It’s widely accepted that women after 40 tend to feel invisible and marginalized. From diminished exposure and pigeon-holed roles on the big screen, waning aspirational fashion features, down to the dwindling eligible job opportunities, we’ve witnessed a slow erasure for more mature women as agism unfortunately rears its ugly head. Are society and media the sole ones to blame, or have we been accomplices to muting our own voices?
Picture this. A portrait of a female nude in all its buoyant glory. Toned abs, long limbs, bedroom eyes and a big blow-out. Seductive, sexy, looking straight at you with a confident stare. But look closer, the billowing hair has some speckles of grey. Those piercing eyes bearing some lines, the body taunt. Well that’s because it’s Polina Porzikov, supermodel from the 80’s, only posing in the nude at the ripe age of 56.
Shocking, inappropriate, distasteful. The backlash on her was deafening, offending the sensitive male gaze, and some women too. Rhetoric along the lines of being too self-indulgent, narcissistic, inappropriate, and blasé, eliciting well-intended advice to “settle down and bask in the warm glow of family affection instead of parading around like a teen.” If that sounds heinous, it’s unfortunately not very surprising. There are expectations placed on women – either by society, or by ourselves – that don’t necessarily define men in the same way. A mature woman is allowed wisdom, humor, patience, virtue in spades – but not necessarily, blatant sexuality or sensuality. The notion that men yield power with age while women grow into irrelevance is not sacrosanct yet is a bitter pill to swallow.
Rita Nakouzi, Editorial Director at The Real Real, one of the inspiring women I interviewed for this piece weighs in, “Career wise it’s often deemed to be her last act, the wind down phase, whilst men and their silver manes step up into more powerful roles.” In absolute terms, only 5% of CEO roles globally are taken up by women, the rest of which are dominated by male counterparts, and a unicorn or two.
Take Hollywood for example, where leading roles for women diminish past the age of 30 (30! That’s practically a tween!) dwindling to a 40% chance of nailing principal roles; whilst 40-something males score 80% of the leading roles, women only 20%. Do the math, that’s fewer desirable roles for women who are middling out.
It feels like even the fashion magazines ratted us out with the changing of the guard at the esteemed media mecca that is Vogue. Just like that, all the doyennes (who had reached a certain age) that dictated style were unceremoniously tipped off their reign overnight as if by mutiny or a brewing coup.
Au revoir Emmanuelle Alt, editor in Chief at Paris Vogue cementing “Editorial Rock Chic’; Ta ta sensible, sturdy Alexandra Schulman and her long standing 25-year tenure at British Vogue. Angelica Cheung, editor of Chinese Vogue with the asymmetrical bob? Outta there; Auf Weidersehen fräulein Christiane Arp with her proclivity for Jil Sander suits at German Vogue. Gone. One by one replaced by a younger, allegedly more relevant, culturally louder generation. I’m not mis-condoning the natural passing of the baton. That must happen, but the fact that it did so without a pulse, devoid of spectacle, no audible enraged wail…no frisson, saddens me.
It’s as if we aged with so much decorum and taste, so gracefully, that no one noticed we were gone. Or even more eerily (in a hushed voice), that we are still there. A little less seen, a little less heard, we start to get dismissed into this questionable “invisible woman” category, similar to the invisible panty line. Useful, so long as you don’t see it.
Which is rather ironic, as it’s in our middle age that we are just stepping into our stride, are more settled into ourselves, have more agency on our ideas and intentions, more financial spending power to leverage, and certainly a better dress sense and personal style than our younger selves. We’ve been through the bad hair and back, grew out our fringes, wore the regrettable faux pas, explored our careers (and still do), had the lovers, the kids, the husband(s), climbed the social ladders – and crashed or crested – and now know exactly who we are, whilst still calibrating who we still want to be. So why with all that we’ve gained does it feel like we are less seen?
Or rather, seen through a compartmentalized myopic lens that is misrepresentative of how we see ourselves; often pegged as either matronly and sensible, or a heavily plasticized, re-touched and sugar-coated version of our former selves.
Sexually too, we are rendered into two dimensional constructs: dismissed entirely as sexually irrelevant or type cast into cougars. As a woman in her 40’s along with a slew of other “middle ragers”, I can attest that we don’t fit neatly into either slot, neither of which encompasses the different variances of our maturing identities, subsequently leading us to assimilating and identifying with another generation (read younger) instead of reflecting our own. Ultimately, that leads to frustrations, self-doubt, and a little bit of that middle rage as we try to navigate the prickly journey of maturity with a road map that is not entirely of our own making.
What is so unseemly about a varied vivid depiction of the middle set in all its myriad colors? Certainly, the bevy of smart successful women I interviewed for this article were still living their lives out large, empowered with the perspective their age allowed them. A more intellectualized take on their femininity, one that they explore, experiment and play around with more confidently than in their 20’s, having learned a few tricks of the trade along the way.
“With age comes confidence and the skill to use your femininity as a tool, a toy, something you use to have fun with,” says Malak Beydoun, Brand Director of Lebanese handbag label Sarah’s Bag. A greater acceptance of oneself, the good bits along with the wobblier ones, celebrating the telltale signs of the glorious, varied lives filed under their belts. Now, isn’t that something we should be advocating to see! The resplendently grey perched along the “forever young”, the 40-year old’s that look 30, the naturalists who don’t give a damn how old they look, the eccentrics, the diminutive and demure, the bold, brash and brazen. Thought leaders, politicians, CEOs, directors, editors, moms, models, wives, ex-wives we are all there, going about our messy, caffeinated lives in full force. So, maybe it’s time you looked.
With a US demographic of over 65 million Gen Xers, there are more women over 50 than ever before, many of whom are not ready to leave the party and obsess over their kids, nails, or fine lines (ok, maybe just a little), but are out there, participating, making a difference. Changing the narrative.
One of my closest Lebanese friends, now 51, underwent her second “re-start” – the first at 40 with a career reboot – this time round with a complete life re-haul, change of country, career, and a re-questioning of her couple-doom. Sure, there was fear, but fueling her was the confidence stemmed from experience, the gumption not to take life sitting down, at no point questioning age as a deterrent; leveraging it to assume her role center stage. Guns blazing. Presence being known. Narrative being re-written.
As noted presciently by Rita again, “The only way we can change how people see us is to celebrate how we see ourselves. To take responsibility not to ascribe to certain social or self-imposed ideals and start to dismantle them and show their irrelevance.”
It all starts with us, in breaking our own molds and perceptions. Supporting other women and not calling them out for their grey hairs or villainizing them for their full-frontal nudes. In speaking out, being more present. Not asking for permission to roar a little loader, and not step too softly into the future for fear of making a dent. For us to be seen on our own terms, the discourse must start with us rather than waiting for others to portray us in a favorable light. And that means not shying away from the conversation, the prickly stuff no one talks about, but are just dying to ask: Hot flashes, menopause, dwindling and raging sex drives, Botox, no Botox, sagging skin, going grey, dating again, changing careers. Never pressing pause.
So. Readjust the lens. Shine a light on daring to age radically, with power and purpose as well as grace. Because we are all that, and then some (lumps, bumps, jiggles, and all). It’s up to us to make sure you see it. Curtains up. The show is just about to start.