There’s a certain irony to be found in how invisible we can be made to feel as we age, and yet how extremely visible we feel when we put on swimwear in our midlife and beyond years. The inner tussle of what to wear and how little we feel we can get away with when it comes to poolside lounging or strolling along the beach shouldn’t be the case, yet for so many post 50 women it’s a substantial pause for pre-holiday thought. And the big question – do we cover up? If for some women the answer to this is that perhaps we should, then Maye Musk’s recent photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is the perfect example of “why the hell should we?”
At 74, and with a modelling career spanning 50 years, she has made history by becoming the oldest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model – and she looks fabulous. By doing so, she not only widens the much-needed arena for using more older models in top magazine cover shoots and campaigns, she raises the bar by challenging the negative and outdated perceptions of what ageing should look like. She refuses to be invisible. As one of her Instagram followers said: “Women can be beautiful and sexy at any age.”
Another model who refuses to adhere to the confines of ageist thinking is Czech-born Swedish model and actress Paulina Porizkova. She was the first Central European woman to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1984 when she was just 18, and 38 years later she has appeared on 21 Vogue covers, done countless bikini shoots for Sports Illustrated, endless advertising campaigns, and continues to break down ageist boundaries with some recent beautiful and unfiltered bikini shots on her social media account.
But what’s incredibly sad here – and a stark reminder that ageism and over 50s invisibility is still very much something we have to deal with – is some of the criticism she has received for these photographs. One follower who attempted to age shame a recent bikini post said: “You must be in so much pain to keep posting bikini pictures at your age. I’ve always thought that getting old and ugly is hardest on the pretty people. The fall from grace is so much farther when you were beautiful …” There was more that doesn’t deserve the writing space here, but her response? To post another bikini shot on Instagram with a lengthy comment that finished: “… there is no such thing as ugly and old, only short-sighted and ignorant.” Perfect and true.
So how do we fix society’s attitudes towards ageing? I think we need to take a leaf out of Maye Musk’s book. We need the world to embrace midlife and beyond women just the way we are, and however we choose to present ourselves – something Porizkova does extremely well with the unretouched images of herself without makeup – and, of course, without clothes. She photographs her grey roots and her “awesome” neck wrinkles. She talks about losing her husband as well as her youth. And it’s this kind of frankness we need if we’re going to do battle against ageism, one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination.
If we choose to wear a bikini, a tankini, a swimsuit – or for that matter, absolutely nothing at all – what does it matter to anyone other than ourselves and how it makes us feel? There is no shame to be found in being content with who we are, how we look, comfortable in our skin and the confidence to share this with others. As Porizkova says in response to the recent age shaming comments: “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.” Hats off – and actually most of my clothing this summer – to that!