It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still look fabulous. This message is sold to us by magazines, newspapers, the cosmetics industry, fashion labels and dating agencies. Think of the recent movie based on the popular blog by Ari Seth Cohen, Advanced Style, which celebrates the fashion styles of older women, or the oft-cited example of 69-year-old British actress Helen Mirren.
We are often told that the baby boomer generation will resist existing stereotypes of old age and reinvent ageing. This message is supported by the ageing industry, which now promotes old age as a time of enjoyment: travelling, dating, enjoying sex and dressing in youthful styles.
However the industries that promote old age as a time for “being yourself” – fashion labels, travel agencies, cosmetic surgeons – are also responsible for deeply contradictory messages about looking old, particularly for women.
So Baby Boomers may be ageing differently. But how can they age on their own terms when the acceptable ageing face is one that still holds youthful appeal?
Our research set out to explore how Australian baby boomer women felt about their bodies in older age through in-depth interviews with 58 women aged 55 to 81.
Contradictions of the older body
Most of the women lamented the bodily changes that had accompanied ageing, citing weight gain, breasts that were “hanging down”, “droopy” bodies and “fatty areas and folds of skin that have given way to gravity” as visible evidence that they were no longer young.
However they also discussed finding aspects of their bodies attractive.
Those who were in relationships noted that bodily appearance was less important when they were with their partners or during sex. As this participant discussed:
When we are having sex I feel great about my body. Because you are involved, you love the other person and you feel attracted to them and it’s exciting, so you are just in the moment.
Some indicated that bodies gained meaning with age, citing scars, sun damage, stretch marks and wrinkles as embodied symbols of their lives, including pregnancies and illness. As one participant said:
When I look in the mirror I think “ooh there are some really good things”. Got more wrinkles than I would like, but oh who cares really. I like the sun.
These findings remind us that external appearance and experience of the body both contribute to our overall assessment of how we feel about our bodies and ageing.
The challenge of ‘appropriate ageing’
When considering their appearance in public, most of the women emphasised the need for women “of a certain age” to “make an effort” with their appearance in order to appropriately represent their age.
But what does it mean to “age appropriately”?
For some of the women we interviewed this term was used to imply not dressing in a style that could be regarded as too young and risking being labelled “mutton dressed as lamb”. Styles that revealed “crinkly flesh” such as short skirts, sleeveless tops and low necklines were deemed inappropriate.
Others believed that it was acceptable for older women to wear youthful styles of clothing if they still looked good in them. These women often considered themselves to be “ageing well” in that they were slimmer and younger-looking than their peers.
Many participants considered it inappropriate to dress like “a little old lady”. Shapeless dresses, permed hair and calf-length skirts were all deemed old fashioned and therefore inappropriate for the contemporary older woman. As one woman said:
As you get older it feels to me a line that you’ve got to steer between looking chic, smart, stylish, attractive, and looking try hard.
This idea of “steering a line” reflects our finding that these women believed it was difficult or impossible to achieve the desired appearance. Yet media images imply that older women can achieve “the look” effortlessly. As this woman said:
In photos I see a plump older person badly dressed, despite my efforts, when I should be looking more like what appears in the magazines, although I don’t read the magazines.
On going grey
The question of when and if to “go grey” generated many conflicting opinions. Some women considered the use of hair dye beyond a certain age to be inauthentic because it was “easily identifiable”.
Others discussed colouring their hair as a strategy in order to not be treated as “old”, particularly in the workplace, reflecting the fact that half the women were still working. As one woman commented:
I think grey hair is very ageing. And again it’s the image you present to the world, if you are presenting as a grey haired old lady that’s much worse than being a non-grey haired old lady.
Although women can choose whether to colour their hair, our participants believed this was a significant choice that had potential consequences for their social identities. Again, they felt they needed to “steer a line” between inauthentic and old.
The need to look feminine
While the women expressed conflicting and often contradictory perspectives on the rules of ageing, most agreed that such rules existed and were based on taken-for-granted shared understandings about the negative social status of looking old and the acceptable presentation of femininity in public. As one participant suggested:
As the body ages you need to draw attention to your assets and keep what no longer looks so good under wraps – it’s really an extension of what a woman learns to do earlier on if she wants to look her best.
Rather than old age being about release from the demands of femininity, these women indicated that appearance remains important to older women.
Rejecting some stereotypes
These findings suggest that baby boomer women are dressing differently and rejecting a look they associated with their mothers.
But these women cannot simply dismiss social messages that associate beauty with youth, particularly given their ongoing participation in the workforce.
Women’s understandings of appropriate ageing were informed by beliefs that to look old is to risk loss of social status, even though they also offered alternative bodily meanings.
Social media and e-technology may offer new opportunities for older women, given it’s shaping people’s lives and how they connect and establish relationships, including sexual relations. Older women can use social media to influence how their bodies and sexual selves are portrayed and create new images of women’s bodies in later life.