Three unmistakable signs that you’re turning into a Little Old Lady

About a year ago, I decided to stop coloring my hair.

No big deal, you may be thinking, and I wish I could agree. But it was a big deal, a true Turning Point.

My hair is white-ish now and it looks good—actually, I think it looks great. I exercise, I eat super-healthy, my vital signs are where they should be, my body-mass index is good.

And yet people take one look,  and they’re thinking “Little Old Lady.”

I am not imagining this. I know this with certitude, and here’s how:

People ask me if I have access to a computer

This happens when I’m opening up a new bank account or some such thing. It’s a prelude to discussions about online banking. This question is code for “Do you know how to use a computer?” And we both know it.

I know because of the questioner’s tone. There’s something solicitous going on rather than something matter-of-fact. Why does she even need to ask? 

I get weird stuff in the mail

OK, this one has nothing to do with gray or white hair. As soon as a person is heading for 55 or 60, he or she starts getting mail offering ways to alleviate, avoid, or slow down the inexorable decline and decay presumed to be manifesting itself.

Like this: Hearing Loss or Just Earwax? Find out now using a tiny video camera. (This  actually happened, folks. No one could make this stuff up.)

And just for the record, my hearing is fine. I’m not so fine, however, with the idea of a tiny video camera scurrying around in my head looking for earwax.  

But wait. It gets worse: I got a post card which promised that if I acted quickly, I would be eligible to win a pre-paid cremation. An incredible opportunity to be sure, but I decided to take a pass.

People I’ve never met, like waitresses, call me Dear or some such affectionate term

This never happened when I was younger. Never! Now that my hair is white, apparently it’s OK to call me Dear. It’s OK with everyone but me. Hate it, hate it, hate it!

For example, at the end of a dental appointment in March, a very young woman assistant I’d never seen before was giving me directions about something or other, and she called me Hon.

I couldn’t believe it. “Just look at the chart,” I thought. I’m Madeleine or Ms. Kolb to you. Hon is not an option.

Sometimes when we complain about being subjected to such unwelcome familiarity, others react as if we are being unreasonable or too sensitive or generally irascible. They insist that the person using such endearments was “just trying to be nice.”

This is—and there’s no polite way to say this—absolute b*** sh*t. If you want to be nice, don’t single me out for condescending endearments.

It’s disrespectful, unprofessional, and just plain annoying. If you want to be nice, call me by my name, and if you don’t know what it is, try Ma’am.

People we’ve never met call my BF Sweetie

But ridiculous as that is, there’s something even worse. It’s happened twice lately. I’m out with my BF at a restaurant.

As we finish our meal, the waitress comes over and says to my BF, “Can I get you anything else, Sweetie?”

Sweetie! She calls him Sweetie. I want to scream. First of all, he’s a greybeard, meaning that he’s highly respected as an expert in his field at work. So why is she calling him Sweetie?

OK, I’m being unfair. No matter who he is, she should treat him with respect. She should address him by name, and, as above, if she doesn’t know his name, try Sir. The way she would if he were 15 years younger.

Thank you so much. I feel a lot better now, and I’d love to get comments from other little old ladies, the people who love them, and anyone else.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nancy Cokinda 01/23/2014, 4:24 pm

    Dear Madeleine,

    I was just introduced to your wonderful blog, and love it! You are a breath of fresh air! I have lived in New York, Detroit area, Chicago area, rural Indiana, Denver, and Las Vegas, and have continued to hear the “Hon” and “Dear” direct address for women. At 62, my retort is a big smile, look them in the eyes, and say, “I prefer to be addressed as Ma’am.” Then continue on with the topic or business at hand in a pleasant manner, without missing a beat. So far, so good!

  • Madeleine Kolb 05/12/2011, 4:00 pm

    Julie, We must be kindred spirits. When I retired from my last job, I gave a talk to some co-workers about life after retirement. One of the things I said that I wanted to do was to take a Stand Up Comedy Class that included a trip to a local Open Mike evening. (The class was not too far from where I lived at the time.)

