Musings on Growing Older

Valerie Harper (2001) opens her book with some American perceptions on aging and women’s beauty. She mentions the invisible “shelf life” on women in the media as “ageism is practiced by the networks” to the point of being unrealistic. “If life imitated television…mom would be thirty, and grandma would be thirty-three” (p. 10-11).

Harper mentions a couple positive ways in which American beauty standards have changed over the last few decades. “Flight attendants now look like America,” Harper says, as they are no longer bound to 1940’s era rules of being “single, female, white, under age twenty-seven, between 105 and 125 pounds, and between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet seven inches” (p. 24). Sizes of dresses for women have also lowered. What used to be a size 10 is currently a size 8 or 6.

Harper touches on the extremes women go through to maintain beauty (hot waxing, breast implants, lip plumping), and the ridiculousness of dieting (diet fibs, beating oneself up mentally, and diet fads). She easily sums up the mind of many dieters when she says, “many of us think of food in one of two ways. It’s either legal (a lettuce leaf) or illegal (a brownie)” (p. 84). She makes a personal realization of overeating, “I…came to the understanding that the problems I once had with food were not merely about food Eating was a way of trying to fill up the emptiness, to provide comfort” (p. 88).

Harper moves on to role models for women. She mentions FLASH (“a senior woman’s hockey team in Chicago”), Gloria Steinem’s first marriage at the age of 66, and actress Ruth Gordon’s remarkable attitude on growing older (p. 95). Ruth once told Valerie, “I made a decision…that I could get old, or I could get older. That was my choice. I didn’t have the choice to stay young. I decided to get older instead of getting old. Because old is a destination. Older is a process and a path” (p. 95-96). Harper also quotes actress Sophia Loren, “There is a fountain of youth. It is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age” (p. 155).

Harper also explores the power of positive thinking with her chapter on “humor replacement therapy.” Humor has been shown to reduce stress, raise your pain threshold, and boost your immune system. In one study, people listening to twenty minutes of [comedienne] Lily Tomlin doing her telephone operator routine were much less sensitive to pain than those listening to an academic lecture” (p. 132). She points out some favorite comics she follows online “”(p. 139) and leads out of her book with some additional encouragement. “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t care so much what other people thought of us?” (p.144) “Wouldn’t it be great if looking good wasn’t tied up with looking young?” (p. 144).
Always curious on new attitudes on aging, I was interested in to read actress Valerie Harper’s views as she entered her sixties. This book focuses on the positives of life and aging, of looking at life in a more confident way, and not putting oneself down. It lightheartedly addresses some of the darker or more comical things in our American beauty standards, but without putting people down who engage in such practices. It asks questions without accusing and reminds me a great deal of author/poet Judith Viorst’s poems on aging which approach aging with a touch of humor that is more positive than negative.

Harper, V. (2001). Today I am a Ma’am, And Other Musings on Life, Beauty, and Growing Older. New York: Cliff Street Books.

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