It begins gradually, like most personal changes. You don't go gray all at once; skin doesn't sag overnight. But this is more insidious, because we can't see it in the mirror.
At first the reference was rare, barely registering in my awareness. And if it did, it was usually tinged with sweetness: "The guy behind the fish counter said, 'You're welcome, Ma'am'. How cute!"
By my late forties, I noticed the phrase being directed at me with alarming frequency: "Crackers are on Aisle 13, Ma'am." "Excuse me, Ma'am." "Ma'am, your car is ready." And while my logical mind knows this form of address indicates respect, my illogical, perpetually youthful self cries reproachfully, "What's this Ma'am nonsense? Call me Miss!"
Diving into the MISS-tery
No doubt about it: the double standard has never been more flagrant than when it comes to forms of address. "Sir" is a form of respect for males aged 18 to 100; for females, we're Miss until we're reclassified, kicking and screaming, as Ma'am, a shortened form of Madam. Which wouldn't, perhaps, be so horrific -- if it wasn't also the term used to describe a woman who runs a brothel.
Even the term for our younger years belies the formidable feminine. "Master," for boys, connotes sovereignty. "Miss," on the other hand, is short for Mistress, which implies an extramarital affair -- or a dominatrix. No wonder women rejoiced when Gloria Steinem popularized "Ms."
What's the Miss-tery behind being Miss-identified? One young man asked me, genuinely curious, "But when do I stop calling a woman Miss?" I responded, "I think it's still okay when we're 90!" In other words: however forward thinking and feminist we may be, every woman enjoys being addressed in a way that makes her feel young, attractive and fun.
Because that's what, "Here you go, Miss!" does for me, and I surmise I'm not atypical in this regard. No matter what the mirror says, my ears rejoice when someone -- male or female, of any age, but particularly if they're younger than me -- calls me Miss. It's the simplest, most painless, cost-free anti-aging formula I know.