I adore Madonna.
I love her music, yes, but I love her as a woman a million times more.
In fact, a few years ago on a trip to New York, I walked about 20 blocks just to see where she lives when she’s in the city. (I’m not a stalker, I swear.)
Why do I love her so much?
Because of how she achieved her fame and her tremendous fortune.
As the story goes, she left home for New York City with about twenty dollars in her pocket, with no job and no place to live, and got dropped off by a cab in the middle of Times Square.
Holy crap, can you imagine?
Then she proceeded to single-handedly morph herself into one of the biggest pop stars of all time. She literally created a persona and an empire — out of nothing.
Even if you don’t love her music (or her), you have to bow down to the absolute power she summoned and expressed to do what she did.
And not only did she succeed massively in her 20s, she then re-created herself about a hundred times for the next four decades. And she’s still going strong today.
I recently saw an article about Madonna having (allegedly) had plastic surgery. The article recapped an Instagram exchange between Madonna and a rap star who commented on one of her typically provocative photos that she was being “desperate” and needed to “act her age.”
Then the author of the article suggested that Madonna needed to learn how to “age gracefully.”
Women and Beauty
Before we talk about women and aging, we have to talk about women and beauty.
Of course, I mean culture’s version of beauty, which is exemplified by symmetrical facial features and a body with just the right proportion of curves.
Not everyone is born with a face like Adele and a body like J. Lo., so we do the best we can with makeup and we kill ourselves at the gym. And, of course, we spend our lives dieting.
Girls are trained from birth to believe that their power lies in their looks. And the more we come close to the narrow standard of beauty we’re taught to aspire to, the more cultural power we have (albeit negligible compared with the power of men).
But because most of us don’t perfectly align with the standard (that’s for the genetically lucky few), we feel powerless. And so we set about doing whatever it takes to conform. If we don’t, we know we’ll be disparaged, ridiculed, or worse, completely ignored.
So we literally waste our lives trying to claim this artificial version of power . . . that culture may or may not bestow on us.
The irony is that we are innately powerful. But not only do we never access our innate power, we waste it entirely. Because we spend our lives chasing culture’s version of female power, we squander the authentic power we were born with.
Here’s yet another irony: If we actually accessed our full power, lived totally authentically, and worked to achieve our full potential, there would be no need for diets, anti-aging creams, or plastic surgery.
By radiating our inner power, we would be more spectacularly physically beautiful than we could ever imagine. Our skin would glow, our hair would shine, and our eyes would sparkle — we wouldn’t look “old.”
But instead we shove down our power. We silence ourselves, we move out of the way, we apologize incessantly, we smile through our rage, we keep our opinions to ourselves, and we become people pleasers. And then we have to numb the pain that this unnatural shoving down causes.
We binge eat, we down massive amounts of wine, and we put ourselves to sleep with pills. This quite necessary self-medication shows up outwardly. We gain weight and we age ourselves prematurely. And because of these unwanted physical side effects, we must go to extremes to cancel them out.
And we waste our lives doing it.
Women and Youth
Tragically, we’re sacrificing our real power to chase a standard that renders us ultimately powerless. In fact, that’s what it’s intended to do.
Women sacrifice their innate power trying to achieve a fantasy that was created for us — and we by default spend our lives doing it because it is inherently unachievable. We may get close in our lifetimes, but we’ll never fully succeed.
That’s the whole point. We are purposely distracted with the never-ending pursuit of beauty to separate us from our power. Our power lies dormant as a result of living in a patriarchal culture that cannot survive unless we are quiet, passive, and submissive.
And for women who manage to get close to the beauty standard, there will forever be the ultimate standard — one that slips through our grasp with every day that passes: youth.
(Side note: When you have both youth and beauty, the standard of sexual purity becomes your goal.)
The irony is that as we age, we gain the knowledge, wisdom, and experience that enables us to more fully express our power and manifest it. How convenient that it’s at this point in our lives we are told to go away quietly.
