In January 2007, in the early years of this blog, I wrote a post titled, “Don’t call me a ‘little old lady'”!” Thirteen years later, my feelings have completely changed. Here’s what I wrote then:
I’m always surprised by how acceptable it is in our society to call older people disparaging names.
I was reading a newspaper article today about Barack Obama’s popularity in Illinois, which quoted Emil Jones Jr, president of the Illinois Senate, as saying, “Sitting across the table from me was a little old lady, said she was 86 years old,” who hoped she’d live long enough to vote for Obama for President.
I was startled by reading this mature woman described as “a little old lady,” and I didn’t like it. OK, I’m little (4′ 10″), 63 years old, and female — but “little old lady” belittles my maturity and experience and sounds like it would be uttered while patting me on the head. Didn’t the 86-year-old elder deserve a more dignified description? If she had been male, would she have been described by Mr. Jones as “an old geezer”?
…I know there’s no consensus about what to call older people without offending us! I like the term “senior,” although I know some dislike it. I like “elder” because it connotes wisdom and sounds respectful, even reverent — but I don’t feel old enough to deserve being called an elder. “Mature” is a nice adjective, though “mature adult” sounds stilted.
Here’s how I feel now: If a little old lady can make her living writing and speaking about senior sex — which I do — and keep her body strong by teaching line dancing, practicing Pilates, and walking miles a day — all of which I do — then go ahead and call me a “little old lady.”
I feel I can own, even enjoy, being called “little old lady” at this time of my life. I’m little (4’10”) and old (76), and my life is thrilling, so what’s the problem? I’ve also grown into the term “elder” (though not “elderly,” please).
When Gloria Steinem turned 40 and a reporter told her she didn’t look 40, she said, “This is what 40 looks like!” We continue to redefine what aging looks like, feels like, and acts like. Join me!
Q to you: How do you feel about being called “senior,” “old,” and so on? I invite you to comment. You’ll see 18 comments from the first post — let’s add to those. I know we won’t all agree, so please disagree politely.
The term caught on rapidly, especially after Oprah adopted it, and even the New York Times discussed the vajajay trend. According to the NYT, Grey’s Anatomy’s creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes fought to use vagina in the script instead:
“I had written an episode during the second season of ‘Grey’s’ in which we used the word vagina a great many times (perhaps 11),” Ms. Rhimes wrote in an e-mail message. “Now, we’d once used the word penis 17 times in a single episode and no one blinked. But with vagina, the good folks at broadcast standards and practices blinked over and over and over. I think no one is comfortable experiencing the female anatomy out loud — which is a shame considering our anatomy is half the population.”
Now you hear “vajayjay”on television shows, read it in blogs, see spoofs on YouTube (don’t miss The Soup: Oprah’s Va-Jay-Jay, and accept it as the cute, friendly, non-graphic, inoffensive way to say vagina or vulva. (The vagina is the canal; the vulva includes the whole area: labia, clitoris, pubic mound, and vagina.) As the linguist John H. McWhorter said, as quoted in the NYT, “It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around.”
It occurred to me that if Oprah adopted “pe-pee-pee” as her pet word for “penis,” it wouldn’t sound as endearing.
Tell me, do you find “vajayjay” a useful addition to our lexicon? Do you like it? Do you use it? Personally, I prefer vajayjay to other, more demeaning slang words for female genitals, but I’d rather hear the anatomical terms normalized and accepted.
How about you?
How do you feel when a stranger, sales clerk, or health professional calls you “dear” or “sweetie”? In a widely reprinted New York Times article titled “In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear,’ a Hurt for the Elderly” (October 6, 2008), writer John Leland reveals that elderspeak, “the sweetly belittling form of address” that we’ve all experienced, can have health consequences. In addition, if we accept and internalize that aging means we’re forgetful or feeble, we don’t live as long — just by believing the negative image of aging.
Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University studies the health effects of belittling messages on elderly people. “Those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival,” she says.
According to the New York Times article,
In a long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002, Dr. Levy and her fellow researchers found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising or not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.
Health care workers are often the worst offenders of “elderspeak,” believing that they are using affectionate terms rather than belittling ones. Yet elderspeak sends a message that we are incompetent, childlike, and need to be taken care of. Over time, people exposed constantly to this message actually become more dependent and withdrawn, less self-reliant or competent.
Personally, I wouldn’t have guessed this. I’m about to turn 65 (tomorrow!) and I rather like terms of endearment, even from strangers. Robert used to love to go to a particular restaurant because the waitress called him “honey.” I take these endearments as they’re meant, as warm and friendly overtures, without belittling undertones that I’m incompetent or feeble. But that may be because I know I am strong mentally (writing books) and physically (dancing, Pilates, lifting weights). If I had doubts about my abilities, perhaps elderspeak would reinforce them. Certainly having positive images of aging is essential for moving through this part of our life journey with joy and energy — but does a stranger or health professional calling us “sweetie” really call that into question? Not for me — but I’d love to hear from you about this.If it does bother you, do you speak up? Do you say, “My name is….” or respond, “Thank you, darling”?
OK, I have to ask you — if you arrived at this site because you typed “granny sex” into your search engine, what were you hoping or expecting to find? I’m sincerely curious! Were you hoping to find an affirmation of older-age sexuality? (if so, you’re in the right place!) Or did you use those search words because you’re intrigued by what your grandmother might be doing behind closed doors? Or because you expect to get a giggle from a site that makes fun of elder sex? I’m just wondering… I hope you’ll comment!
If you’re wondering why I’m asking this, it turns out that many people arrive here because they searched “granny sex.” Far more of you search by “sexy seniors” or “senior sex” or “sex after sixty,” and that makes sense. But this “granny sex” idea puzzles me, and I hope you’ll respond! (You can either click “comments” below or email me, your choice.
2/6/08 update: As readers continue to use “granny sex” in emails to me and comments on this blog, as well as the search words that bring you here, I’ve come to understand that the term is not meant disrespectfully. In fact, a few of you have written me using “granny sex” quite lovingly. Is this term used outside the US more commonly than it is here, I wonder…?