Linda Evangelista and our impossible standards of beauty

There is an undue pressure on women to look young and beautiful all the time

“If you’re lucky and God gives you extra years, I should think you’d want to flaunt it and not hide it,” said Iris Apfel, the American interior designer and internet sensation who just turned 100 in August. Ms Apfel is a style icon, unafraid of big bold fashion statements and famous for her oversized signature glasses. “I don’t know why there’s this mad obsession to look years younger than you are,” she said. “I see nothing wrong with a few wrinkles.”

Ms Apfel is an inspiration, with her unapologetic choices and her rejection of norms about beauty and age. But her comments stand precisely because so many people think that ageing is kryptonite for women. Fighting it is thus seen as something that can never start too early. Just think about those supermarket shelves of “anti-ageing” products or the images that airbrush wrinkles from women’s faces in order to make them look “acceptable”. All of this points to society's fixation with impossible youth and beauty ideals.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22:  Iris Apfel  attends the "Snow White & The Huntsman" cocktail reception at the Tribeca Grand Hotel on May 22, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

While I hope that I have Ms Apfel’s verve as I grow older, and I am excited she has spoken up, I am less convinced that her praise for wrinkles is a long term win when it comes to conversations about beauty and ageing. Yes, it is great to see signs of age – including wrinkles and grey hair – being shown as they are, naturally, instead of being brushed out. But it is only one side of a conversation.

All the talk seems to either be pro-ageing or anti-ageing, both stands reinforcing that beauty and ageing are defining factors for women. “I’ll get rid of my wrinkles” or “I’m proud of my wrinkles”, rather than just letting it be at “wrinkles are just one way of being beautiful; we are all going to get them, it is not cause for societal outrage and can we now talk about something else?”

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The anti-ageing consumer market is set to grow from $191.6 billion in 2019 to $421.4 billion by 2030

The problem being being pro or anti-ageing is that these stands are within notions of womanhood that prioritise appearances and looks above all else. Too often, a woman's worth is defined through her looks.

The starkest example of this has been an emotional announcement this week by 1990s supermodel Linda Evangelista, who said she had been a recluse for the last five years due to plastic surgery that went wrong.

Ms Evangelista appeared on more than 600 magazine covers. She was a favourite of designer Karl Lagerfield and was famously misquoted saying she "wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000”. To say that Linda Evangelista's looks are what made her would be an understatement. After fat-freezing surgery and two attempts to rectify the botched procedure, which she says left her "permanently disfigured", she is no longer willing to be a hermit, and says she is suing the surgeon for $50million.

When someone who was acclaimed for her looks feels that the only way to hold on to her value is through surgical intervention, we need to stop and take stock. Why aren’t we talking more about the toxic beauty conversations affecting women under the guise of anti-ageing? And it’s not just older women who are affected by these expectations. Younger women too are taught to fear ageing, going from being hyper-visible in their youth to sometimes being completely invisible in their older years, not seen and not wanting to be seen.

It is no surprise to know that women are spending vast amounts on trying to outdo the affects of time. According to P&S Intelligence, the anti-ageing consumer market is set to grow from $191.6 billion in 2019 to $421.4 billion by 2030. And some reports suggest that women are starting treatments in their 20s and 30s.

Thankfully, in recent years, we have started to talk about the negative affect of some of these beauty ideals on girls and young women, how it affects their self esteem, as well as how the privilege of "being pretty" affects women – from marriage prospects to employment prospects and salaries, to their value and status as they grow older.

To take that forward, we need to change how we converse about beauty and ageing. For example, we need less talk of "She looks so young for her age" and more data, more information, and more space to diverse images and concepts of beauty.

Why should older women’s self-perception, self worth and opportunities be any less valuable than that of any other age group? It is not a question of one over the other. By not having this same conversation, not only are we doing a disservice to older women, we are negatively influencing girls, who from young age pick up the fear of ageing. Young women growing up today should not view their appearance as their most powerful asset. This is not easy in a world that celebrates limited ideas of beauty.

Young or old, there is pressure on women to live up to impossible beauty standards. Yet, because of the ageism overlaid on the sexism inherent in these standards, we tend to assume it’s a "battle" that women have to fight. That’s a red herring, the insidious trap of the beauty ideal that pits women against each other, instead of defining beauty on our own terms, no matter what our age.

Published: October 1st 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: October 6th 2021, 12:40 PM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National