Stripping naked and painting yourself gold is not, I suspect, how most of you would choose to celebrate turning 50 – for a whole host of reasons. But that’s exactly what Gwyneth Paltrow did recently, and posted the pictures, taken by Andrew Yee, to prove it. She looks incredible. So what’s stopping the rest of us from, in GP’s words, expressing our “energy and optimism” in a similar way and, at a more basic level, just feeling more comfortable with our own bodies?
OK, I know what you’re thinking. Most of us aren’t Hollywood stars with a $250 million wellness brand to promote, and a retinue of make-up artists, hairdressers, trainers and stylists at our beck and call. But what we do share with GP – at least, those of us who subscribe to the PRO AGE movement – is a sense of positivity around ageing, and a desire to change society’s attitudes towards it for the better.
In an essay accompanying the shoot, Paltrow talked about lots of the things we value at Studio10, too. “Ageing is actually a beautiful thing,” she said. “We just need to open our perceptions. As you become more yourself, your life really opens up. And while I do what I can to strive for good health and longevity, to stave off weakening muscles and receding bone, I have a mantra I insert into those reckless thoughts that try to derail me: I accept.
“I accept the marks and the loosening skin, the wrinkles. I accept my body and let go of the need to be perfect, look perfect, defy gravity, defy logic, defy humanity. I accept my humanity.”
Accepting our ageing bodies can be hard. But we also need to remember that the issue doesn’t just lie with us: it’s society’s attitude towards us that’s the real problem. I’ve met some amazing role models of late who are tackling the subject with grace, intelligence and fabulous ferocity. Catherine Grace O’Connell, founder of the Forever Fierce: Midlife Matters community, is one such. She celebrated turning 60 recently with a beautiful and empowering naked photo shoot, entitled I Got Naked in Austin. She spent the 60 days leading up to her birthday getting into shape for the shoot. Her motivation? Inspiration. “I needed it and felt other women needed it too,” she told me.
“The idea of doing a shoot sans clothing was terrifying at first. Announcing it on social media forced me to have some public accountability and allowed me to share what I was doing in the way of fitness, nutrition and an overall healthy lifestyle. It was the perfect jump start to get me feeling like me again.”
Despite being terrified, what O’Connell mostly felt was a huge sense of liberation both during and after her naked photo shoot. “I don’t think I would have felt the same way had I been in my 20s or 30s,” she said. “Being photographed naked was a huge stretch for me. But I found myself just going with the flow and having fun. That’s the beauty of getting older. I know my body is far from perfect. I have a lot of scars, war wounds, accumulated over the years. This shoot wasn’t about perfection. It was about empowerment.”
We live in a culture that is obsessed by the idea of youth. As we age, we are required to become less and less visible as women. That’s exactly why we must strive to be seen – and if it takes going naked, I’m all for it. There is so much wisdom and beauty to be found in women who have experienced life.
Look at Maye Musk’s recent shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. At 74, she made history by becoming the oldest model to appear on the cover. Musk was refusing to be invisible – and looked amazing. Or consider model and actress Paulina Porizkova, 57, who recently posted some beautiful unfiltered bikini shots on her social-media account. She took outrageous flak for it. Her response? “If I choose to show my body and if I control the way my body is seen, does that mean that I then have power? Yes. This is my body. And I will do with it as I please.”
Feminist economist and academic Dr Victoria Bateman has that power, and she’s not afraid to use her body, as well as her brain, to deliver important messages. In 2018, she walked naked into dinner at the Royal Economic Society conference in Brighton, the word “RESPECT” written across her chest and stomach. Her message: respect women – and their place in economics. Bateman believes that the missing piece in the puzzle of economic growth lies in understanding the role that women, their bodies and their freedoms have played in creating prosperity.
Bateman started her naked protests in 2016, wanting to play with the idea that women’s bodies are seen as shameful. “I fundamentally believe that so many of the restrictions on women’s freedom globally – whether it’s their ability to work, their ability to travel, or violent practices such as female genital mutilation – are rooted in the idea women’s bodies are sinful,” she told Quartz. I see a direct link between this idea and the way society views our bodies in midlife and beyond
“There’s the idea that a woman’s value rests on being modest about her body,” Bateman says. “And that society’s responsibility is to protect women from having their respect undermined by their bodies being on show.”
We don’t need that kind of protection. Or the abuse that necessarily follows. What we need is for society to embrace midlife women just the way we are, however we choose to present ourselves: whether that’s painted gold, wearing a swimsuit, or just splendidly, confidently naked.