    I didn’t do that, but I did compete in Humorous Speech Contests in Toastmasters. Last fall, I won the contest at the club, area, and division levels and went on to the district contest, competing against 9 other contestants. I didn’t win but did a good job and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. No four-letter words, though, since it was Toastmasters.

  • julie70 05/12/2011, 1:25 pm

    I hate also when one calls me “my dear” or so, but the white hear gets me free place on the bus and underground, not so bad!

    I was very afraid of my age when I turned 70 – even begun writing a blog (in French) “there is life after 70” to prove it to myself, for 7 years now every morning I do prove it writing my ups and downs and having inspired many “young” people who felt “old” at merely 40 or 50 or etc.

    London, this last three years and Toastmaster pals, and the public listening to my storytelling made me feel nowadays even younger.

    Last month I went to a Stand Up Comedy Class and at the end showcase my age and courage to stand up made people laugh, specially when I started to speak like the young boys I heard, in the class, using some 4 letter words, that of course, I would never use in private – but in a show… Age can have some interesting, surprising advantages, too.
    julie70 recently posted..celebration Trafalgar SquareMy Profile

  • Madeleine Kolb 02/27/2011, 10:12 am

    I see turning 50 or 60 as a milestone but not a horrible one. I see it as a symbolic milstone–the beginning of a new phase of life, a mix of endings and beginnings.

    Like you, I noticed a change in the way people perceived me when I turned 60. It wasn’t so much that I was different in any way that really matters. It was more that I met the stereotype of a little old lady, someone who’s a little slow in every possible sense of the word. It’s important that we fight back against the ridiculous stereotypes of old women.

    A huge insight in the women’s movement years ago was that “The personal is political.” That’s true for people over 60, both men and women.

  • diane 02/25/2011, 8:03 am

    Last week I turned 60.I live in the Uk and feel good about myself.I am slim,fashionable .My family and friends think I look younger.However! this morning while shopping a woman who looked really really old told her shopping companion to “Hold the door open for the old lady”.I was horrified to realise they meant me! I am constantly referred to as sweetie,dear etc and I want to scream.It makes me feel decrepid,useless and very old.
    I am now totally confused.Are my friends and family lying? Are they just being kind?I was coping quite well with this hideous milestone until today.

    Just stop calling us Sweetie or Dear!IWe dont know you.We are not your friend.We are not demented.We are not stupid.We are not worthless.

  • Madeleine Kolb 01/26/2011, 10:12 am

    Bobbi, Thank you so much for adding to the discussion. I think I can live with being addressed as “Hon” or “Sweetie,” especially in the southeastern part of the U.S. more easily than being judged by my now-white hair. (I really need to have new photos taken.) I’m still the same well-educated and articulate person I’ve always been. Would changing the color of what’s on my head change what’s in my head?

  • Bobbi 01/24/2011, 11:00 am

    I began to turn gray in my mid-thirties. I am in Ohio. I began as a dirty-gray-haired woman. My mother’s hair was totally white, but Mrs. Clarol was her best friend. I loved looking at the white haired women with bluing in their hair when I was growing up. It was my dream to have a full beautiful head of white hair. Thus, I determined in my youth that I will let my gray hair stand without dyeing it. When I reached 42, I entered the university scene for a complete change of career. I have no family; thus, I attended college full time during the day-time hours. By the time I completed my education, my hair had become as my mother’s hair, totally white. Here are my observations.

    When my hair was salt/pepper, people addressed me as Ma’am. However, when my hair became totally white, I was immediately treated as an old lady. The most funny thing I noticed was the way women my age (of whom I can discern their age by their dress
    and facial features) actually avoided me. These women constantly dyed their hair.

    Once I went to buy a business suit at a JC Penney store. While standing in line to purchase my suit, (without me speaking a word) the female clerks immediately began speaking loudly about how they color their hair in the shower, how their children
    disapproved of their gray hair and insisted that they color it. By the time I reached the register, the clerk began directly engaging me on how she colors her hair. I had not spoken a word about my hair, as I was more interested in buying a business suit.

    Now as for the words hon, sweety, dear, I was never addressed that way when my hair was salt/pepper, but immediately when I became totally white, I have been treated as an ancient relic. Yesterday when I was in a restaurant with some friends, a male friend was addressed as to whether they were ready to order. Although every male at the table was my age early 50’s, (one gentleman shaves his head, the other gentleman is mostly white haired) I was the only one addressed with the word hon, sweety.

