“I don’t think about my life in terms of numbers. First of all, I ain’t never gonna be old because I ain’t got time to be old. I can’t stop long enough to grow old.”
How we think about ageing is so important. It was brought home to me this week when I read what Dolly Parton had said on the subject in a brilliant piece in The Cut. And that translates into how we talk about ageing: the language we use about women in midlife and beyond needs to change.
You all know that ageism is at the top of my agenda – it’s just one of the reasons we’ve launched our online exhibition, Beauty That Comes With Age. And sometimes I feel optimistic – when I see all your amazing pictures, when I glimpse older models in beauty ad campaigns, when I hear women taking a stand about the use of words such as “anti-ageing” and “age-defying”. But it’s not enough.
Women are still being held back in all areas. Our equal contribution to society and culture is often ignored. Visible midlife women – those in the public eye or who call out unfair treatment – are subject to scrutiny and treated suspiciously in a way that men are not.
What gives me hope, though, are the voices out there who are talking intelligently about these thorny issues in thought-provoking ways. I’d love it if we could all join in this conversation, so I’m sharing with you my current favourites.
Katie Couric is a pre-eminent American journalist and author who hosts the Next Question podcast – she has a brilliant episode that addresses exactly this issue. In Is Ageism Getting Old?, she gathers a number of prominent media-related influencers and bloggers to discuss whether or not ageism is one of the last acceptable “-isms” in society, and why it’s something we still have to contend with.
Lyn Slater is a model and fashion blogger in her sixties known as the Accidental Icon. She has more than 749,000 Instagram followers, with the biggest group in the 25-35 bracket. While acknowledging that we are living in a youth-obsessed culture, and with the media messages we are bombarded with only serving to underpin this, she believes that it is younger people who are paving the way to embracing diversity and inclusion. Her view is that we need to engage all age groups in disrupting the story of ageing.
I talked last week about Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist and author of This Chair Rocks – A Manifesto Against Ageism. She believes that ageism is promoted throughout industry by companies who weigh the older, more expensive workers against the younger generation, who are cheaper and can be exploited because they don’t have families to support. She also talks about the language still used around age with an example we’re all familiar with: “You look great for your age.” She says: “It’s really hard not to feel complimented but, when you accept that compliment, it’s ageist in the most fundamental way because it’s reinforcing the idea that younger is better. Why is someone bringing up age at all?”
Model and anti-ageing activist JoAni Johnson came to prominence at the beginning of the 1960s – she’s still walking for top designers and was hired by Rihanna to appear in a campaign for her Fenty fashion line. She believes that things are beginning to change. In an industry often fixated on youth, she says: “I think that opportunities have become more available to women of a certain age. They are some of the top consumers, so they do make a difference. The responses that the media is getting from those people of a certain age who are saying ‘Finally, I see myself’ are also having an impact.”
Cindy Gallop, CEO of If We Ran The World is one of the most influential women in the world of advertising. She believes the ad industry is extraordinarily ageist: “If you had older people in the industry operating at every point along the way, we would see much better advertising and phenomenally aspirational pictures of ourselves, because the enormous irony is, we are the ones living the aspirational lifestyle. We have our own sense of values, we have our own personal tastes, we dress the way we want, we live the way we want. We have more freedom. These are all things that younger people aspire to.”
Listen to what these women have to say. Most of us will experience ageist language and ideas as we reach midlife and beyond – and when they’re combined with the double whammy of sexism, these barbs can be utterly pernicious. It’s something I’ll continue to talk about until there’s nothing left to say. So let’s stand united on ageism, sexism, and challenging the outdated perceptions that leave us feeling invisible and undervalued. It’s time we all joined this conversation.