One day Liza, who has cut my hair for twenty years, stopped using my name and started calling me Sweetie all the time.
Nothing had changed except that the two faces in the mirror before us had gotten older. She was approaching her mid-forties when she started doing this; I was approaching sixty. After undergoing a few haircuts with my new name, I felt almost embarrassed to ask her to please start using my given name again, but I understood it wasn’t some newfound intimacy that had brought about my renaming. I’d started to observe how she addressed other older women customers. They were Sweeties, too. We could all have been serial killers in our youths, or even ten years ago, but suddenly we were the sweetest people.
In my then new status of Older Woman, I’d discovered something: Willing or not, we get shoved onto the Sweetie boat, and at every port – shops, gym, grocery store, dentist’s office, food truck –younger people greet us with endearments. I quickly realized that “Young Lady” is the worst. It’s just a way of saying, Look, you and I both know you’re not young, but let’s play a little wink-wink game in which I get to be young and you don’t, but we pretend you are! Isn’t that fun? Hahaha.
I read a lot about aging and ageism, and I’ve never seen this particular topic floating around in any study or helpful online article about depression or loneliness among the elderly. Yet, given what I now know and what friends and acquaintances confirm, I can almost hear the bereft old woman in the photograph from the Next Avenue or AARP article calling out, Sure I’m depressed, but don’t bother coming for a visit if you’re just going to call me Young Lady.
As I traveled further into my sixties, other women who worked at Liza’s salon and who had always called me Andrea, one by one began calling me My Dear, Sweetie, and Honey. I asked them to please call me by my name. They seemed to understand, but they kept on doing it. When they started touching my elbow to lead me to the shampoo area while addressing me as Young Lady, I decided it wasn’t my job to educate this friendly but obstinate group. I visited the manager, Joe, and told him I didn’t like it and explained why. Joe agreed there were probably other customers who felt the same way and promised to sort it out. Based on the results, this is exactly what he did. If Joe were not a gay man who’d had names thrown at him he hadn’t liked, I don’t think he would have bothered to listen.
So many ugly names are tossed with anger and hatred at people who don’t happen to be straight white men. Honey, My Dear, Sweetie and Young Lady are not spoken in anger and are not ugly. Some women tell me they don’t mind these names because, they say, people mean well when using them. Maybe so, but I believe the result is damaging nevertheless because these terms not only lump us all together but relegate old women to the status of children – fellow outliers who may or may not be sweet but in any case are not useful, productive, or reproductive.
The phony endearments act as a form of erasure because their effect is cumulative. If you’re an older woman going about your day, by the time you get back home you may look into the mirror and find only a faint resemblance to the person you knew yourself to be that morning. God help you if you go out every day of the week. By the weekend, you’re nearly transparent. After years, then decades, of this, you’re nothing, nobody, because what’s at the bottom of this sugar-coated name calling is an insidious message: You’re not one of us any more. You are a category, not a full human being, and you don’t belong here. Furthermore, your needs – medical, financial, social – may just as well go unmet because soon you’ll be gone anyway. Abuse you physically, emotionally, mentally, sexually? That’s easy, because you do not really exist as wholly as we do.
Not being seen as a whole person every bit equal to the user of these terms is costly. It’s one thing if your friends call you by these endearments, or a stranger around your age or older uses them. Your friends know you and actually love you. A stranger who addresses you this way is making a connection. So the terms feel different to the recipient when they’re not coming from a hidden or unexamined intent to erase.
If you’re an older woman, what do you do when the erasure version happens? You might go to a store, for example, in search of new jeans and a clerk who doesn’t know your name will sweep open the curtain of a dressing room and say, “Right in here, My Dear.”
The first time this happened to me, I watched to see if the clerk addressed younger customers the same way. She did not. By that time in my life, a few years after the hair salon incident, I’d had plenty of practice with responding. I looked at her in a friendly way and asked for her name. “Amy,” she said. I introduced myself. “I’m Andrea.”
She forgot this after a few minutes and started calling me “Sweetie.” I didn’t get angry but I did repeat my name.
She was in her late thirties. She looked confused. By then we were standing where two younger clerks could overhear us if they chose. I explained about the Sweetie boat where all older women are supposed to toss their actual names overboard and become the same Old Woman with the same few names: Honey, Sweetie, My Dear, Young Lady. I told her that boat was waiting for her, unless we blew it up right now, she and I, with the hope that others will follow suit. She laughed. She got it. The other two clerks got it, too, or at least they smiled and nodded as if they did.
When I told a younger friend about this exchange, she suggested people should ask before automatically calling an old woman by one of these terms. I couldn’t help but wonder how this asking would go: “Hey, since you’re getting old, would you mind if I just called you My Dear now instead of Connie?” What would Connie reply? Or Beth or Hannah or Martina or Esther or Virginia or Claudia? Or how about Oprah? “Since you’re past sixty now, would you mind if all of us call you Sweetie every day of your life from now on instead of Oprah?” What do you think Oprah might have to say about that?
We’ve fought back when coworkers, employers, and neighbors dropped our names in favor of Babe, Sweetheart, etc. A long time ago, when I worked in a government office in Salem, Oregon, I had to ask a co-worker, a man, to stop calling me Sweetheart. He persisted. I stopped asking and told him. Yet, on it went. I counted seventeen of these exchanges before it dawned on him that I was serious. Only then, after shuddering through a little verbal death throe about “women’s lib,” did he give up. That was a good thing because I wasn’t about to give up. I was one of millions of women who had come to understand that these terms objectified, belittled, and betrayed us. When we said no, don’t call us that, we were doing it for ourselves and for each other, even for those who didn’t mind being called names not their own. So why should we let other peoples’ unconscious needs to feel powerful stalk us into old age?
Of course some people are not after power when they rename us. Some are acting, I’m sure, with angelic intentions or simply doing what their parents did (also unconsciously). Still, we want our names because our names reside in us in a way nothing else does. When my father was fighting in Germany in World War II and I was about to be born, he knew my mother wanted him to name me. He sent a telegram: Call her Andrea. After all these years, I’m still Andrea, and I like my name.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.