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Dear Jessica Valenti, You’re Missing the Cat Calls?

Dear Jessica:

At 36, I was still getting catcalled in the street. At 46, I was being accosted by men on the streets of Paris and in cafes where I sat, by myself, reading and writing. At 50, and divorced, I was asked out by a man of 42 who was crushed when I told him he was too young for me. At 59, my lover frequently tells me I am beautiful.

Does this all make me feel pretty? Do I need the admiring glances of strangers or any man to let me know that I am attractive? No. Like any feminist worth her salt I look in the mirror and on some mornings I am pleased and on others I am not. It has ever been thus. How beautiful I am is not dependent on the male gaze. It is dependent on my own gaze and my own expectations.

I’ve written about aging and it can suck. Donald Sutherland was recently quoted as saying: “Getting older is like having a new profession, but it’s not a profession of your own choosing.” He’s 80 and he’s right. He’s also still gorgeous. But his new ‘profession’ isn’t a lack of beauty. It is just that age is a whole other country, too: one we have to learn to navigate because, frankly, as anyone over 50 will tell you, one’s insides just don’t seem to match one’s outsides. It isn’t my beauty to men I mourn but the self I used to see. So I make adjustments with humor and honesty. I am sure you thought you were being honest when you admitted to your addiction to the male gaze. But what you are is dangerous. Dangerous to all the women who will come before you. And dangerous to the feminists whose label you wear so ostentatiously.

You’ve made a career out of parsing feminism. In my 20s I wasn’t parsing feminism, I was living it or trying to. Like all the other women, admitted feminists or not, of my generation (the generation old enough to be your mother) we were pushing against glass ceilings that hadn’t even begun to crack and trying to prove to the men who put their hands on us without our permission that we were as good at our jobs as they were. We spent our days hoping that the male gaze didn’t define us, wanting to be something far more than pretty or desirable. We wanted to be successful. We wanted to make choices that our mothers had not been able to. We wanted to live with intention.

I have no doubt that much of my youthful beauty has been lost. Because so much of beauty IS youth. The young are beautiful mainly because they are young, because their skin is soft and unmarked, their faces unlined, their souls as yet uncrushed. They move through the world with a fluid grace and I love to watch them; they are like beautiful birds trying their wings. I am bemused when I am with my stunning 22-year-old daughter who cannot walk down the street without heads swiveling. She floats, often unconscious of the impact she has. But I see it and I know how fleeting it is, how swiftly it will pass and how unimportant it is. I know that how men see her should never ever be about how she looks and I have told her that many times, even as I have as I have told her honestly how lovely she was. I have also told her that in her kind of beauty is power and that she needs to use it for good rather than for gain.

I know she has heard me and so I know in 15 years she won’t feel as you do, that the male gaze is gone for her and that that is a pity.

(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side)