    So in conclusion, I feel that women need to support each other by not allowing ourselves to be viewed as useless over the age of 40. Hon, sweety, dear are demeaning terms used to address children who are still learning the fundamentals of life. Used in relationship with older people, it is demeaning because we are being addressed as if our minds are declining. Well, I have two degrees and one of them is in the field of Visual Communication Technology, in which we learn how to overcome problems with computer software compitibility issues. I tire of people trying to carefully explain how the software works when using Word, or Excel.

    After readying your Blog, Madeleine, I am happy to know that others are being treated as I am, and I am more determined than ever to elevate the white haired women.

    Thank you,


  • Madeleine Kolb 01/13/2011, 8:32 pm

    I’m glad you found my blog, and I appreciate your comment.

    I agree that calling a woman Hon or Dear is a regional custom which may or may not be related to the age of the woman. In Seattle, though, I started to be addressed that way when I stopped dying my hair and let it go white. There, it was a matter of age, and it felt condescending to me.

    I’ve never responded in an angry or offended way to being called Hon, and I agree that it would be rude or even mean to do so. However, for certain national restaurant chains, such as IHOP, I think it makes sense to train the staff to address people as Ma’am or Sir.

  • Sue T 01/13/2011, 5:58 pm

    Hi, Madeleine,
    Glad to find your blog! Welcome to Maryland!

    Here’s another (way late) comment on “Hon,” “Dear/Dearie,” “Sweetie,” etc. — provided with the utmost respect.

    Please, everyone, lighten up! Folks who grew up in Maryland (and perhaps other parts of the South) grew up hearing these terms used in public places by service providers. They often have no idea at all that (or why) you would find it condescending and disrespectful. They think they are being friendly, and that is certainly their intention. (They’ve been calling me “Hon” etc. for the 20 years since I moved here, and I’m only just 61, so it isn’t an age thing.)

    If it bothers you, please take a deep breath and then calmly say something like, “You know, I’m not from around here. [That term (repeat what they used) ] isn’t something I’m used to. Could you consider using [your favorite term]? ” You might even strike up a conversation about it, explaining what it is that bugs you about it. (I assure you that a volatile or angry reaction from an unintentional ruffling of one’s feathers can be fairly disrespectful as well. One instance I observed soon after I moved here was not just disrespectful but mean!)

    For fun and some more insight about why someone in Maryland in particular might get offended that someone from elsewhere was offended, check out these articles in the Baltimore Sun, one recent and one from 1994:
    The first is part of a series on why Baltimoreans think that a local business promotor of “Hon” stuff has gone over the top in trademarking the term:

    The second relates to a guy who used to regularly paint a comma and “Hon” on the “Welcome to Baltimore” sign on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. As soon as the MTA removed it, he’d sneak back out and do it again.

    The quirkiness of the region/state/county or town you are in is part of the fun stuff in life!

  • Madeleine Kolb 09/23/2010, 3:29 pm

    @Claire, Welcome.
    Those assumptions are so condescending. It makes me angry, but sometimes I have to joke about the whole thing so I can stay positive.

    Your mother sounds charming and energetic. It’s unfortunate that some people take one look at a woman’s white hair and conclude that she’s feeble in body and mind.

  • Madeleine Kolb 09/23/2010, 3:16 pm

    @Phyllis, Thanks for coming by. That was an unbelievable thing for the doctor to say. After all we’re all aging, and aging is change. Why is that so hard to accept?

  • Claire Hegarty B 09/22/2010, 5:32 pm

    Great post Madeleine and I have signed up to other fantastic blogs through reading the comments on yours!

    My mother is 77 and whenever we go out together, she says that people generally address me rather than her. This includes professionals such as doctors etc. She may be 77 but she is far from a little old lady! She always looks her best and despite chronic asthma and arthritis, she goes bowling and plays darts twice a week, goes on shopping trips with her friends, goes dancing and to the theatre. She has a full and interesting life and is a very bright and funny lady. She is doing her best to age positively but finds it challenging sometimes because of other people’s attitudes. She has told me on more than one occasion that she forgets what age she is until someone gives her a blunt reminder!!
    .-= Claire Hegarty B´s last blog ..Six Basic Needs – Article by Linda Milo =-.

