male/female, young/non-young — beyond the binary?

In the pile of mail awaiting my return was the Fall Fashion issue of New York magazine, with a chic young woman on its cover. Yawn. “When it came time to cast the cover, we decided . . . to embrace a more expansive view of beauty,” writes Amy Larocca. “We came up with four cover subjects: an 81-year-old woman; a 19-year-old man who can pass quite convincingly as a woman; a mother and daughter . .  ; and an old-fashioned yet newfangled muse.” Turned out that my copy just happened to sport the muse, and I stopped yawning.

It wasn’t 81-year-old China Machado who got me thinking, though, nor Isabella Rosellini bemoaning the fact that even she can’t find modeling work at 59.  It was Serbo-Croatian teenager Andrej Pejic, who models both women’s and men’s clothing. Pijic hit the big time when French Vogue dressed him in a skirt, and says that since then, “I’ve left my gender open to artistic interpretation.”

If gender can be conceived of so fluidly, why not age? Those in the genderqueer vanguard like Pijic bravely reject biological and cultural constraints, but gender is overwhelmingly binary: almost everyone identifies as male or female. Age, on the other hand, is relative:  we’re always younger than some, older than others. That’s why “older” is generally preferable to "old." 

Compare age to other identifiers. Describing people as “colored” implies that something happened to make them that way, as compared to “people of color.” My friend Andrew’s sons aren’t autistic; they have autism. My friend Josh works with people with disabilities, not the disabled. “The disability is only part of who they are,” he explains.  “You wouldn’t refer to your cancerous mother, would you?”

It would be absurd, I suppose, to start describing the old as people “with age” or who “have age.” But isn’t it equally preposterous to divide the population into young and the old — the no-longer-young, actually — which is pretty much what this society does?  Yes, there’s “middle-aged,” to which baby boomers cling like flotation cushions, but who knows where the middle lies any more? Who’s to say when “young” ends and “old” begins, and for whom? Chronological age is an unreliable indicator of anything but access to Social Security — and that’s in flux as well.

This reflexive young/not young divide is deeply problematic. It erases the nuance and variation of the life course. It’s why people presume that older people vote in a bloc. (Not so.) And why they conceive of everyone in assisted living as the same age (old), when residents are likely to span four decades and to differ in a thousand other ways. In this ageist society, it’s pejorative as well as misleading. If we can shake off the far more rigid shackles of gender, why not shake up this way of thinking as well?