By CAT FLEMING
The desexualization of post-menopausal women, and what to do about it.
Aging is terrifying! The older I get, the crueler this whole situation seems to me. It’s that evil louse, time (speeding up every damn year). The mirror is definitely part of it too. Every time I look myself, there’s another disagreeable development. The fine lines and spider veins on my face are deepening and spreading, I’m starting to get that chicken-neck thing and my jawline is getting so doughy that I’ll probably be developing jowls in the extremely near future. The sagging is not limited to my face either, my arms are looking like they’re getting ready to do the bat-wing droop, my thighs are turning to jelly-bags and my butt looks like it’s melting down the back of my legs. Yeah, not pretty.
But, this is all natural, right? And I should just accept it. Well, I don’t! When I first noticed it happening, I panicked and frantically started to exercise, diet and buy, buy, buy. I went on a crazed anti-aging binge. I spent more of my savings than I care to admit, and racked up obscene amounts on my cards, trying to stave off the vile curse. I’m not going to stop, either. It might be my tendency to be somewhat of a fighter, but if old-age wants me, it’s going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming, because I ain’t going willingly, sisters! Does that make me courageous, or pathetic? I don’t know, but you’re probably thinking that my frenzied war on corporeal decay will only last until I accept the inevitable and realize that aging is a natural process, it can’t be stopped, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
So, why am I? Wait, I’m going to say we, because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Why are we so petrified of getting old?
Well, you probably already know this, but I’m going to say it anyway, and I’ll keep on saying it until the scales are tipped. It all stems from the disempowering representations of women in the media.
Like this: Consumerism is propelled along its voracious course by media images. These are images of youth and perfection (you know the ones I’m talking about, think Victoria’s Secret – The New Shapes of Very Sexy commercials), and they are designed to make us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with our current state-of-being, so that we rush out and buy products designed to remedy all that depressing personal angst. And guess what? It works. When I see those Victoria’s Secret commercials, I get this vague feeling of self-loathing. And it gets worse, because then I look over at my husband and he’s practically drooling over those new shapes of very damned sexy, and I know it’s ridiculous, but I feel pangs of jealousy and envy, because I want to him to be drooling over me like that. Then I remind myself that I’m fifty years old and that my body is never going back to anything near the new fucking shape of sexy and I get angry at my husband, but it’s not his fault that the media are telling him what sexy should look like…
In his article, The Body in Consumer Culture, Professor Mike Featherstone of Nottingham Trent University argues that advertising is responsible for causing people to become so “emotionally vulnerable” that they continuously scrutinize themselves for physical flaws, which are no longer considered natural.
“Notions of ’natural’ bodily deterioration and the bodily betrayals that accompany ageing become interpreted as signs of moral laxitude…Within consumer culture it is hardly surprising that ageing and death are viewed so negatively.” ~Mike Featherstone
I’m pretty sure husbands were happier with their aging wives, back in the halcyon days (before it was okay to shove ‘as good as naked’ young nymphs in everyone’s faces), because they weren’t constantly and relentlessly barraged with reminders of how far their wives had strayed from the ideal shape of sexy. No wonder Viagra sales are booming…
“What am I if I’m not sexually attractive – am I anything?” ~Ella Dreyfus
That’s why my own aging upsets me so much. It’s not so much about the natural physical process (although I can’t deny that it hurts – literally), but how aging women are perceived, and received in our western society. We are looked at differently and treated differently, but we are the same (productive, competent and sexy women), on the inside. It’s a great grizzly suckfest, as far as I’m concerned, and I blame it on the media, and patriarchy, and most of all consumer capitalism.
Now many of you young ladies out there may be thinking, and you wouldn’t be the first, because I have actually been told this many times:
Quit your whining, bitch and age gracefully!
Well, I would, but it’s a bit hard when the media is telling me that getting old is ugly, and aberrant and that I need to buy anti-ageing creams, face lifts, liposuction and kill myself working out at the gym (when I could be doing a hundred other, more productive things), just to be acceptable to the world (not to mention to feel okay about myself). Seriously, riddle me this: human beings have a longer life span than ever before, but the “youthful” segment of that span is one of the shortest, so why is it that media images of youth dominate our cultural landscape? It’s just not equitable! I know what it’s all about (selling products), but it still doesn’t make any sense to me…
Another thing: probably around one-fifth of our entire population will be over sixty-five by the year 2021, so will one-fifth of the people we will see in the 2021 media be over sixty-five? Um, I think not.
