When a newly divorced Vicki Larson reached her late 40s, she didn’t see herself as “dried up,” undesirable, professionally irrelevant or “invisible,” as women of a certain age have long been told to feel.
Instead, the Bay Area journalist and author was excited to move into the “prime” of her life, never “more confident … interesting, vibrant, and juicy,” as she writes in “Not Too Old For That” (Rowman & Littlefield, $32), her insightful and provocative new book about women and aging.
Now in her 60s, Larson enjoyed short- and long-term romances, got a promotion at work, bought a house, reared two sons, wrote a book and nurtured new and long-term friendships.
Whether or not Larson’s trajectory is typical, she says it’s not a path that society typically describes for women of a certain age, an issue that frustrated Larson but also prompted her to investigate. The result is a book that challenges the hurtful messages in the media and elsewhere about postmenopausal women.
These messages say that older women are no longer attractive or sexual, because they no longer produce children or delight the male gaze. The messages also say their aging bodies and brains render them “frail, incompetent” and an increasing burden to others.
“I’m just hitting my prime and society is telling me that I’m no longer visible?” Larson says. “That I’m undesirable? That I have nothing to offer?”
The lifestyle editor at the Marin Independent Journal, Larson turned a reporter’s attention to those questions, using research into the science of aging and interviews with scholars, authors and regular women. In the book and this interview, Larson emphasized that she didn’t set out to write a self-help guide or an “Eat, Pray, Love”-style tome that tells women how to “find” themselves.
“ I approached the question of aging as a reporter,” Larson says. “I wanted to find out, what’s happening to your body. What messages are you hearing? Who benefits from telling these messages and are they accurate?”
In the process Larson makes the empowering case that older women already have power. While ageism is real, older women have become increasingly visible in prominent areas of American life. They have founded and run companies, won awards for their work in Hollywood and run for local, state, federal and presidential office. Perhaps most significantly, older women have strength in numbers. They will become a key demographic in the U.S. population in the next decade, when older people will outnumber children for the first time in history.
“The vast majority of those people will be women because we tend to live longer than men,” Larson says.
With this kind of power, “we have an opportunity to create new narratives of aging as a woman, ones that value women at all stages of life, not just youth,” Larson writes.
One pervasive narrative that needs to go is that older women don’t care about sex, Larson explains. The idea is that they lose interest, while “older men are always good to go.” But women generally maintain the same level of desire as men as they age, with men even more likely to lose desire due to erectile dysfunction, Larson points out, citing a 2017 study. The stereotype “of the asexual menopausal woman” probably originates from men’s anxiety about their own sexual problems. Larson also looks at how negative messages about women and sexuality have fallen especially hard on Black women and women from other marginalized groups.
And Larson dissects the seemingly positive recent coverage around aging, which tells women how to do it “successfully” — like 52-year-old megastar Jennifer Lopez, who is praised for her smooth skin, taut abs and ability to still fit into the body-hugging Versace gown she wore more than 20 years ago.
While there should be room for celebrating women like Lopez, Larson also quotes other women who decry the impossible standard for anyone who doesn’t have Lopez’s genes or resources, and experts who explain the ageism inherent in language that defines aging “beautifully” as looking young.
Larson’s book doesn’t shy away from other serious issues related to aging, including the fact that many older women struggle financially as they reach retirement. A chapter is devoted to encouraging women to take control over their finances and look for ways to invest.
“If there’s one thing I hope women take away from my book, it’s this,” Larson said.
Larson tackles the fear of dying, as well, and how women may stay in less-than satisfying relationships because they are afraid to leave this world alone. But many people do die alone, an inevitability made stark by COVID-19 hospital deaths, Larson says bluntly. The question, she says, is how then do women make the most of their lives, whether in a long-term marriage, happily single or in novel configurations of relationships with extended family, friends and even ex-spouses.
She concludes with a call for women of all ages to “start having honest conversations about not just what they perceive as the negatives of aging as a woman in this world, but also the ways that getting older has made them stronger, more resilient, more open-minded, more accepting.”
Hear Vicki Larson, author of “Not Too Old For That,” speak at 5 p.m. May 1 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. in Corte Madera; bookpassage.com. She will also be at the Bay Area Book Festival from 11 a.m. t 5 p.m. May 7 and 8.