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An Open Letter on Ageism on the Occasion of my Birthday

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Today, October 1 of this year I turn 39 years old. In Hollywood years, I am bordering on geriatric. Hollywood doesn’t like an aging woman. The preferred femme on screen is young, often times underweight, probably has been enhanced with the likes of fillers, Botox or implants, and seen through a sexualized male gaze.  Of late I’ve been told, “You don’t age!” It’s positioned as a compliment. But what it really reveals is a lack of value for the ‘older’ woman and the gift of aging. Should we all be so lucky to live a long life.

Patriarchy conditions both men and women to value women for their appearance; the younger, the higher the stock value.  Women in the industry butcher their bodies and faces chasing an idea of youth they’re told matters.  Boob jobs, nose jobs and frozen faces are rewarded with more economic opportunities. However sometimes, instead of getting those economic opportunities they thought would be on the other side of the knife or frozen forehead, many women become tabloid fodder instead. We tell women they need to remain forever young and then mock them when they attempt to do so.

The entertainment industry plays a large role in normalizing youth as the only thing to value, the only story worth telling specifically for female characters. This is evidenced by the fact that on average, male actors careers peek at 46, female actors at 30.  Where is the responsibility in the messages we choose to propagate from casting offices to our social media accounts?

I’ve always found the lists of ‘top 30 under 30’, ‘young Hollywood to watch out for’ and the like strange. I’ve often wondered what happens if you accomplish something ‘outstanding’ at 42, 57 or 86. Have you lost all significance? Or what if you don’t accomplish something ‘outstanding’ at all? Did you never matter in the first place? On that note, what qualifies as ‘oustanding’? The desire to be known – to feel a sense of value through being ‘known’ – coupled with the pursuit of being the next wunderkind leads to a lot of collective misery. What happens when you age and you are no longer ‘special’?

To my peers: while you’re obsessed with creating the perfect ‘selfie’, children’s hospitals are full of babies and kids dying from terminal illnesses. The school concerts, sports games, family holidays, high school graduation, first love, first heartbreak, first job, all the life their parents assumed would unfold will never be. And that is painful. While you’re worried about the lines on your face, people are burying loved ones taken from them far too soon under completely unfair circumstances. While you’re obsessed with the lack of a six pack, someone is going hungry, millions of people are displaced, and others are hiding from bomb raids and gunfire.

Perspective, at times, is helpful.

When I was in grade twelve, I was in a car accident. We were struck at high speed by a drunk driver. The impact caused the vehicle I was in to spiral in a full 360 across the intersection. My head smashed the car window, my skull was littered with embedded glass – some the size of molars.  Every single shard of glass miraculously (and narrowly) missed a major artery that, if hit, would have seen me bleed to death. If I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt there’s no question I would be dead.

Several years ago I nearly died from complications arising from Malaria in east Africa. Money gave me access to a great doctor. Something many children and their parents in the region cannot access. I’m still here. Most of them are not.

My point is life is a gift and everything can change in the blink of a moment. Because of that I admittedly lack the patience for our fear of aging. It is shallow and does not serve us. I lack patience for the selfie filters that enhance our cheekbones and make our lips fuller. I lack the patience for magazines telling women that aging is bad. I lack the patience for women buying those magazines. I lack the patience for the tabloids praising women over 40 ‘still looking hot’. I lack patience for the double standard of an aging man on screen versus an aging woman.

The only time I felt panic about aging was when I was turning 25.  I remember thinking I was such a failure. I wasn’t the big smash hit ‘top 30 under 30’ Hollywood wunderkind I thought I should have been by 25. However life went on and I managed to get my head out of my arse. At present, I can’t say much of my time and attention goes into worrying about my decaying body. I don’t always like seeing the grey hairs on my head but I also know I only care momentarily about those grey hairs because I’ve been conditioned to do so. Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t give a shit.

These 39 years have been full of life, pleasant and painful, and the freedom to pursue every single one of my dreams. To say I’m an actor, that I make my living from this profession, is outstanding. I absolutely refuse to reduce myself with shallow navel-gazing over the supposed imperfections of my supposed ‘older’ body. To do so would be to deny all my lived experiences and all the wonder that is now and to come.  Not to mention the tremendous usefulness of this body as the vehicle I have been given to get through life.

Not many of us can control the Lolita complex driving many screenwriters, directors, producers, and casting directors but we can control and take responsibility for ourselves: what we choose to believe and consume, how we present ourselves, the stories we fund, write, produce, direct.  The stories we boycott. The stories we watch and celebrate.

Aging is a gift. Every line on your face is a gift. Aging is a beautiful act of resistance in the face of a patriarchal construct that wants to make you believe you are not enough. You are and always have been enough.

Elissa

About Elissa

Elissa is an ecofeminist interdisciplinary artist and activist. To learn more about her work visit mylifeon.earth