The word activist has a strange ring to it. Yet, when the cause is worth it—why not join the movement? In today’s conversation, ageism activist Ashton Applewhite will share her thoughts on becoming a part of a community of active women. Enjoy the show!
My guest today is Ashton Applewhite. Ashton is an author and an activist against ageism. She’s spent a lot of the last five years of her life writing on this subject and researching people of all ages. Her main focus is starting the talk about how we can get activated in pushing back against ageism in our society. Welcome, Ashton.
Thank you. It’s great to be in touch with your community.
Thank you. You know we are a global community of about 500 000 women who have joined together through our website. Our three original premises at Sixty and Me are financial security, independence and healthy ageing. Those are our three core concepts and every single one of them is an area where there is discrimination of ageism.
Of course, ageing is living. We are ageing from the minute we are born. It’s not just some inconvenient act that your parents do or baby boomers do.
What I want to talk to you about is becoming active. What can we do to change our own opinions about ageism? How can we make an impact in the world? Just tell us what you think is the best way to start.
The old saw is that change begins inside each of us—and it’s true. It’s important to look first at our own attitude towards ageing—which means looking at our own bias—and that is uncomfortable. But the minute you start to see it, you see it everywhere. It is truly liberating to realize that the attitudes that we all have—that are predominantly negative— are reinforced by the culture.
The tool that catalyzed the women’s movement was consciousness raising. I don’t write a book very often, but 20 years ago I wrote one called Cutting Loose, Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. It took me almost a year after it came out to realize that I had my consciousness raised.
This time around, I realized it a little sooner. My book This Chair Rocks costs $20, but this guide is downloadable for free. It’s on thischairrocks.com under resources. You’ll see right there a pamphlet you can just download and print out. It’s called Who Me, Ageist?
How to start a consciousness raising group and it’s about age bias. One thing I urge people to do is to download it and read it, because it has a bunch of questions.
What happened with consciousness raising in the women’s movement is that women came together and realized that what they had been considering personal problems—they were frustrated at work or their lives didn’t have a purpose or their children weren’t blond enough or their boobs weren’t big enough or whatever it was—were not personal problems.
This is the very similar to what we think now: “My chin isn’t what it used to be,” or, “I can’t get a raise.” These are not personal problems; these are widely shared political problems that require collective action. If it calls to you, start a consciousness raising group, get together and talk about your attitudes towards ageing. Ultimately, that will bring you to the next step, which is to look at where these messages come from and what purpose they serve.
I actually downloaded your pamphlet. I’ve really loved it because it’s simple, and I think it’s only three pages long. But I think the questions are the most important thing here. So, let’s talk about those.
That’s a good idea. Being specific is always good here.
Some of the questions are: In your mind, how old are you? Do you try to look younger than you are? Is ageing different for men and women? As I read through these questions, I realized that we do actually ask some of them on Sixty and Me. So, in a way, we are trying to raise the consciousness virtually.
It seems to me that you’re saying we should get together like in the women’s movement— in person. If we can’t do that, we should do it in an online community. A good idea is to go to your website and join your conversations on Yo, Is This Ageist?
Yes. Yo, Is This Ageist? is a Q & A blog. I also have a very active This Chair Rocks Facebook page, if you’re on Facebook. It’s where I post a ton of stuff that is ageism specific, and it’s really easy to join. I model Yo, is this Ageist? on the fantastic pre-existing site called Yo, is this Racist?, because as a culture we have difficulty talking about race.
I don’t think we have a hard time talking about ageism. I just think it’s a new idea to people, so I’ve provided a place where you can ask me a question or send in a picture or a link to something and ask if it is ageist. Or you can say why you thought it was ageist, because it’s not always the case. Sometimes, it’s just a reflection of the fact that we are different ages—and it’s different.
Basic litmus test is, if a similar comment on the basis of race or sex would raise your eyebrows, it’s probably not okay.
The next step is to think about how these attitudes play out in the culture and then call them out. A really good all-purpose answer when someone says something ageist to you, and you can’t think of the perfect snappy answer, is, “Why would you say that? We just met, why are you calling me sweetie?”
My perfect snappy answer when someone says, “You look great for your age,” is—with a straight face— “You look great for your age, too.” This will have them think about why that didn’t sound like a compliment when they heard it. This is you forcing that moment of reflection. It’s uncomfortable because you are asking someone to look at their own bias. That’s how we push the change out in the culture.
Then the next step is getting organized. We need actions. We need editorials. We need chapters just like the group called The Radical Age Movement. I’m going to put up on my site under resources, the same place where you can find the consciousness raising guide, a guide on how to start a chapter.
Start an organization; draw on what you know and move forward in whatever way feels right to you. We really need to be visible. Show up as a group of older women to a meeting or demonstration and when they call you grannies say, “What does my reproductive status have to do with that,” and, “Are you calling those guys over there granddads?”
We need to get out there in the world and start doing things that shatter the stereotypes organically, without having to force it. Traveling is a good example. I travel solo, and people always say, “Aren’t you afraid of travelling solo?”
There are other things you can do that aren’t age-bound. Start a business, work with all ages, mix with young people.
