Naomi Wolf on Aging: What do you think?

Is the following just a description, or in part a recommendation? In any case, it carries a lot of information about values, though just whose may not be clear. In any case, what do you think about it? definitely on the right track? Spending too much on yoga, pilates, organic food and expensive hair stylists? Some big flaws? Just wait untill she gets to 65?

When I am at a social occasion, the showstoppers are no longer the young beauties in their 20s. Rather, those who draw all the light in the room are the women of great accomplishment and personal charisma — and these are usually women in midlife. (Indeed, at events I have attended recently, cadres of conventionally beautiful young women seem now to be treated almost like wallpaper or like the catering staff.)

The change in social norms around the issue of women’s aging is immense. There is now an influential and growing demographic of educated, well-off women whose status, sense of self-esteem and sexual cachet rise rather than fall as they head toward midlife. I do not see younger women looking at accomplished women in their 40s with pity or derision: I see them looking ahead with admiration and even envy...

Because of advances in health and well-being awareness, many women I know are entering midlife feeling as good as (and looking better than) they did in college. But they also have professional success, self-knowledge, sexual magnetism and awareness, and even thriving children, admiring husbands or ardent lovers. These signs of accomplishment merely add to the allure of many midlife women — women who, when asked if they would like to be in their 20s again, think of doing so with a shudder.

So male philosophers who hit on young women in classes or conference are what? Incredibly insecure? Following the pro-creation narrative? Out of touch with the values of the cultural elite?

17 thoughts on “Naomi Wolf on Aging: What do you think?

  1. Wolf seems to be interpreting how women generally, at the kinds of events she attends, are now looking at “women in midlife.” How this might relate to men is unclear, since the women in Wolf’s narrative are evaluating each other. But she does imagine that the “sexual cachet” of “educated, well-off women” is increasingly on the “rise rather than fall as they head toward midlife.” Such a trend so far seems to have gone unnoticed among heterosexual men — though maybe Wolf has identified a trend among non-heterosexual women.

  2. Whether or not Wolf’s observations are more than that, surely it’s obvious that male philosophers hitting on younger women (particularly students) is and always was mostly about power? Because although these guys may well be married to far more sophisticated and accomplished women, those women will not think the sun shines out of these men’s backsides. They will not be enthrall to their every word. They won’t be intimidated by them. They won’t rely on them for good grades or references.

    There’s undoubtedly a relationship between youth, beauty and sexual attraction. But when senior (in both senses) men or women pursue younger people in professional or academic contexts? Very little to do with smooth skin.

  3. O dear. My bad. The comments I quoted start off noting that a man who showed up with a young beauty was not envied. Indeed, much of the piece is interested in how men now want both a body and brains.

  4. Eleanor, I’m not sure how biology relates to that. It seems equally plausible (or, perhaps given the evolution of sexual preferences over the course of history, more plausible) that there is an explanation that relies primarily on social conditioning rather than biology.

  5. The fuller context of the comments does not seem to resolve the unclarity. Was the man or “the young beauty” the person “not envied,” and by whom? If Wolf’s piece is mostly “interested in how men now want both a body and brains,” which is “usually” supposed to take the form of “women in midlife,” the lead-in seems in tension with that.

    Wolf seems to emphasize “educated, well-off women” who are “accomplished.” There are, of course, younger women who have “both a body and brains,” so this combination would not be sufficient to explain the purportedly rising rather than falling “sexual cachet” of “many midlife women” in the eyes of men. In any case, why a feminist would be particularly concerned about this type of cachet is not obvious.

  6. philodaria, this is a pretty widely-held view among evolutionary psychologists. Men and women developed differential mating preferences, this being one of them. Women evolved to favor traits related to resources and men evolved to favor traits related to fertility. The findings are robust and cross-cultural. Do you reject the views of mainstream ev-psych?

