What 'aging gracefully' means
for 7 women of every generation
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BY KELLS MCPHILLIPS/ WELL+GOOD
photo: kato.84/ canva
The phrase “aging gracefully” is often used ironically. It means staying—and more importantly, looking—young no matter the number of birthdays you’ve celebrated. Award-winning author Georgia Clark, 39, founded Generation Women, a monthly event in New York City dedicated to intergenerational storytelling, as a means to highlight women for whom aging gracefully means pursuing bravery and vulnerability at any age. I’m 23 years old, and on Wednesday I was lucky enough to attend a show. I laughed and I cried as I listened to women describe the tremendous forces propelling them through each and every decade of life.
The task of storytelling is to shine a light on that which would otherwise fade into the background, and that’s exactly why Clark launched Generation Women in summer 2017. “The idea for the night came about after a conversation I had with my mom, Jane, about the experience of disappearing as an older woman,” she says. “She said that the older she got, the more invisible she felt in society, walking down the street, going into a shop. People were just starting to look right through her.” So naturally, the savvy author gathered women of all ages and gave them a stage, a mic, and the promise that their stories mattered.
The night I attended Generation Women, the theme—”A Fresh Start”—seemed apropos for the beginning of a shiny new decade. But if I thought I knew what it meant to hit the refresh button and begin again before I took my seat, I was about to have my expectations shattered—for the better.
Six women between the ages of 20 to 70 stood up to interpret starting over on their own terms. They told tales of landing their first big break, grappling with their child growing up, opting to be single on purpose, gender transition, coming to terms with what it means to be a black comedian, and so much more.
Below, Clark shares the biggest themes she’s heard arise in the last three years from 200 storytellers in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies.
What’s in a decade? These are the most powerful experiences of women in every decade
FOR WOMEN IN THEIR TWENTIES, IT’S ALL ABOUT BECOMING
“Often within Team 20, who are our youngest performers, the stories fill their lives and are important to them are often a move to New York: like a big move away from a family home, or their first big breakup, or getting their first big break in their careers,” says Clark.
This art of becoming is something that Camryn Bruno, 20, the Caribbean-American spoken word poet, writer, and model from Trinidad and Tobago, who spoke at the most recent installment of Generation Women, returned to again and again. After becoming the New York City Youth Poet Laureate at the age of 19, she learned to set boundaries for her talent and hard work. “A tree doesn’t bear fruit all year, so why should I? Even trees know that there’s an offseason,” she said. “I decided to put myself first. I learned how to say no.”
FOR WOMEN IN THEIR THIRTIES, STARTING A FAMILY AND MAKING CAREER BREAKTHROUGHS OFTEN TAKE CENTER STAGE
Not every woman wants to start a family, but Clark says that those who do often find it inextricable from the their thirties as a whole. “We have a lot of stories about fertility, starting a family, and body concerns in that as the life cycle continues,” says the author.
For Calise Hawkins, 39, a stand-up comedian and performer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, her third decade has been marked by career-defining moments, critiquing the patriarchy with moxie and humor, and renegotiating her relationships with her mother and daughter. “I don’t know what a real man looks like in 2020 when you want to be respected,” said Hawkins at the event. “What is that supposed to look like now? Because they were sold the wrong idea of what a man is, and so we have to rewrite it for them. And for us.”
Clark’s late thirties have included a five-day fast designed to help her, as she cheekily explained to the audience, “live forever.” No surprise: going without food for almost a week proved painful, but Clark says it did teach her one thing.
“My hunger strike actually taught me a lot,” says Clark. “Not only did it renew faith I hadn’t actually lost in food, it made me think about challenges. It’s 2020, and already, as a society as a planet, we are being thrown a lot of challenges. Some of the remedies to those challenges might involve a reduction of access to excess, a loss of comfort. But it’s not as hard as you think. And I think we can do it, because—let me tell you—if I can give up mac and cheese for 109 hours, I’m pretty sure we can do anything.”
FOR WOMEN IN THEIR FORTIES, IT’S ALL ABOUT FINDING THE MAGIC IN THE MIDDLE
“I’m in the middle, not the beginning. Not just having a baby. Or getting married. Or just starting my career,” said award-winning actress Alysia Reiner, 49. “It’s not my first protest or my first magazine cover or even my first presidential impeachment. It’s the middle. I mean, actually the middle of this evening. The middle of a dream life—but the middle, just the same.”
Reiner perfectly encapsulates what Clark finds to be true of women in their forties. Namely, having a career and possibly being a parent. Finding yourself in the middle of life and being grateful for everything you miss and everything you will miss one day.
FOR WOMEN IN THEIR FIFTIES, IT’S ALL ABOUT COMING BACK HOME TO THEIR BODIES
Author and fashion stylist Stacy London, 50, who you’d likely recognize from What Not to Wear, told the Generation Women audience a story about closets. She has three, and one of them is now filled with clothes that did fit her once—before she started going through menopause.
“The clothes that I’m wearing now are nice enough, but they feel like placeholders, you know? They feel like flirtations, not commitments,” said London. “And they feel like they’re for a body in flux for, a body that’s been through a really long, hard 15 months. And well, I’m not sure that I’m ready to commit to them. I’m also, at 50, kind of tired of not just loving myself already no matter where I am.”
FOR WOMEN IN THEIR SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES, THE BIG PICTURE COMES INTO FOCUS
“[For women in their] sixties and seventies, I think it’s about a broader picture of life, a bird’s eye view of what’s it all about,” says Clark. “They’re less concerned with ‘Who am I dating?’ and more focused on ‘What are my needs?’” The sixties and seventies are paired together because both decades have learned an important lesson: You don’t have to have a new year or a new day or even a new second to begin again.
“I’d say I’ve had at least 10 to 15 fresh starts—and that’s if I lowball,” said comedian Julia Scotti, 66. Scotti, a transgender woman, describes her transition well into middle age as a “born-again experience.” “Life is a continuous stream of fresh starts. If you f**k up yesterday, you can’t change that. But in this moment, you can have a fresh start,” said Scotti.
Patty Otis Abel, 70, the writer behind sex and relationship blog The Male Harem, shared a similar mindset about new beginnings. Now that she’s in her seventies, she has realized that she never did have a nuclear family, and maybe, she never wanted one.
After recalling a rendezvous with one of her lovers, Abel told the audience: “Hundreds of commuters are rushing around me to catch the train home. Dinner, and maybe a Manhattan, is waiting for them, and a future with someone they belong to. And I’m hit with a pain doubt. Is that what I want? And then I think back in the afternoon, and I smile. Not because of the sex, the late lunch, the smart company, the black lace. I smile because I chose provocative over predictable and I might choose it again.”