I don’t know about you, but I’m a glass at least completely full kinda gal. My rose-tinted glasses perch pertly on my aquiline nose as I ignore inconvenient truths that don’t sit with my world view. This is particularly true when it comes to my own self-image. As I’ve got older, I’ve become adept at a sort of cat and mouse game with my credulity which allows me to accept the ageing process with, if not unbounded joy — who’d believe that? — with the sort of equanimity you’d expect from a seal lazing on the rocks in the sun. If that sounds like denial, yup, guilty as charged.
Seriously, it’s not like my inner person feels any different. It’s only the wrapper that’s showing signs of dishevelment. On the contrary the — whatever one calls it, inner goddess? — is mostly (I have my share of ‘bad hair’ days like everyone else) in good shape. She’s timeless and I see her as something like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wonder Woman. A sort of ‘blue stocking’ superhero; clever, gorgeous and most definitely fresh from the fight. I’d say that’s not a bad combo to draw on at times of self-doubt and uncertainty. And she’s a great chick to party with when the good times roll. I admire flamboyance and flair in women. She’s all that … on speed!
Which brings me to my point. Over the last few years, I’ve had on-going conversations with women in my orbit about the whole invisibility thing that many women experience as they age. It saddens me to know that a wide variety of women think this is inevitable and there’s nothing they can do about it. “It is what it is,” they say. “It’s as certain as a cluster of Khardashians appearing the minute a red carpet is rolled out.” For sure there are exceptions — clearly there are an enormous number of middle-aged or older women in the public eye who can’t be said to be invisible. But even the most successful and famous women are likely to be fighting a rear-guard action against the impact and perception of age on their value as people and overall bankability as commercial prospects.
This acceptance of invisibility is something I take strong issue with because I don’t believe it is inevitable. I think it’s a received wisdom that many of us turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So why do we do this? Given how society rates, or more accurately under-rates women in pretty much every way imaginable and how ‘hot’ we are figures largely in which doors open for us. In this context, as our ‘pulling power’ diminishes with age it becomes progressively harder get over the bar of beauty stereotypes. This is particularly true as great swathes of people … er … men that would be … start to look through us or around us as if we have not further contribution make. It becomes all too easy to pull on the cape of invisibility rather than having to run the gauntlet of society’s preconceptions and stereotypes about middle aged and older women.
I have a wonderful collection of humorous greetings cards I put together in my early thirties. My group of close friends and I were going through that “all men are bastards, who needs one anyway?” disillusioned-with-love phase. Something of a contradiction as the one thing most of us wanted to have in our lives was the extremely illusive Mr. Right. At the time, most of us were divorced or had recently been spat out of a reasonably long-term relationship. We solaced each other by sourcing cards with such pithy philosophical statements as, If they can get one man up on the moon, why can’t they get them all up there? and You’re not alone honey, my shampoo lasts longer than my men. We’d fax them to each other for comfort — this was the era before e-mail forwards were endemic and scanners were still only found in Accident and Emergency Wards.
Recently, I re-discovered this collection whilst looking for something else. Flicking through them, one card jumped out at me as if it had a life of its own: Wrinkled wasn’t one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I have to say my brain responded to this statement as if it was a direct quote from Revelations. Of course, back in the day, the discovery of even one facial wrinkle was a drama which made headline events like the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall seem like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We were at the peak of our physical beauty, so it was all a bit of an affectation. But there is a real dichotomy in the aging process and an interesting review this week about the movie I Feel Pretty prompted some in depth navel-gazing. I haven’t seen this movie and I probably won’t on the basis of the reviews, but friends who have found it to be just what it says on the tin — a humorous, laugh-out-loud romp. The reviewer looked at it through a darker lens.
The central tenet of the movie is that looks don’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. No argument from me with that. That it’s lack of confidence that holds women back professionally and personally, not discrimination or how we look. That for today’s thoroughly modern Maleficent it’s all about feeling better, not looking better, although looking better is a likely bi-product. It’s this bit the reviewer was taking exception to and I’d have to agree because it seems as obvious as the balls on a tall dog (if you’ll forgive the crudity) that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer have never been higher.
But the insidious thing is that it’s becoming taboo to acknowledge this — beauty standard denialism is gaining traction. This is said to be fuelled by cynical corporates re-packaging standard beauty lines as health and wellness products, blatantly ignoring the continued pressure on looks. Fine, if women really are embracing their inner beauty and only starve themselves, work out obsessively and fork out small fortunes on appearance enhancements because it they want to and because it makes them feel a deeper sense of self-worth. Not so fine if they’re being duped. I’d say there’s a fast one being pulled here that we should start wising up. We may live in the ‘post truth’ world, but there are limits!
As BBC film critic, Will Gompertz observed, “The greatest shame is how the movie misses the chance to really skewer the serious issue it attempts to address, namely the debilitating and isolating mental health conditions such as body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression, which are made significantly worse by the relentless objectification of women by the media and business. In fact, bafflingly, the film ends up pandering to exactly the same fascistic thinking that promotes the fallacy only people with a certain body type will be successful and admired.’
I’d say this is particularly true for older women. As things are going, there will come a time when, if we decide to age naturally, we risk being marginalized somewhere in our thirties and be fighting a war of attrition against increasing invisibility from there until we drop. Jobs and potential partners will be the sole preserve of our younger-looking contemporaries. And heaven help the less affluent as they age and can’t afford to join the young-old elite!
Despite the need to suspend disbelief and a serious question mark about its writer’s grasp on reality, I like the premise of I Feel Pretty. I believe strongly that, like Intel, most of the good stuff should be on the inside and that inner beauty, strength and resilience are the bedrock of happy, healthy lives. We most definitely should take care of ourselves because we want to and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing. Wonderful, if this also makes us feel pretty and helps us stay visible as we age … because we really are worth it.