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Whose Old? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 18, 2012

This post will center around the famous and ubiquitous optical illusion of The Young Lady or the Old Lady?  However, I’d like for us to focus on something different.  And by different, I wonder if it’s not really just the same old thing.  What a conundrum, I hope you’ll see.

First, let’s look at the illusion(s), at the artist’s intended ambiguity.  Then, let’s look at the question of old, of sex, of fe-male.  And then, let’s look at ourselves looking at all of this.


Supposedly, if you believe what you see on the Internet, the following is the original:

original old lady young lady optical illusion

and usually there’s this sort of description:

The picture originates from 1888 in Germany & was first seen public ally on a postcard for the “Anchor Buggy Co” with a caption that reads “You see my wife, but where is my mother in Law?”

Sometimes there’s attention given to the framing visually, to show how context changes things:

Hill version that now – with the original – frames the framed Anchor version

And with that there’s more detail and explanation given, not only about the origin of the illusion, with the framing around it, but purportedly how it works:

A famous perceptual illusion in which the brain switches between seeing a young girl and an old woman (or “wife” and “mother in law”). An anonymous German postcard from 1888 (left figure) depicts the image in its earliest known form, and a rendition on an advertisement for the Anchor Buggy Company from 1890 (center figure) provides another early example (IllusionWorks). For many years, the creator of this figure was thought to be British cartoonist W. E. Hill, who published it in 1915 in Puck humor magazine, an American magazine inspired by the British magazine Punch (right figure). However, Hill almost certainly adapted the figure from an original concept that was popular throughout the world on trading and puzzle cards.

And the different versions now abound, we see.  Sometimes the artist is helping out those who have trouble seeing, by making different versions so as to focus on the difference, the sameness, the ambiguity?  Are these the same illusion?  The same but just different variations for different purposes?  Sometimes the artist is obscuring again?  Sometimes the artist is playing even more?


young, then both, then old

old man or young man?

young lady or old lady or old gentleman?

more color?

different color and changed direction for other dimensions?

Oh, and there are so many different variations and twists, some nice and some naughty.


Sometimes, in classes of English language learners who are from lands where other mother tongues are spoken, we will consider this.  I’ll take a black and white version of the optical illusion and print it out and cut off the corners, cut the whole thing into a circle so that there’s no square or rectangle left.  I want there not to be any easy reference as to what is top and what is bottom and what is right or left.  Then I crumple up the circle paper, and I toss it to an ESL student in one of my classes.  “What do you see?” I’ll ask.

Here’s exactly the sort of thing the student sees (and for you I’ve put it on top of a colored shawl, which you may see is a garment that a woman or a man, old or young, may wear anywhere).

Most of the time the student has seen the illusion before, but sometimes not.  Is a late 19th century German ambiguous image of German-styled females something that non-Germans and non-Europeans and non-Westerners readily recognize?  Well, oftentimes Yes, but sometimes No.  What is most common is how the fe-male is so re-markable, how linguistically and how visually marked s-he is.  Once seen as an ambiguous drawing of a wo-man, of wo-men, people always laugh, and one suspects it’s as much because of the illusion discovered as it is laughter at the question of the even more marked “old” lady.

The whole concept of females and age, of girls becoming older human beings, of young ladies becoming old hags, is something universal it seems.  And visual imagery is what’s key here, the focus on the body.  In Mineke Schipper‘s wonderful and wonderfully researched book, Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World, the prolific author and professor writes (on page 2):

“Proverbs about women also tend to reflect the old habit of setting ‘us’ against ‘them’, not in terms of culture but in terms of sexual embodiment.  It is true that today [by 2004] for the first time in history men and women are being equally educated and doing the same jobs, but this truth holds only for the happy few, globally speaking.  And we have to be aware of the numerous impediments invented and cherished over the centuries, and all over the world, to prevent this from happening.  It is quite significant that many proverbs tend to sketch equal access to education and roles as a most unwelcome or even nightmarish scenario.”