And EEK! As our senior population’s age increases, its visibility progressively decreases, and older women have it way worse than older men. Susan Sontag noticed “the double standard of aging” decades ago; which is exemplified today in the all too common mind-set that men become distinguished-looking in old age and are still attractive to younger women, while women become old hags and are repulsive to the opposite sex, if not to everyone. Old(er) women are commonly represented in popular media as hysterical post-menopausal middle-aged bitches, sweet old grandmothers, evil witches and crazy old crones. This malignant scenario is played out every day in the media, through a perpetual cycle of desire and diminishment that sees women as sexual objects until they manifest signs of aging, at which time they are indifferently nudged to the margins of the public sphere to begin their rapid decline into obscurity and powerlessness. Nice…
“All your life you’ve been noticed – women grow up being looked at, no matter whether you’re attractive or not, you’re still the object of people’s viewing and commentary. But older women get ignored. You walk down the street, you pass a dozen old ladies and you wouldn’t even see them, your eyes go right through them. After all these years of being looked at and performing to that, suddenly there’s no audience, no one’s interested anymore.” ~Ella Dreyfus
What makes this picture worse, is the propensity for the popular media to cast women over the age of forty in the role of ‘villain,’ while regarding men over forty, as more appropriate ‘hero’ material than when they were younger. Margaret Gallagher said in her paper, Women, Media and Democratic Society, “This increasing ‘villainization’ of age is, it seems, confined to women. The double standard is undoubtedly linked to a gender-based tendency to judge women in terms of youth and sexuality, and to regard aging in women as synonymous with de-sexuality.”
Now, I hate to be the harbinger of doom (I’m talking to all you younger ladies out there as well), but all women, every single one of us, must face this scenario sooner or later. As we age the popular media gradually villainizes and de-sexualizes us, and eventually completely removes us from view. By eliminating our visibility they take away our voice. Without a voice we have no power. Our problem is stated.
With the population of women over the age of sixty-five set to double by the year 2051, the dilemma is intensifying. So, I am supposed to retire from the public sphere to live out the remainder of my life (which could be another forty or fifty years) inside my home, quietly, decorously and without any fuss? Not bloody likely!
Should we wait to do something about this until it reaches crisis point? No. Come on ladies, we need to look at it now!
How then, do we, as women, address this impending pandemic postmodern crisis, especially when it is rooted so deeply in the foundations of our patriarchal/consumer capitalist culture?
Well, I think we’ll have to look a bit closer at why the media depicts women in such a disempowering way, to understand it. Maybe then we’ll be able to envisage a workable solution.
We’ll start with patriarchy, which has commodified the female body. Luce Irigaray outlines the process in her book This Sex Which Is Not One, where she explains that society constructs men as producer-subjects and women as the objects of exchange. The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.
Then, how is attractiveness defined and who decides this? Well, I’ve got my eye on the consumer-capitalist hegemony (corporations, adverting agencies etc.). They have set up a template for female attractiveness that consists of a set of attributes which disempower most women to some extent, but it has had the most serious effect on post-menopausal women, who have been relegated to the margins of our visual field.
Consumerism is driven by desire, and we all know that desire is a response to the feeling of perceived lack. Advertisers have long known that in order to create desire for their products, they need only generate a feeling of deficiency in people and then position their products to alleviate the mass mirage of inadequacy (which they set up). Professor Mike Featherstone explains how in consumer culture the body is the quintessential expression of self and, for a woman in particular, the physical state of her body acts as visible proof of her worth. Disturbing? Yeah, at least, but I think the most distressing part of this distortion is the current narrowly-defined template for female beauty.
Susan Sontag asserts that men are judged by two standards of physical attractiveness, the boy and the man, whereas women are judged by only one, the girl. You’ll probably agree with me that the prototype of the ideal postmodern female is a tall, skinny teenager with a smooth, unblemished complexion, long luxurious hair, curly-long eyelashes and pouty lips. We are constantly barraged with images of these sexy child-women. These are the devices advertisers employ to keep us in a constant state of anxiety about our physical appearance, so that we ‘need’ to purchase more and more products to restore our flawed bodies to an imagined state of perfection. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf claims that this rigid model of female beauty is like an ‘iron maiden’ torture device, spawned as a backlash to feminism in order to limit women’s power by disrupting their internal sense of themselves. Wolf asserts that this male-controlled ‘beauty myth’ acts to silence women. But we will not be silenced!
Regardless of their age, women in the West are compelled to measure themselves against this artificial representation of femininity that is, in its rare embodiment, extraordinarily ephemeral. But when our reproductive years are over, it seems that our femininity licence expires and our graduated exile from the sexual economy begins. Menopause is frequently experienced as a descent into loneliness, isolation and abject self-loathing.
“There is some sort of culturally pervasive idea that post-menopausal women are no longer female.” (Sociology of Later Life)
Almost everywhere we, post-menopausal, women look we are slapped in the face by images of svelte, statuesque child-women castigating us for not being a facsimile of their photoshopped perfection. Every glance in the mirror reminds us of how far we have strayed from the ideal image of femininity; the femininity that previously defined us and told us who we were and how we were to be. Is it any wonder that so many post-menopausal women suffer from a loss of identity? Seriously, how can we help being indoctrinated by these images, when they are ubiquitous and endlessly revolving around us?
The age of forty seems to be the demarcation point for our decline; at least that’s when I began to notice time and its insidious effects. In our thirties we are still fertile, and we feel as young as we always did, only sexier, but virtually as soon as we hit the peri-menopausal years, we are confronted with rejection. The first and most ruthless rejection is the censure we perform every day when we look in the mirror. If we see a wrinkle, we try to pat it away with deep action day cream with nanosomes of pro-retinol A. If we feel a slight bulge over the top of our pants, we run down to the gym and fork out eight hundred bucks for a membership. If we spy some grey hairs in our still-luxuriant mop, off to the pharmacy we trot, for a packet of hair dye, or if we can afford it, to that funky hair salon downtown, where we could be up to four hundred dollars out of pocket, for one hair-do. We will go to almost any lengths to stave off the aging scourge, because if we don’t make an attempt to meet the ideal beauty standard, the ‘other’ rejection (I am referring to our rejection by other parties) might be more than we are able to bare.
