Still Hangin' in There, Baby

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 20, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- There is a condom on the coffee table. It's been there for weeks now, in a photograph, displayed genteelly between the manicured fingertips of Elizabeth Taylor, the way her grandmother might have held a teacup.

The image is meant to be startling, I suppose, the cover for a story about Ms. Taylor's gutsy work for AIDS. But whenever I glance down at the portrait I think more about the message in her face than the one in her hand.

What has captured my attention is Elizabeth Taylor at 60, airbrushed within an inch of her life. Elizabeth Taylor at 60, nipped, tucked, lifted -- ? -- out of her peer group. Elizabeth Taylor at 60 -- not exactly ''National Velvet,'' but somewhere between ''Cleopatra'' and ''Virginia Woolf.'' Looking 35 and holding.

Is this what 60 looks like? At its best? Or at its worst?

In the past decade, we have charted the middle-aging of female models and role models. Women who are fortysomething are being allowed out in public, although they almost always wear a label that reads: ''still.'' Still attractive at 40. Still youthful at 46.

Gradually it has occurred to me that women are only being given an extension on aging. They are not being given permission to age gracefully. The culture is telling women they can be young longer. It is not welcoming old women. Is this progress for women or progress for the beauty business? Must we still be still attractive at 55? Will we still want to be still youthful at 65?

I belong to the generation that has made menopause a subject for best-seller lists and polite conversation. Sometimes, my friends sit at lunch unabashedly gossiping about the choices other women make, women who are older but not necessarily wiser, about how to age.

Did a slimmer, drug-free Liz Taylor buy a new face to go with her new life? Or to go with her new, younger husband? One friend calls it a positive act. Another calls it depressing.

Did Jane Fonda, physically fit beyond most women's dreams, buy new breasts? One defends her right to fight aging. Another cites her sad pursuit of youth as proof of low self-esteem?

When any television broadcaster or actress goes under the plastic surgeon's knife, one will defend it as pragmatic. Another will ruefully describe it as defeatist.

The other night, a friend called to read a line spoken by Carolyn Heilbrun, a scholar and detective-story writer. ''I used to be thin,'' Ms. Heilbrun told a reporter, ''But after 55, I said, 'Oh, the hell with it.' ''

My friend laughed with delight and promised to tape this remark to her refrigerator. But I know that her refrigerator holds nothing inside that could contribute to middle-aged spread.

This gossiping we do is not idle at all. It's a conversation, full of curiosity and anxiety, about age and power and invisibility. A conversation about the future.

What is it that Germaine Greer wrote in her great, sprawling, infuriating and illuminating, unmade bed of a book, ''The Change''? ''There is no accepted style for the older woman; no way of saying through dress and demeanor, 'I am my age. Respect it. . . .' She has a duty to go on 'being attractive' no matter how fed up she is with the whole business. She is not allowed to say, 'Now I shall let myself go. . . .' Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she have might gone?''

How far to go? Anyone of us can come up with a handful of appealing images of old ladies from painter Georgia O'Keeffe to Gray Panther Maggie Kuhn, to, of course, Katharine Hepburn. All women who went far. But it's hard to chart a path through that second awkward age between middle and old.

In the world we live in, safe sex is more acceptable fare for a magazine cover than a 60-year-old face. In this world, it takes more confidence, more nerve, more power for a woman of a certain age to look that age, than to carry a condom in public.

But today, I will put aside the portrait of the movie star with the lavender eyes and put aside these thoughts as well. A new issue of the magazine has arrived at my door bearing a new image. On the cover is Candice Bergen. She is, of course, still beautiful at 46.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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