"Ma'am," "Anti-Aging" and Other Words That Bother Me

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A few months ago, I was in Korea visiting family. During my stay, I spent some time with a cousin who’s in her mid-40s. As we were catching up, she recounted a story about how someone called her an “ahjumma” recently and how bad it made her feel.

“Ahjumma” is a term that’s reserved for a woman who is married, typically with children and is middle-aged or has physically aged out of being called a “miss.” The closest word I can think of in English is “ma’am.” It’s not usually meant to be offensive, and yet, it can feel offensive when you're on the receiving end (especially if you’re neither married nor a mom, as is the case with my cousin).

This conversation made me think of another one I had not long ago with my best friend, who was unceremoniously ma’amed at a grocery store. “My first reaction was to look around. I was like who are you talking to, bro?” When she realized it was her, she was unsettled. “It’s a strange thing to be perceived as older than you feel. I don’t feel like a ma’am at all and I didn't like that a total stranger made that assumption about me.”

As a woman in my mid-30s, I have never thought so much about aging as I have in the last year, and as a beauty editor for nearly a decade, I have become increasingly aware of just how limited our vocabulary is around it all.

Take the words “anti-aging” for example. It’s a bucket term used to describe an entire category of products, and for many years, it was simply accepted. Then, in 2017, Allure famously banned it from their pages, announcing this decision with a splashy cover featuring Helen Mirren, who has said this about the term:

I’m very against the word ‘anti-aging,’ because we age. It’s a part of the human condition. So, to talk about ‘anti-aging’ is like saying ‘anti-human,’ ‘anti-real,’ ‘anti-wisdom,’ ‘anti-experience,’ and so on, you know?”

She’s right, and “anti-aging” is just the tip of the iceberg. How many times have you heard phrases like, “firm your skin” or “smooth fine lines”? Regrettably, I’ve written those words too many times to count, but I am challenging myself to get more creative with my descriptions of products (and their often-misleading claims) because the specificity of words matters. The right words at the right time have the power to reframe the way we think about things, which can have a ripple effect on our actions and ultimately, the way we live our lives.

Yes, it would bother me to get called ma’am or ahjumma right now. And I’m not fully at ease with seeing my aging face in the mirror just yet. (I’ll talk about this next week when I explore Botox.) For now though, I am trying to expand the ways I think and talk about aging because it’s happening every day regardless. And at 35, having faced my mortality twice already with cancer, I am overjoyed just to be here, contemplating the privilege of getting older with you.

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...