What Happens When the Black Does Crack & Our Ageism Starts Showing?
Not long ago, this stunning picture of 50 year old actress Elise Neal – looking svelte, supple, and half her age – made the rounds on social media.We marveled. We gaped. We applauded. We complimented and congratulated. We appended a #BodyGoals and blew dust off neglected gym memberships that had been languishing in the decay of new year zeal. Black women gave ourselves a collective pat on the back and smiled approvingly at our latest “black don’t crack” success story. Elise Neal: Further proof that we were, indeed, magic.
But in the midst of my internal celebration, some disturbing questions began to nag me…
What did it mean that I was congratulating another woman for retaining a youthful appearance?
For her ability to “pass” as a younger woman?
Was this some sort of noteworthy achievement? If so, why?
Does aging and, more specifically, looking one’s age denote some kind of failure?
Despite my deep commitment to living an intersectional and decolonized life, is it some latent ageism and internalized sexism that compels me to praise other women for and take pride in appearing younger than our actual age?
What other than ageism and internalized sexism might serve as impetus for this subtle denigration of aging – and the aged?
When we commend those who retain their youthful appearance, what are we insinuating about those who do not?
As I mulled over these questions, I thought back to Anais Nin’s incisive summation of the way we gender aging:
“There is a difference in the aging of men and women which I hope one day we can eradicate. The aging of a man is accepted. He can age nobly like a prehistoric statue, he can age like a bronze statue, acquire a patina, can have character and quality. We do not forgive a woman aging.”
For women, as Nin pointed out, aging is seen as descent and transgression. It is contextualized in language that denotes failure, ineffectiveness, isolation, inactivity, and undesirability. When we congratulate ourselves or other women for looking young, we are reinforcing and perpetuating notions of aging as ruin and defeat.
But it’s a little more complicated for black women. The oft-repeated “black don’t crack” mantra has served the important function of collective validation and affirmation, a self-generated sustenance for navigating the exhausting and soul-crushing terrain where racism and sexism convene. And while there is no doubt that internalized sexism and ageism play a factor in the way that Elise was celebrated, it is also true that for black women, she was a toned, caramel, and undeniably gorgeous rebuttal to white supremacist mythologies about black women’s beauty. In that moment, she was both heroine and salve.
Truth is, there is so much to celebrate about Elise Neal. She’s an accomplished actress and – from what I can infer from interview footage – a decent human being. We can and should celebrate her for a number of things, but looking younger than her age shouldn’t be one of them. What if, by some tragic turn of fate, her black does, indeed, crack? While it is true, generally speaking, that darker skin holds up better against environmental damage, some black women do actually look their age. Some look older. What if the next time we see Elise, she’s more wrinkled and looking every bit of her age? What if she looks older than her age? Will we have no choice but to retract our adulation? If her youthful appearance is indicative of our collective #BodyGoals and a sort of feminine apex, will an older looking Elise be forced to tender her resignation and abdicate the throne? Is she still worthy of our admiration?
Elise looks exquisite in her picture but, I’d argue, not anymore so than the 50 year old woman with the thinning, silver, hair, creased face, and gentled body that has softened and sagged. The elder beauty is an earned tessellation of lessons, memories, nourishment, and experiences of womanhood. The older, heavier, and more intentional bodies that move with grace through the natural processes we have been taught to evade and resist are, in of of themselves, social revolutions. When we laud women for retaining youthful appearances (no matter how unnatural, painful, time-consuming, and/or expensive it is to do so) we indirectly – but just as destructively – devalue the women who do not, the women whose transition into elderhood is visible and unimpeded. And as a woman, feminist, and proponent of social justice, restoration begins with acknowledging my complicity in invoking and perpetuating that which I know must be dismantled.
So the question becomes, what truce can be made between this need for healthy collective validation and celebration for and by black women and our commitment to decolonization and liberation from dysfunctional and oppressive paradigms? Can we affirm the beauty and accomplishment of women like Elise Neal in ways that aren’t implicitly injurious to women whose appearance does reflect their advanced age? How can we reimagine affirmation as intersectional, holistic, and liberating for all women? Can we be vigilant in not allowing the affirmation of self to mutate into the shaming of others?
As beautiful, healthy, and radiant as Elise is, my actual #BodyGoals have nothing to do with her and everything to do with fully experiencing myself as a gestalt and learning to unconditionally love myself through every phase of my life. To inhabit a body that I appreciate, nourish, and care for…be it thin or thick, young or aged, firm or tender, socially accepted or not. At 35, far too much of this kind of understanding is still theoretical and untested for me. People still compliment me on how young I look. I have not had my high ideals about unconditional self- love tested in the ways that aging in this society will test them. I have not yet added elder to the complex map of my personal and social identities.
I hope that when the time comes, I can experience the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual changes that come with aging not as loss of anything but as, Naomi Wolf conjured in The Beauty Myth, an “intensification of female power”, an earthy and seasoned testament to all the easy and uneasy places I have been and to the mysterious and evocative places I’m going. Should my black one day crack, I hope to love the crack the way I love all things true and deserved.