I recently turned 70.
It has taken me more than four months simply to be able to write those four words. I’m not age-phobic. I know it’s a blessing that I’ve been around for seven decades. I know I should celebrate longevity and good health, like my mother does, a vibrant woman of 91 who does yoga.
Yet a feeling of shame often arises when I remember I am actually the number 70. And I’m ashamed to admit that I feel shame. I wouldn’t feel this way if I were a doctor still practicing my profession at 70. I certainly wouldn’t feel this way if I were a 70-year-old athlete or author. Instead, I have been a news anchor in the same community for close to 40 years. Along with my reporting, I get paid to look my best. But even though our audience has watched me age, it’s a requirement that I somehow look ageless.
I have not had plastic surgery. After too many elective surgeries for other medical reasons, I am not anxious to go under the knife again. Still, I spend precious hours each day doing every other thing imaginable to maintain the illusion of youth, using the best make-up products and, lately, applying false eyelashes.
My blow-dryer, flat iron and hair spray are as essential as my computer. And my hair has been blond forever! I wear sexy clothes, not because I want to but because it is a job requirement for women, at every age.
So what’s with the shame? Older male anchors get to be admired, despite their paunches and no hair and wrinkles. Women in showbiz are expected to fight it and get depressed by how our accumulation of birthdays changes our bodies. Friends my age talk about becoming invisible. I understand what they mean. Off the air, I, too, can feel like an older woman blending into the woodwork while the attention gravitates toward those who are half my age. On air, I am in a position where I can’t be overlooked. Profit margins depend on me being very visible, appearing eternally youthful.
I am not young. I am 70. I am also very good at my job. When my big birthday was announced on the air … let’s just say not all the responses were “congratulations.” Yes, I get lots of support in my Facebook feed and even in letters from older women who see me as a role model, enduring the pressures of ageism in my profession and in our world.
But there was also this ugly stream of other reactions, on email and social media: “You old hag! Just retire already.”
“Will you just retire already and give some young woman a chance.”
How do I know these messages come from men? Sometimes it’s easy to click on their Twitter profile. Sometimes they leave a first name. But as far as I know, no woman has ever sent me such sentiments.
I know they’re just words, but words have power. They can crumble a wall of confidence built by years of praise and accomplishments. And words alluding to the uselessness of an “old woman” can send me into tears.
I feel a stab in the stomach, a rush of anger. The words echo in my mind, and then the questioning begins: “Are they right?” “Should I quit?” Then I become defiant. No one can judge when I’m not longer fit for this job. I am excellent at my job. And I am not alone in enduring these ageist attacks in our profession. When I started out in this business, women anchors were rare. We were encouraged to dress in suits, to tone down our femininity, so that we appeared “serious.”
We weren’t asked to be glamorous, but we were asked to be “deferential,” even “flirty,” to make sure the focus was always on empowering our male counterparts. Now, with the passing decades we are being asked to look “sexy and alluring.”
I am not judging these young, smart women. They are doing what they must to survive in a business that has become all about surface and showy — be attractive so the station will get high ratings. By encouraging low necklines, long manes and heavy makeup for female anchors, they are creating new challenges for all of us, of all ages, who want to be judged by the same criteria used to judge a man in that position.
Brainpower! Just recently, five female anchors at New York’s NY1 network sued for age and gender discrimination. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount though probably not enough to dissuade other networks from pushing older women aside.
I’ll close by sharing a recent exchange at the anchor desk. I was sitting next to a stunning young female co-anchor, who had just turned 30. She turned to me and said, “I guess I’d better start saving now for my face-lift.”
I was smoldering inside, though I smiled, and simply said this: “I hope that by the time you are considering surgery things will have changed in this business to the point where you’ll be able to actually look whatever age you are. I hope you will be respected and valued for how good you are at your job, and not for how good and young you look.”
How Ageism Tainted My 70th Birthday as a TV Anchor
But I am not judging these young, smart women.
I recently turned 70.