Stop telling women they don't look their age

It may seem like a compliment but there is a flipside. Women shouldn't have to uphold societal beauty ideals to feel visible

Former fashion supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, in New York City, on April 07, 2022. Getty Images / AFP
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I was brought up with the strict social norm that it was rude to ask a woman her age. One of the best compliments you could give a woman – and still is: "you don’t look your age!" Women, it would seem, are ephemeral spirits, forever young, and forever beholden to the beauty ideals of youth.

Yet, when women hit their 50s, they themselves often talk about suddenly becoming "invisible". People don’t hear or see them. Hollywood’s female actors point out how few roles there are for older women, compared to those for older men. It’s often a symptom of a wider workplace issue. Older women describe being in situations of professional erasure – despite being at the peak of their careers. I see this as the "erasure-vilification" paradox.

In many cases, beauty ideals still govern a woman’s societal value. Think back to the tagline of the cosmetics company L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth it”. The messaging from some quarters seems to be that if a woman is not young and beautiful, what apparently even is her worth?

A participant applies a double eyelid tape backstage before the Middle Age and Senior Modelling Contest in Beijing, on July 22. Reuters

But age should be immaterial in a society where we aim to go beyond the animalistic and aspire to give each human being value based on dignity, social worth, character and contribution. Add to that, considering we now live in a world where people often live well into their 80s, the negativity accorded to "old" women seems even more anachronistic.

For the September issue of Vogue magazine – the one always considered the "big" one in marketing terms – they have recreated a 1990s cover with supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford. The women are all now in their 50s, so this is a striking moment to put older beauty on the western stage. And it’s hard not to feel that this is a kind of progress.

But it is and it isn’t. The kind of beauty ideals these supermodels represented were always unattainable for a vast number of women. Not only are they still unattainable but they reinforce the expectation that older women need to look younger to still be considered valuable. They need to not "look their age", because the subtext of that continues to be, showing your age is not a good thing.

It’s a recurring theme among older women who are included in advertisements and on magazine covers. Although some might add that this is simply a recognition that they have money to spend. And what better way to encourage consumer spending on anti-ageing products than older women being portrayed as not looking their age?

It cannot be the case that only if older women are successful or powerful or rich do they have value

The sad part is that the vilification of older women is unwittingly often upheld by younger women. I say this as someone who in her youth thought anyone over 40 was very old and that age was something to be scared of, even – gently – reviled. When I was first called "auntie" by a child, I nearly had heart failure. I was in my twenties then and felt revulsion at the thought of being deemed old.

Mhairi Black, a 28-year-old UK MP recently referred to her critics as "50-year-old Karens", the women she felt were holding back societal progress. In her phrase, there are overtones of sexism and racism but it is just another sad demonstration of how so many people – including women – underestimate the interplay between misogyny and ageism.

Mhairi Black, Scottish National Party MP, on March 9, 2023. UK Parliament

The stereotypes of "the hag" or "the harridan", or "the hysterical" (read: menopausal) hang over countless older women. After all, what can societies do with those who don't fit expected beauty ideals and might also wield opinions and power? At a certain point, women have lived life, found themselves and their voices and are unwilling to be cowed by society’s constraints.

Forbes has just released its third annual 50 over 50 list of women. The announcement says, “age can be your superpower”. And it’s wonderful to see that the categories are lifestyle, impact, innovation and impact. This is a list that demonstrates complexity, self-belief, opinions and change and we need more of them. More women of a certain age being represented in the business world and influential fashion magazines would be a welcome change in society, broadly speaking.

The only caution I would urge is the risk of entrenching the problem. Which is to say, it cannot be the case that only if older women are successful or powerful or rich do they have value. Current norms begrudgingly accept that these metrics fill the space of youth and beauty when they are gone. Because, well at least the women are making money.

But what about all the other average older women who want to be valued for the worth they know they have, without being a supermodel or a super CEO, and who are not the stereotypes of witchy, overbearing nosy "aunties", vicious mothers-in-law or doddering grannies?

Women should not have to uphold beauty ideals to be visible. They should not need to hide their opinions to avoid being vilified. They exist. And the way to lift the nefarious fog on society is to break the erasure-vilification paradox.

Published: August 18, 2023, 7:00 AM