Before I got within tailgating distance of 40, the word “auntie” held a different meaning. It was a term I grew up using to respectfully refer to older Black women in the community. But between ages 35 and 36, American society, pop culture and retinol commercials targeted women like me and my anxiety about aging with aggressive warning messages.
Then, one year away from the big 4-0, a viral Twitter exchange between Ava DuVernay and many other influential Black women reminded me that I was in danger of being called “auntie” by some Gen Z kid at any moment. “Auntie” fused with the ageist social and commercial messaging to suddenly become the symbol of what I saw as my unhinged spiral into old age.
I must acknowledge here that many women are absolutely unbothered by the title and also by the thought of growing older. While their imaginations are more civilized than mine, the passage of time seemed to accelerate for me. With the first of my six children born when I was 16, I’d been a wife and mom my entire adult life and as I built an academic career. Three of my children were already adults by then; “grandma” wasn’t some far-in-the-future abstraction. But, in my mind, “auntie” was the poison that, when sprinkled onto brilliant flowers, slowly ate away at the leaves and petals until they were gone.
By my 30s, I was dealing with the anticipation of the changes age would bring, thanks again to pop culture and the internet. Buying clothes brought fears of exposing “wings” and flaps I really did not want to own. Biking, yoga, watching my diet and drinking more water — my go-tos for losing extra weight — no longer worked as well. And my brain couldn’t stop replaying the mental symptoms: the brain fog, mental exhaustion and anxiety. It left me feeling all kinds of vulnerable and yet, combative.
“Auntie” fit me well, as I slid into the title like it was a warm sock right out of the dryer. Being respected, heard, seen and appreciated went well with all my outfits. It was a tremendous ego boost after a harrowing journey.
My fear of being called “auntie” also was illustrated in a recent episode of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show titled, “Age Aunt Nothing but a Number.” In this episode, an “auntie godmother” visited a 35-year-old Black woman on her birthday. Within seconds, the godmother transformed the energetic, vibrant woman into a slumping, pocketbook-clutching woman who was complaining about the atmosphere and cold in the noisy club. Going from clubbing and cute to older and ornery was my idea of what turning 40 was. Being called “auntie” only accelerated the process in my mind, just like it did in the sketch.
But as time passed, I knew the title was coming. So just before turning 41 this year, I looked to a few much younger internet friends for help. The three women — Avia, Keisha and Alexis — worked on a podcast with me and were on the threshold of 30. With the hope that I could get some insights on the characteristics that would cue my auntie viability, I asked them: “What would make you call me ‘auntie’?”
My podcast cohost and friend Avia said that she uses the name for any woman older than herself. A woman who was more experienced and ready to help the younger people. Keisha added that the title was respected and traditionally given only to women that she admires. Alexis agreed and said that the idea of “auntie” meaning old was never on her mind. An auntie is fun, too, and someone you want to be around.
As they went on, my mind turned the words over. So “auntie” is a term of endearment that the younger generations crowned their leaders with. Memories of sitting in church as a girl came back. I used to admire the women called “mother” or “lady.” Everyone in the church stopped to hear them talk. Even my mother sought and used the guidance these women offered. These Black women spoke and were heard. That was something that I longed for when I was the same age as Keisha, Avia and Alexis. Somehow, I forgot that honor and instead affixed the title to fear of mortality. It should have come with feelings of love and accomplishment. After all, at 40-plus, we are vibrant and (mostly) energetic. Many of us still have a second or third act to pull off or a first act that is finally getting off the ground.
After that conversation, my perspective changed. Then, while in the drug store, I was finally tapped for auntie service. A young man, who looked to be in his mid-20s, stopped and asked me about medications. I offered him advice gleaned from raising kids for 24 years. He happily noted my words, even repeating back what I said. Then he turned to go to the register with his purchase.
I turned back to my shopping list. Then I heard him say, “Thanks, auntie.” I looked up, and the young man was looking back at me smiling.
“It’s no problem,” I said. Then I smiled and took inventory of myself. Leveling up to “auntie” did not bring instant gray hair. My knees and joints felt fine. Brain was functioning at top speed, and I did not have an urge to nap. My clothes, a comic book tee under a purple duster sweater, high-waisted jeans and Converse, were just as drab as before. Nothing on me screamed, “Old lady.” Unlike the sketch show, no auntie godmother had shown up to slow me down.
“Auntie” fit me well, as I slid into the title like it was a warm sock right out of the dryer. Being respected, heard, seen and appreciated went well with all my outfits. It was a tremendous ego boost after a harrowing journey. Also, no auntie godmothers or gaudy church hats are required for this level of Black womanhood, making it a place that I can comfortably sit in for a while, unafraid and ready for whatever comes my way.