  • Phyllis Andrews 09/21/2010, 7:03 am

    None of you look like little old ladies. I’m almost 65, probably older than all of you. I remember when I was about 50, an endocrinologist mused in a sad voice, “You’re turning into an old lady right before my eyes.”. That was SO rude.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/17/2010, 2:57 pm

    Hi Nancy, I know what you mean about “ma’am,” but we don’t seem to have another polite, age-neutral term for addressing women. When I consider some of the overly familiar alternatives, I’m happy to go with “ma’am.”

  • Nancy Lewis 08/16/2010, 11:17 am

    Thank you for this very funny post! So THAT’S why I’m getting AARP notices now….
    I’m from the south, and we always had to say “sir” and “ma’am”–especially to our parents :) I appreciate the formality and detest “hon” and “sweetie” coming from anyone except maybe my husband. But I must say, even “ma’am” makes me feel old!
    I might even like “dude” better……

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/21/2010, 8:55 am

    Aileen, You’ve made my day with your comment. Thanks for sharing the post with your mother. Having a sense of humour helps a lot in navigating through life.

  • Aileen 06/21/2010, 2:28 am

    What a fantastic post! My mother is visiting from Maine right now and we were having coffee while I was reading this -I screamed out to her and read it out loud – we were rolling! It’s amazing how people are. I do get called sweetie, hon & ma’am and my mom gets the internet question.

    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..What Would Love Do? =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/20/2010, 1:22 pm

    @Karen, Thanks for your comment. I’m not wild about “Ma’am,” but I see it as neutral, in terms of the age of the person being addressed. It’s the female equivalent of “Sir” which is appropriate for males over the age of 18 or so.

    But “Sweetie” or “Hon” feel just wrong. Managers of restaurants and retail stores should train their workers in how to address customers. Yesterday at a Subway shop, the young man behind the counter called me “Ma’am” several time in a respectful manner. I thought that was just fine.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/20/2010, 1:13 pm

    @Ann, Thanks so much for coming by. I just took a quick look at your site and it looks great. I’ll be back!

    I think equating looking young with looking good is a huge problem. At my age I can’t look young, but I definitely can look good and I do (most of the time). Mostly, I do it by taking care of my health. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that women need to “have work done” like Phyllis Diller or Cher.

  • Karen 06/18/2010, 12:29 pm

    This post made me laugh because I can relate. Not to the hair colouring (I still quite like my blond highlights), but the Sweetie and Ma’am calling. The first time that happned to me, I was like “Whoa! Did that girl just call me Ma’am??!!”. I was shocked.

    I guess there’s not much we can do except to embrace it. With age comes wisdom, strength and beauty :-)

    .-= Karen´s last blog ..Life Is Short, But Not That Short =-.

  • Ann 06/18/2010, 12:15 pm

    I don’t color my hair –it is long and I like the grey mixed in. It is unfortunate that our society is so hung up on youth and youthful looks. I agree with the saying, “with age comes wisdom.” And I am still trying to become wise. With age comes perspective. Great perspective, which is why I use my site to help other women learn about how they can take better care of themselves and share their insights with others. Love your blog. Glad I found it.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/16/2010, 10:14 pm

    @Manal, Thank you for your comment. I wrote this for a change of pace, and it was really fun. In a way, I’ll be glad to have more stuff like this happen so I can write about it also.

    “I think for the most part people are well intended but ill equipped to deal with others in a respectful way.” That’s an interesting observation. I imagine that many people don’t know how they are coming across.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/16/2010, 10:10 pm

    @Leah, Thank you for the video. I agree with your comment. There is plenty of cluelessness to go around. Little old ladies don’t have a monopoly on it, yet people do tend to assume that they are out of touch with technology.