This is why we’re told to age “gracefully.” It’s another way to keep us from our power.
The Problem With “Aging Gracefully”
So what does “aging gracefully” even mean?
We’re being told that we need to quit fighting the aging process and accept the fact that we’ve lost our cultural relevance. And we’re being told this with condescension, another effective tool of a patriarchal culture.
We’re not given our message outright. Tacking on “gracefully” is passive-aggressive, and by exposing us for our desperation and insecurity, we are stripped of our power yet again. We don’t love and accept ourselves, and we’re being called out for it.
But of course we’re trained to not love ourselves — our true selves. The ones that stay hidden deep within while our worth is assessed by our outer selves.
And when our outer selves display signs that our expiration date is approaching — fine lines and wrinkles, a sagging neck, and the traces of jowls — we must double down and do whatever it takes to hide them.
Laser treatments, injections, face lifts, and my favorite: vaginal rejuvenation. Yes, we can now make our sex organs more attractive and youthful (ie, virginal) to satisfy men’s egos and enhance their sexual pleasure. The trifecta of male dominance and female shaming.
But we’re also reminded not to overdo it. Definitely don’t over do it. It’s better to be passive and start looking your age than to be called out and ridiculed for trying to not look your age.
But either way, we’re screwed. Embrace your age, and you get Have you seen her lately? She hasn’t aged well. But fight the aging process tooth and nail — like you’re trained to do — and you get Have you seen her lately? She’s had so much work done. She looks horrible.
“You need to age gracefully” essentially translates to You need to embrace the prison cell we’ve created for you. Now be quiet and go lie down.
Telling women that they should age gracefully reinforces in the most subtle way what we all know is true: In our society, women aren’t allowed to age period — gracefully or otherwise.
Women and Power
Because we aren’t allowed to access our true power, we never pursue our passions, set and achieve our goals, or contribute to humanity like we could (and should). We never achieve what we’re capable of, which can only happen through living powerfully and authentically.
I think this is why Madonna’s story is so inspiring to me. And why her ridicule is so heartbreaking.
It’s not an accident that someone as powerful as Madonna is singled out so harshly by our society. A woman who has the audacity to express her power so unapologetically must be taken down forcefully.
There’s nothing graceful about Madonna — she is 100% power. But even she isn’t immune to the cultural narrative that women need to age gracefully. And there’s something sad to me that Madonna is buying into the narrative that she can’t embrace aging.
Not Madonna. No way.
She has broken societal rules and bucked cultural norms from the beginning. She’s even created new ones. Madonna of all people can’t possibly be buying into this crap. She’s no follower, and yet here she is like the rest of us, (allegedly) getting procedures.
Well, of course she is. And shame on me for being sad. After all, that’s just me buying into the cultural narrative that there is, in fact, something sad about it.
After all, what’s her alternative? Embrace her age, set aside her creative capabilities, and go sit in a rocking chair and knit a sweater?
My God, if Madonna isn’t allowed to age powerfully, who is?
Let’s End This Nonsense
I don’t want to leave this earth gracefully. I want to be kicking ass right up until my last breath. Especially since I wasted the first 50 years of my life being willingly submissive and trying to look perfect.
I’m 52 and I’ve never felt more powerful. I want to embrace my life, not my age.
I want to be going down in a blaze of glory when I leave this earth — setting and achieving goals right up to the very end, having a passionate love affair with my significant other, and laughing my ass off . . . not playing bingo and showing my AARP card at the grocery store. (I’ve got nothing against board games and I love a good discount, but you know what I mean.)
The antidote to aging isn’t found through makeup or surgical procedures — it’s through taking back your power. And the best way to do this is to recall your cherished girlhood dreams and use them to set and achieve goals (and reject the tired narrative that it’s selfish to do so).
Once we start pushing back against the limiting and constricting cultural standards we’re held to, we will recover our authentic selves and become unstoppably powerful.
As we were born to be. And should always be.
I don’t want to age gracefully. I want to age powerfully. And I want that for women everywhere — most especially you.
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