This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
While sat in a café recently I overheard two young women discussing another woman they both knew. Their conversation started off pretty innocuously but as their attentions turned to her sartorial and nightclub choices, the analysis became saltier. It wasn’t so much the items of clothing or club nights themselves that were the problem, it was that she was "pushing 40" and "still trying to get away with it".
"Trying to get away with it." That last stinging sentence stuck with me. The young women in the next booth had very specific ideas about what a woman who is pushing 40 should and shouldn’t be doing with her time, energy and money. These relatively progressive and reasonable young women were verbally punishing someone older than them for wearing and doing things they deemed age-inappropriate.
The thing is, I instantly knew what they meant because I’ve judged older women for doing things I have deemed to be age-inappropriate. We no longer feel the need to slut shame each other or gossip about another woman’s sexual past as a way to keep some kind of moral order, so why do we feel the need to do this about a woman’s age? Where does this policing of older women come from?
You don’t have to look very far to find answers. The skincare regimes we all buy into promise younger, dewier, plumper, more youthful skin. One brand claims their new powder will give you an "ethereal veil of youth". The buzziest beauty products all promise to deliver a younger-looking you. Anti-ageing, anti-wrinkle serums, creams and elixirs flood the market and our consciousness.
Women over 50 rarely feature in mainstream media and if they do their faces are suspiciously line-free. If a woman does dare to bare her untouched face, she receives a vitriolic backlash. Look at the treatment of Sarah Jessica Parker after she took her 53-year-old face to the Met Gala this year. She was ridiculed and vilified for having the audacity to have a) worn blue eyeshadow and b) aged beyond people’s frozen-in-time memory of her as thirtysomething Carrie.
Doctors are recording cases of young women requesting Botox to make them look more like the filtered versions of themselves.
The narratives women are repeatedly told about getting older are full of fear, loss and irrelevance and as a result we routinely internalise that the one thing a woman should not do is age. We are so conditioned to be obsessed with youth and the promise of the new that we look at older women and demonise anyone we see as failing at the age game.
Following a summer of line-free, youthfully plump faces on Love Island, Superdrug now offers Botox and fillers in some of their UK stores. The number of women aged between 19 and 34 in America having Botox and fillers has risen by 41% since 2011. Research suggests that as many as 100,000 Botox injections are carried out each year in the UK. This increase in non-surgical procedures coincides with our growing selfie obsession and use of social media filters. Doctors are recording cases of young women requesting Botox to make them look more like the filtered versions of themselves. In our obsession with stalling the ageing process we have stopped questioning where this pressure to stay youthful comes from and have instead opted to inject our faces with chemicals and toxins in a bid to resemble a version of ourselves that we know is fake.
By rejecting or disrespecting older women, we’re rejecting and disrespecting our future selves.
I haven’t had Botox or fillers but I’ve thought about it and I’ve looked at women five to 10 years older than me and thought, They look rough. Thank god I’m not there yet. 'Yet' being the operative word – we will all get there. There’s no surgery or procedure that can halt the ageing process completely. The more we try to escape the inevitable, the more obvious it becomes and by rejecting or disrespecting older women, we’re rejecting and disrespecting our future selves.
As I hurtle through my 30s, my face is showing the signs of a life well lived. The lines around my mouth are deeper from all the laughing, talking and cigarettes smoked. The lines around my eyes are noticeable all the time now – not just when I laugh. I notice new signs of ageing every week and for a while I’ve obsessed about my ageing face but I’ve come to the point where I can’t justify wasting any more energy worrying about it. I could get small amounts of Botox and fillers injected into my face every few months and have a smooth complexion but it would cost me about £3,000 per year (money I don’t have) and I know I’d be doing it to meet someone else’s expectations, someone else’s definition of beauty. I’d be fighting a losing battle and I think ultimately, I would feel like a loser too.
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I keep thinking about this cover of French Elle I saw in the summer. It’s really refreshing to see a woman with wrinkles on a mag cover. Body positivity conversations very rarely touch on the question of age or being allowed to look your age. Articles promote where to get the “most natural looking” Botox and fillers but don’t often question why we’re all terrified of looking older. I’d rather have life lines like this woman than pump Superdrug peddled Botox into my face and end up looking like Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her
In the summer I was struck by a French Elle cover which featured a beautiful portrait of 42-year-old French TV presenter, Alessandra Sublet. It caught my eye because Alessandra’s radiant face looked out from the magazine rack apparently un-retouched. The laughter lines around her eyes were visible, the lines around her mouth prominently framed her smile. She looked incredible. Never do you see a woman on the cover of an international title looking her age; she's always photoshopped into a smoother and more "presentable" version of herself.
In each issue of Riposte (the magazine I edit) we feature women from a wide age range and make sure we interview women over 50. Photographing our older interviewees is always such a joy. We never edit out their lines or try and make them look younger than they are. You can take a beautiful photograph of an older woman without patronising her or styling her to look ridiculous. It’s important for us to represent women of all ages so that those women feel seen and heard but also to offer role models for younger women; to show that life for a woman doesn’t stop at 50 – if anything, it gets better.
What if we revered the ageing process as much as we celebrate a smooth face? What if an older woman's face with all its natural wrinkles and softness were as championed as a woman who 'looks good for her age'?
I recently interviewed Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, founder of The Daily Beast and the Women in the World summit and platform. She’s 64, busier than ever, inspiring as ever and exploring the bigger questions in life. Why don’t we see more women like her in our everyday media consumption? The problem with only ever championing or celebrating the next bright young thing is that we’re short-circuiting our culture and our understanding of the world by cutting out the views and experiences of older women. They can teach us vital lessons and provide a road map for navigating life, if only we would let them.
Feminism is about choice and I will always champion that. If you choose to get fillers and Botox or have surgery, you’re entirely free to make that choice for yourself without judgement from anyone else, but what if we revered the ageing process as much as we celebrate a smooth face? What if an older woman's face with all its natural wrinkles and softness were as championed as a woman who "looks good for her age"? Maybe if we challenge our conditioned thinking when it comes to ageing we won’t feel the need to choose such invasive procedures. Maybe then we’d look in the mirror and feel bloody great about ourselves – now and in the future.