  7. I don’t want to make any strong claims about evo-psych in general, but two things: 1. It seems like there’s all sorts of reasons to think that our preferences are socially influenced in really interesting ways (e.g., see here: http://www.livescience.com/46929-internet-access-attractive-features.html ) and while I don’t think it’s difficult to reconcile that with general biologically rooted tendencies, it is hard to square that with the idea that biology is determining, and 2. I think the current evidence suggests that women’s fertility usually peaks between 23-30, and so unless women exhibit markers of fertility before it’s peaked, and do not during (do you know if this is in fact true? I have no clue), I would think that a preference for 20 year old women couldn’t be a result of a determining preference for traits related to fertility.

  8. Interesting points, but what you say here I find curious: “I would think that a preference for 20 year old women couldn’t be a result of a determining preference for traits related to fertility.” Why think that? I’d think that’s exactly what you’d predict if our ancestors sought to pair-bond and mate in such a way so as to maximize access to peak fertility years.

  9. I think Naomi Wolf’s claim re rising sexual cachet of women in midlife is mostly related to the rising age of Naomi Wolf. It’s hardly objective; the barely concealed trashing of younger women is particularly egregious.

  10. Eleanor, why think that we evolved to mate as bonded (more or less monogamous) pairs, for years at a time? That’s what would be required in order for markers of female fertility appearing at 20 to positively impact males’ access to 23-30 year old fertile women. There doesn’t seem to be any robust evidence that this trend – long-term monogamy — is more than culturally based.

  11. Anonymous, it is true that the proper explanations for monogamy in our and other mammal species are largely a mystery. But we do find it in old world monkeys, for example, and it is hard to see how their “culture” could have been what pressured mates to pair-bond and be largely monogamous. (Although I guess this depends on what you mean by ‘culture’. If by culture you mean selective pressures that derive from the actions of others, well then of course. If you mean Hebrew religion or Victorian literature, well then no.)

    The typical explanations for monogamy have to do with one or more of the following facts about early humans: (1) human babies were very vulnerable and required the care of two humans; (2) mate-guarding was required to prevent (a) infanticide from other males, or (b) impregnation from other males. Whatever explanation is correct, it is probably true that the early human groups with monogamy tended to out-perform human groups without it. And if selective pressures were in the direction of long-term bonding for purposes of procreation and child-rearing, then it is easy to see why finding a partner at the beginning of peak fertility (whenever that happens to be) was an important thing to find.

  12. There are so many factors affecting sex, procreativity and human groups that I am very uneasy with these discussions. I think we should move on. But let me first mention factors left out. One is that the human female does not have reliable visual signs of estrous. Bonding over time makes impregnating much more likely. A second is that pregnancy is hard on a woman’s body and the earler she starts, the worse the damage. A male impregnating girls is at risk of having inadequate care for the offspring. Thirdly, Hrdy’s work, and that of others, stresses the need for female bonding in order to accompllish child care. Once one has the possibility of triangulation (e.g., 2 women and a man) we have the possibility of cultural factors, although the length of girlhood would be another significant source of such factors. Lastly, the last time I looked at it, the evidence about mate selection was based largely on showing pictures around. Given what we know about the other factors that go into mate selection, such as smell, the evidence is not of a great quality.

    In fact, surely even primitive girls devised what we can now consider cultural influences, and ditto boys. How quickly these develop into group standards I doubt anyone knows, but I should have thought it was quick.

  13. I seem to have a more positive reading of this Wolf piece than some; then again, given much of what she writes, why does she put color rinse in her hair and why is she startled when she forgets to do so and (God forbid!) sees a “sheen of gray”? In any case, the exchange in some of the comments above over evolutionary psychology is an old one that, I think, we have repeated on this blog (and elsewhere!) many times before. For instance, in addition to those in this comments thread, let me suggest the comments (and follow up references/links) to the following post (particularly my comments #3 & #4):
    Jezebel’s Lindy West On The National Review

    In addition, interested readers might really want to check out (if they have not done so already) some of the excellent essays collected in the wonderful 1999/2000 anthology edited by Margaret Urban Walker titled Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics.

    Publishers webpage here

    – David Slutsky

  14. David, Many thanks for a typically very helpful comment.

    We have been around this block many times, it seems.

  15. Male reproduction would be optimized by mating with a female who has already had one successful birth. I’m not sure what the evo-psych pipe does with that tobacco.

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