First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I am currently immersed in three engrossing novels. I am stuck in three worlds with different characters, plots and tensions. In one book, Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, a mother, cautioning her daughter about makeup, advises that she should “get a handle on what you really look like before you start playing pretend”.
This line can be interpreted as the character meant it: before you explore augmenting your face with makeup, first accept what you really look like. If you do not accept your intrinsic value, then you will spend the rest of your life imprisoned by makeup.
Or it can be interpreted much more broadly: before you go out in the world, know and accept who you are. The world will try to define you according to its own value system and dictate what it is that makes you valuable and desirable. It will tell you what age, weight, complexion, height, hair and accent you should have to earn your entry. Most of us spend our lives playing pretend, trying to earn the world’s approval.
Some of us contend with a world that demands our submission unanchored by validating parenting. Through social media, children are getting messages earlier and earlier about who they need to be to get the most likes, shares and comments. The algorithm thrives and capitalises on our inadequacies. Our fear of irrelevance has created entire industries and economies.
One of the things that most of us do not have a handle on is ageing. I remember a time when professionally my value was tied up with being the youngest voice in the room. A time when opportunities were made available to me as a young black woman. Luckily I recognised the ruse quite early enough. What will happen when I am no longer considered young? What would my value be then? My entry ticket was my age, but that currency would soon be worthless.
I was always aware that there would be someone younger than me. I recognised the temporality of my youth as defined by the world. I was smart enough to ride the wave of the world’s definition of youth but not to buy into it – because being 25 is not who I would be forever. Ageism is so pervasive that sometimes we do not detect all the ways in which we are beholden to it. It’s in those moments when we say “a lady never reveals her age”. It’s in the moments when we overlook and summarily dismiss older people as out of touch. It’s when we smile when someone says we look younger than our actual age.
Not too long ago I had a man publicly weaponise my age against me while we were speaking to an audience. We were talking about the benefits of young people weighing in on the country’s most pressing issues. He then casually mentioned that I could no longer be considered young. Everyone chuckled. I took no malice in it other than as people we tend to project our fears onto others. If I were a different person, that comment would have unsettled me. Fortunately, I have a handle on my age.
Sometimes age is attached to professional opportunity. Our careers mostly follow a predictable arc that is by and large informed by age. The young ones are on the frontline, they are in the thick of deal-making and they are the ones with promising potential. When you reach a certain age, the world stops expecting anything from you other than your retirement from life and work. The fallout of ageism is that it pits different generations against each other instead of us seeing the value in the other.
I have earned professional titles, lost them and given some up, and yes, there were moments of insecurity and fear. Who am I if I am not a young lawyer with potential? I learnt not to be frightened by parts of me I had not discovered yet, that are beyond the roles and labels the world presents. I endeavour to lean into every new season that beckons me. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.