It’s not surprising, then, how sexual embodiment, the “us” vs. “them,” gets characterized and caricatured in the optical illusion we’ve been looking at.  Yes, there are variations; and yet there are stereotypes.  Schipper finds and presents proverbs that disparage old women and aged females.   Three examples (of many from many cultures and languages) follow (from page 153):

“A man feels only as old as the woman he feels.  (Irish)”

“A man is as old as he feels: a woman as old as she looks. (Widespread in Europe)”

“A woman is as old as she looks. A man is when he quits looking. (English, USA)”

Now, there are many other proverbs that turn this disparagement around in various ways.  Sometimes the proverbs (again across many languages and many cultures) favor old women (as noted on page 150 [with Schipper’s own brackets following the third one here, below]):

“Wives and pots and kettles are better when old.  (Japanese)”

“Wives and shoes are better when old. (Japanese)”

“One can curl up like a dog if one cannot stretch out like a dog; there is yet more if one has relations with an older woman.  [Put up with what there is and be happy]  (Tibetan)”

There are enough such proverbs around the world in various tongues that Schipper has to organize her book into large and meaningful sections.   The first two chapters are “The Female Body” (75 pages) and “Phases of Life” (111 pages) including a 13 page sub-chapter on “Old Age.”   Now I’d just like us to consider whether what Schipper has found with her research is the same or different from what Mary Bray Pipher has found with her research.

Pipher, on pages 25 and 26 of her important book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, has discovered this (and she’s seen it some from her own experience as a girl and some from counseling work with girls):

Women often know how everyone in their family thinks and feels except themselves. They are great at balancing the needs of their coworkers, husbands, children and friends, but they forget to put themselves into the equation. They struggle with adolescent questions still unresolved: How important are looks and popularity? How do I care for myself and not be selfish? How can I be honest and still be loved? How can I achieve and not threaten others? How can I be sexual and not a sex object? How can I be responsive but not responsible for everyone?

As we talk, the years fall away. We are back in junior high with the cliques, the shame, the embarrassment about bodies, the desire to be accepted and the doubts about ability. So many adult women think they are stupid and ugly. Many feel guilty if they take time for themselves. They do not express anger or ask for help.

We talk about childhood-what the woman was like at ten and at fifteen. We piece together a picture of childhood lost. We review her own particular story, her own time in the hurricane. Memories flood in. Often there are tears, angry outbursts, sadness for what has been lost. So much time has been wasted pretending to be who others wanted. But also, there’s a new energy that comes from making connections, from choosing awareness over denial and from the telling of secrets.

We work now, twenty years behind schedule. We reestablish each woman as the subject of her life, not as the object of others’ lives. We answer Freud’s patronizing question “What do women want?” Each woman wants something different and particular and yet each woman wants the same thing-to be who she truly is, to become who she can become.

Many women regain their preadolescent authenticity with menopause. Because they are no longer beautiful objects occupied primarily with caring for others, they are free once again to become the subjects of their own lives. They become more confident, self-directed and energetic. Margaret Mead noticed this phenomenon in cultures all over the world and called it “pmz,” postmenopausal zest. She noted that some cultures revere these older women. Others burn them at the stake.

If we look again and re-read that last paragraph from Pipher’s quotation above, we notice a cultural universal:  that from pre-adolescence to post-menopause, there is something the same for girls that’s marked, that is different from boys.  The girls are sexualized, tend to be viewed and marked as objects of sex, until they are old.  That may, in fact, lead to what Mead did notice:  it is the looking at her that makes a girl, once young, once old, ambiguously an object.


Now, we might speculate or even protest that the artist drawing the original German Old Lady or Young Lady optical illusion never intended this sort of visual and sexist separations by viewers.  Nonetheless, if one is the “viewed,” then the speculations hardly matter that much, do they?  What does it mean when one is old and not young?  The title of this post is not Who’s old?  It’s Whose Old?  And I know you can see if not hear the difference.  Whose old?  Mine, yours, theirs?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 5:17 pm

    It’s all about the ear/eye, isn’t it? I’ll listen next time a woman reminds me “What color are my eyes?”

  2. January 18, 2012 5:59 pm

    I was expecting that you might make a remark about the old saw that men grow more distinguished as they age (suggesting that women somehow do not.)

  3. January 18, 2012 6:18 pm

    worldly proverbs and such from Schipper‘s research:

    @ Chuck –
    “A woman’s eye is like an arrow to men in the prime of life (Greek)”
    and “Hell can lie between the lashes of a beautiful woman’s eye (Hebrew).”

    @ Theophrastus –
    “‘If man gets old, he becomes a ram, if woman gets old, she becomes naught [nothing]’ which means that a man is a man at any age (Turkish). Many such proverbs make explicitly clear who is the subject and who the object of looking, feeling, and deciding who is young or old — thus jokingly suggesting that ageing is not at the same level of disquietude for men as it is for women.”

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