The message in society is that ageing successfully—the term I loathe—means to continually look and move like a younger version of ourselves. Even if we still can do most of our favorite activities, one of these days we are not going to be able to. Yet we can continue to do versions of the things we love.
It’s dopey to try and do things that make us look young, because that’s impossible. We can only look the age we are. If there’s something that you want to do, and you are reluctant do it because you will stick out because of your age, I really urge you to resist that impulse and go there.
Perhaps someone will look sideways at you or be snotty, but the odds are, most people won’t pay any attention. There will also be those people that think, “Hey look, she’s over there, and that means when I’m her age I can do that.” You will be disrupting their stereotype of what older people like to do or are good at, and that is also one way we can help change the world.
I remember when I left my corporate job three or four years ago, I had decided to go and talk to all the younger women who were in their 30’s and 40’s. They were like, “You are going to start a business?” In their minds they had actually thought, “I’ve been afraid of getting older.” Fear of ageing happens in your 30’s and 40’s these days.
It casts a shadow across your whole life.
My decision motivated those young women. They probably thought, “She’s doing this, and I feel more comfortable about getting older now.” It’s important to realize that life doesn’t stop because we’re ageing.
It is really important for younger and older women to come together. One thing I would love to see adopted around the world is curricula that teach kids about ageism at the same time they learn about sexism and racism. Perhaps there are teachers out there listening who can make that happen.
If you think about the current women model, you will realize that we are being conditioned to compete against each other. We are required to focus our attention on always looking younger, and you do not need a PhD in feminine studies to realize that this behavior reinforces sexism.
It reinforces lookism—the idea that the most important thing about you is how you look. It also reinforces ageism, because it instills the train of thought that younger is better.
One workshop I’m working on with a friend is called You will look like me. The idea is to bring younger and older women together so that exactly what you just described around work, happens around life. Because yes, you do stop looking the way you do, but you also gain all kinds of cool stuff.
True, the scary stuff is also real, but let’s tell both sides of the story. Let’s stop being ashamed and stop competing to look young. Do we want to dig the hole deeper? Do we want to reinforce ageism and sexism and patriarchy?
Or do we want to throw away the damn shovel, and come up with radically new and better ways of thinking and behaving and supporting each other? As long as older women and younger women are pitted against each other, we will never bust up the patriarchy. So let’s do it differently.
I read somewhere that you are the Gloria Steinem of the ageist revolution—she was the woman who lead the women’s movement to consciousness raising. How do you feel about that analogy? You have certainly got the energy and determination, the heart to take you onward.
Another phrase that originated in the women’s movement is that ‘the personal is the political.’ Choosing how to relate to our own ageing and taking it out in the world is a deeply political act. Simply embodying the spirit and ethos that you talk about at Sixty and Me helps in making that change.
During my talk at TED I said that it’s embarrassing to be called out as older until we quit being embarrassed about it. I’m over it. I’m not embarrassed, and I know I take that out into the world. I decline to be invisible. If that means walking with my arm up in front of me in a crowd so no one bumps into me, that’s what I do. If I have to bang on the damn bar, I’ll bang on the bar.
I think you’ve given us plenty of wonderful options people could follow.
I’m not saying people should be like me. I am not saying you have to do what I do. That’s my way, because I’m a pushy New Yorker who is tired of the current situation in our society.
What you’re saying is really cool, and there are plenty of resources people can check out. My recommendation is, number one, go to Ashton’s website because it really is full with valuable information. And number two, read her book—it is great.
There’s also a blog that has all my research, and Yo, Is This Ageist? is a separate Q & A blog.
There is also the Facebook page. A lot of our activity with Sixty and Me happens on Facebook. We always have lengthy conversations and awesome discussions. There are women out there who are very active, not just in politics, but active in changing the perceptions in society about getting older.
I’m uncomfortable with the Gloria Steinem things, because I want a thousand Gloria Steinems. This movement is going to need a thousand leaders. There are a million of you out there who have capacities that I don’t have, and in any case, there’s only one of me.
Take whatever piece of this discussion that makes sense to you and run with it. I really do urge you to read the book. It’s cheaper on Kindle, it contains everything I know, and it’s really fun to read.
I do recommend it too. By the way, the Gloria Steinem comment was a really big complement, because in her day, there was just her.
And she didn’t have the internet. When she emerged as the leader of the feminist movement, the notion that a woman could run a company as well as a man actually had people scratching their heads. Today, when I ask people what they consider as criteria for diversity, everyone lists race, gender and ability.
Then I would say, “What about age?” No one says, “Hmm, I have to think about that.” They know instantly and intuitively that in a diverse, multicultural society—which is what we are becoming—it is crazy to be divided on the basis of age. The ground is fertile and ready for the age diversity movement everywhere in the world.
I would like to encourage all of our Sixty and Me members to read your book and get onboard. Do what you can from your heart.
You don’t have to jump out of airplanes. You don’t have to do anything you don’t feel like doing. But I do urge you to think about your own attitudes towards ageing and where they come from.
Thanks, Ashton. It’s great having you here.
How do you feel about the idea of starting or joining an ageism activist movement? Where would you go first? Who do you think has the most influence to get such a movement going? Please join the conversation!