    It seems as if strangers use Hon or Sweetie for a variety of reasons. It occurs to me that the guy at the convenience store could be bullying you. If you complained, he’s say that he was just being nice or some such thing. I’m just speculating, but avoiding him sounds like a good idea to me.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/16/2010, 9:57 pm

    Belinda, Thanks for your comment. Sometimes the marketing–as for a prepaid cremation–can be so offensive that it becomes funny in a clueless sort of way.

    As for the terms of endearment, I see it as partly related to age of the recipient, partly to differences, and partly to individual quirks. And it bothers me much more when it happens to my BF than when it hapens to me.

  • Belinda Munoz + The Halfway Point 06/16/2010, 7:54 pm

    Ha ha! Very funny post, Madeleine. Marketing via direct mail is utterly presumtuous, isn’t it, and dare I say offensive?

    I don’t mind the terms of endearment from strangers. I know it’s a common complaint by feminist-types. I view it as a way for people to connect; and though this is something we often do so awkwardly, I don’t condemn the effort no matter how automatic it seems.

  • Leah McClellan 06/15/2010, 11:07 pm

    Madeleine, You’re a riot! That bit about the computer…did you hear the audio thing going around? Something about a “little old lady” calling a service tech to help her get rid of Pacman on her computer. I listened, and it actually sounded like a young or middle-aged–at most–woman. Seems everyone assumed that, because the caller seemed pretty clueless, that it must have been an elderly woman. I know LOTS of young people who are really clueless! Maybe not personally, but I’ve been acquainted.
    Here it is:

    That bit about the hon and sweetie–well I don’t know if that’s relegated to women with white hair because it’s annoyed me all my life. Women do it, men….yuck. I am NOT your dear or sweetheart! And I’ve always lived in the Northeast…it doesn’t happen a lot but when it does…there’s even a convenient store I’ve been avoiding because this big burly guy (about my age) always calls me hon or dear–yuck! Glad I’m not the only one lol :)
    .-= Leah McClellan´s last blog ..You talk too much! Tips and tricks for talkers and quiet types =-.

  • Manal 06/15/2010, 7:42 pm

    Hi Madeleine,
    Like Angela I truly enjoyed this post and had a few laughs. I don’t have stories to share but just wanted to say thank you for the humor and lightness.

    I think for the most part people are well intended but ill equipped to deal with others in a respectful way.
    .-= Manal´s last blog ..The Art of Slow =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/14/2010, 9:28 pm

    Angela, I’m so happy that you enjoyed it. I thought it would be fun to do something a little lighter.

    I’ve actually been thinking that I need to get new pictures taken to show off my Little Old Lady Look. But it would have to be something a lot more active than sitting in a chair knitting away.

  • Angela Artemis 06/14/2010, 8:30 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. It was very entertaining! I chuckled quite a few times.
    I started going gray when I was 27 so I’ve been coloring my hair for some time.What a pain in the butt it is. I won’t stop though for the very same reasons you’ve mentioned here.

    I have an older friend who did stop coloring her hair in her mid-fifties and she says the same things. She does look beautiful though. She’s thinking of coloring it again.

    Thanks for making me laugh!
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..Is There a Difference Between Intuition, Psychism and Mediumship? =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/14/2010, 2:13 pm

    Jean, You make a good point. The waitress calling my BF “Sweetie” epoisodes both occurred in southern Maryland, where we’ve been living for just over 4 months. It is rather southern in its style and customs, and I’m not used to it. Everything else I described, thought, including the young dentist’s assistant calling me “Hon” happened in Seattle.

    As you say,
    “I admit it feels jolting (and not in a good way), when someone I don’t know calls me ‘dear.’ ” It could be condescension, based on your not fitting someone’s stereotype. Like wondering whether the young woman who just came in the examination room is “the real doctor.”

  • Jean Sarauer 06/14/2010, 11:56 am

    I got my intro to being called ‘hon,’ and ‘sweetie,’ by strangers when I spent a lot of time traveling in the south a few years back. It truly freaked me out at first until I realized how prevalent it was, regardless of age, sex, or lack of familiarity. Here in Wisconsin, it’s a rare thing to hear, and I admit it feels jolting (and not in a good way), when someone I don’t know calls me ‘dear.’
    .-= Jean Sarauer´s last blog ..A Newbie’s Guide to Guest Posting =-.