Then, some time after fifty, when we’re absolutely post-menopausal, ‘other’ rejection is almost inevitable and although the degree of ‘other’ rejection we are to expect varies according to circumstances, it forms a multifarious array of humiliations, ranging from being ignored and talked down to by sales people, to being derided and ridiculed on the radio by punky little DJs, to being ostracized from cool third wave feminist sites, because we’re not “young feminists,” to being physically abused or attacked, because we look like the weakest target.
Obviously appearance is everything in our Western culture, and the older we get, the less attractive we become, and the less love we deserve. I know this because Nike told me so. Remember that TV commercial for Nike and Foot Locker that proclaimed boldly, “You’ve got to be young and beautiful if you want to be loved.” Is there any wonder, we women are terrified of aging? Although you may be one of the awesome few who are steely enough to have not succumbed to the multitude of constant and relentless messages like Nike’s, there are millions of women in the West who have, and are now afraid enough of aging to outlay money, and loads of it:
“Innumerable ads reinforce-and prey on-women’s fear of aging…
Seeking to forestall the inevitable, women spend an estimated $20 billion worldwide every year on skin-care products that promise to eliminate wrinkles and retard aging.” ~Michael Jacobson
I really hate to think that as long as there is capitalism, there will be images of willowy child-women hurled at us by advertisers and the media, harassing us into a state of distress about how we look, causing our men (and ourselves) to compare us to that impossibly perfect, almost inhuman stereotype. Should we just ignore it and hope it will go away? Hell no! We need to actively work on resolving this problem, ladies.
Okay, so we’re going to instigate change. Where do we start?
Well, we need to work on helping older women to reject their imposed invisibility and to step back into the public sphere. We also need to re-feminise the image of the older woman, which will instil it with power, and finally, we need to re-invest the public sphere (particularly the popular media), with these images.
Cheryl Dolby is a Virginia artist who has embraced her aging. She gives this advice to women:
“Think about allowing your wrinkles to act as a voice to proclaim and reclaim your power. What if our image of beauty changed and we revered wrinkles? What an interesting new world this would be.”
Now, as much as I love this notion, I just can’t see anything like it happening in the near future. Men are turned on by smooth, firm skin, and I have noticed that the older men get, the less discerning they are about who is in the skin, as long as it’s young and supple. I am also aware that any and all of the older women in the public eye have been artificially de-aged to some extent. This being said, how can we achieve the wonderful state of cultural maturity that Cheryl Dolby proposes?
Well, artists have already brought this major social injustice into the public eye, but has there been any significant change? The answer to that question is an obvious and resounding, No! What options do we, women have, then? I suppose we could force ourselves to stop caring about being sexually desirable, but is that fair? A lot of women love sex and we want to feel that we are sexy to our men; I know I do, after all, it’s as natural as breathing.
The only answer I can see is to elicit a change in the aesthetic for physical beauty, by attempting to amalgamate the spiritual, the emotional, the mental and the historical with the physical, for a beauty that is all of what a woman is, not just the shallowness of her exterior form.
Joanna Frueh suggests that we can achieve this through art, and I would agree that artists, theorists and producers of cultural critique are our all important advance guard, shouting the message out to the trend-setters and progressives, which is the indispensable first step in social action. However, this social injustice emerged from the proliferation of images in our society, and not just in the public sphere, either. These images are truly ubiquitous, they are in newspapers, magazines, on television, in films, on billboards, stickers, signs, brochures, children’s toys, books, phone aps, all over the internet and they’re even plastered over busses and other public vehicles. Advertising in all forms, fashion, news, film, photography, games, and art; these are the images that we must change. Take away the privileged position of the willowy child-woman in our popular media and put her back where she belongs, in her niche demographic! We older women have power in numbers, we must populate the popular media. We must dazzle the popular media with our myriad of appearances; our beauty must shine from every shape, size, color, contour and curve. We must believe that we are sexy and we must show the world that we are sexy, and that we are HERE! We must not let them relegate us to the margins of society for another minute!
Now, it sounds awesome, and it is, but it’s not going to be easy. To do this we must take our fair share of control in the production and dissemination of images. We must use our power in numbers and take control of our share of the massive social media networks. We must take media jobs, and work on changing policy. We must educate our girls to understand that this is all important for them as well, because youth is fleeting and we are living longer, so being an older woman is something they will have to live with for a long time. We must write it in articles, blogs, letters to editors, petitions, short stories, novels, plays, scripts, academic papers. We must take pictures, make films, paint, draw, sew, sculpt, fabricate, build. We must talk about it with our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our acquaintances, our bosses, our subordinates. Shout it out loud and clear to the world. We are here and we are gorgeous! We will not be invisible any longer!