages in all their variety, then they don’t have those varied images to counter negative stereotypes.
A good analogy is with racism and integration. When people are separated from people who are not like them, it allows prejudices to build. Once you’re sitting next to someone who doesn’t look like you, whether it’s in a class or at a bar or a concert, you realize that they are just like you.
In your talk you describe going out to events where everyone else is young and being by far the oldest person there. Many older people feel awkward in that situation.
It takes courage. But if older people aren’t there in the room, then there’s no chance for younger people to go talk to them. If its something you want to do, it’s important as a political act to not stay home just because you’ll feel awkward.
There’s a phenomenal interest among younger women in Advanced Style blog – older women who are seriously into fashion. How much can this chip away at ageism?
People want alternative narratives about aging, because they are eager for something to not be depressed about. I think that the most important thing Advanced Style does is put significantly older women out there – it makes them visible – and second, it treats them respectfully. So it absolutely does combat ageism. But it’s a bit of an extreme example, because these are women who live for style. I would love to see style blogs about advanced scientists and advanced podiatrists, and advanced anything out there that shows older people doing whatever they’re doing. Because the absence of older people in the media is a huge problem.
There’s a lot of self-deprecating humor out there in the world of aging that trades in stereotypes but is often funny. What do we do about that? Don’t we need humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves?
I have no issue with jokes. I think humor is always good, and if you can’t laugh at yourself its all over. I think that deprecating comments used without the awareness that they’re deprecating – from other people or against ourselves – is the problem.
You talk about using stereotypes against ourselves without knowing that we are – which is a form of internalized ageism. Can you talk about that?
If all you see out there is that such-and-such a group is greedy or lazy or stupid, and you don’t grow up with other messages, then you do internalize those messages. Every marginalized population experiences this. It corrodes your identity and your sense of self.
With ageism, where I think it’s particularly problematic is around cognitive ability – the “senior moment” quip is classic. Memory does depreciate with age. I have a dark sense of humor and it’s going to get funny and I’d better laugh at myself, because it’s better to laugh than to cry. Laughing at yourself is different than other people laughing at you. And other people laughing at you is not inherently problematic as long as everyone knows it’s a joke.
This is still a profoundly racist and sexist society, and we all know racist and sexist jokes are not OK. That level of awareness has yet to occur around deprecating comments about old people.
How does ageism intersect with racism, sexism and issues of power?
There’s a Walter Mosley quote that says when you get old, you become black. That, of course, is about class. You can be a white American and never experience racial discrimination, but by the time you reach 50 or 60, you will start to experience becoming disenfranchised on the basis of your age. And of course age discrimination is a bigger problem for women because they make less money and have less power and live longer. And it’s even harder for black women. So all these converge.
On the site Quora, there’s a question from an 18-year-old girl who says, ‘Every time I express an opinion older people act like I don’t know anything because I have no experience; is this ageist?’
You bet! Ageism cuts both ways. Anytime anyone is deprecated or silenced or ignored on the basis of age, it’s ageism, and there’s tremendous ageism against kids. How do we guard against it? The fundamental answer is generational integration.
There’s a term that’s becoming something of a cliche in the aging world: aging gracefully. It usually denotes aging naturally, not worrying about gray hair and wrinkles. What does it mean to you?
As we age we do have to both push back and keep doing things, but also to acknowledge that the goalposts are shifting and we can’t do everything we used to do. And accepting that transition – which is a continuous, difficult transition – with grace is a tremendous aspiration. It’s hard and it’s real. That, for me, is aging gracefully.
I think the radical act – and it is radical act of the imagination – is to reject and revise our notion of beauty. A friend said, I think the most radical topic you’re writing about is sex, because the thought of a naked older woman is the most taboo thing in our society. We need to see ourselves as sexually active and as potential objects of desire, and not just absorb some cultural message that you’re not desirable. I mean, is a naked older woman more taboo than a photo of a person who was disfigured by Agent Orange? There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s a lot more subversive and a lot more scary and a lot more bad than a picture of a naked older woman.
Do you experience ageism in your life? Share your thoughts by scrolling down and adding them in the comments box below.