Buried in a sheaf of old yellowing drawings I did in 1977 as an art student was a selfie of sorts that caught my eye. The assignment given by my teacher at SVA was one I vividly remember.
Draw yourself as an “old” person.
It was part of a series of self-portraits we were assigned which also included drawing yourself as the opposite sex. That one was easy to imagine – I had long envisioned myself as a gay man who dressed in drag. The detailed drawing based on a Diane Arbus photo was littered with all the paraphernalia that went with that lifestyle in the 1970s.
Envisioning myself as an older woman was more of a challenge.
As a 22-year-old, it’s hard to say what I considered “old” to be, but it’s likely that my current age of 68 fits the bill. According to a recent Pew Research Center report those under 30 believe old age hits at 59. So I’m certain that in the less enlightened 1970s, for a twenty-something who thought “I’m gonna live forever!” 68 was considered an oldster.
Looking at that pencil drawing now was revealing. The woman was both body and sex-positive. There was not a whiff of ageism, and the self-confidence she exuded was startling. She was frankly, feminist. Aging didn’t seem to be a burden.
It wasn’t a decline. I was aging boldly.
I was going to grow old and be a sexy broad who was comfortable in her own aging body, owning her sexuality. And dating a younger man! Go, Sally!
I was struck too by the line work. Not so much my drawing technique but in the age-appropriate, deeply-lined face and body.
She was not defying aging but embracing it.
Clearly, Elizabeth Arden’s anti-wrinkle vanishing cream had not done its job. The visible signs of aging were evident.
And my imagined older self could care less. Wrinkles and all, she was desired.
This was certainly out of step with the Pepsi Generation for-those-who-think-young-culture that saw old age for women as a sexual decline. The struggle to hold onto the illusions of youth was as powerful then as now but with fewer resources available.
In 1977 when I drew this illustration, facelifts were still the domain of the rich and famous and botulinum was just a toxin that caused a life-threatening type of food poisoning. The idea of Botox injections to fight the signs of aging was as inconceivable and as much a science-fiction notion as an iPhone would be. Fillers were what my mother called noshes you ate to stave off hunger between meals.
As I continued rifling through the drawings another stack from childhood appeared. It was clear that not only had my drawing skills improved with time but my perceptions of aging older women did too. The drawings I drew as a child seemed to conform more to the conventional wisdom of being an older woman.
From the time I was a tot, my Little Golden Books showed our golden years as grumpy old men and lumpy old women. Pictures in the media were predictable -post-menopausal women were usually depicted as pleasingly plump with sagging jowls and sagging breasts, their sedentary, asexual lives defined by grandchildren, gossip, and reminiscing about the good old days.
As a budding artist in the 1960s, my references for older women were limited.
Nothing Funny About Getting Old
Stashed in the cardboard box among the old drawings I re-discovered a familiar well-worn copy of a book I once devoured as a child. Entitled “Cartooning the Head and Figure,” it was an instructional book from 1967 “that provided tried and proven methods that explain step-by-step procedures in the art of cartooning.”
With visions of becoming a cartoonist when I grew up, I spent hours sitting on my bed drawing cartoons. I had a devotion that eluded me in math class, as I carefully studied the art techniques from this soft-bound book.
When it came to the section on cartooning “Old Age,” it was filled with typical yet alarming old age stereotypes. Next to ditzy female drivers and meddling battle-axe mother in laws the older woman was a favorite of cartoonists and comics in the media. The page was filled with wrinkled, hunched-over men and women sporting canes.
“Whereas it’s true that just a beard will put years on a cartoon figure there are other characteristics which will help in the process. There are curvature of the spine tottering stance, use of a cane, slumped sitting. Oldsters may be sprightly generally, pooped or palsied and shaky.”
Not a sex-positive old biddy in the bunch.
The only illustrated evidence of a sexually active older woman I would see as a teenager was the Horny Granny cartoon that appeared in Playboy Magazine. Making its debut in 1966 the naughty Granny -the unabashed sexual saggy-breasted cartoon character who relentlessly attempted to seduce men was a joke. Created by cartoonist Buck Brown, the appearance of the toothless old woman with the voracious sex drive was noteworthy if not ludicrous.
Today the trend of older women dating younger men is gaining traction. But women who date younger men are still vilified. Calling them cradle snatches is just the start, while a cougar is often said in contempt
We still fall back on sexist stereotypes of older women as desperate or deluded rather than seeing them as sexual beings. If people are still threatened by a sexualized 60-something-year-old woman today you can only imagine what it was like in the 1970s. Just ask Mae West, whose sexiness at 78 in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge was seen as pure camp.
Women had a clear expiration date when it came to their looks, their vitality, their sexuality, and their aspirations. But as a 22-year-old I chose to defy those messages. How positive that I saw a naturally aging woman with sagging skin and wrinkly knees as worthy of being desired.
Women had a clear expiration date when it came to their looks, their vitality, their sexuality, and their aspirations. But as a 22-year-old I chose to defy those messages. I hope I still do
Today at 68, I may be fitter and less wrinkled than the woman I imagined I would be, but I am just as spirited, and sexual, and continue to defy the limits we impose on women. Instead of reversing the signs of aging, let’s reverse our perception of aging as a decline or as something to defy.
I was onto something at 22. I hope I still am.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
These drawings are incredible, Sally!
Thanks, there were so revealing to me.
This is one for the ages! Literally. The message should be as relevant to a 22-year-old woman today just as it is an inspiration for “older” women aging boldly themselves. Your drawings are amazing and so are you!
Thank you so much. I am left with the feeling of wanting to have a drink with my 22-year-old self and thank her for having this attitude.
I love love love that drawing. I feel like the woman in that picture, and hope I always will!
I am so glad the picture resonates with you! Even happier that you embrace the positivity of how you feel and look!
didn’t expect to be incurably incontinent at 52.
From this 74 year old male you have a wonderful sense of humor. I do remember the cartoon from Playboy magazine. Fine wine takes time to age.
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Thanks Dennis, so glad you enjoyed this and I can make you laugh.
What beautiful artwork! I’m aging boldly and recommend it lol
Thank you! Im so glad that you are… it’s highly underrated!