I AM still not sure what possessed me to post that selfie on Instagram early on a Sunday. But the reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that I knew I had touched upon a sensitive subject.
Yes, we as older women also want to matter, and it's time to stand up and be seen. In all our vulnerability. Bent by the years, but not broken. Stronger and braver than when we were younger.
Perhaps it was the bravest thing I'd done in years. I've never exposed myself like this on social media before. Without a hint of makeup, without filters, without sunglasses or a hat or a wine glass or any of the other props I usually hide behind in photos. Without lying on my back and looking up at the camera so the most irritating wrinkles were miraculously erased by gravity.
Yes, I know all the tricks in the book, and I often see them when I look at older women's selfies. The soft lighting, the blurriness that in the old days we called “Vaseline on the lens", the “selfie enhancement" that even the youngest girls apply. With the press of a button, you get bigger eyes, fuller lips, slimmer legs — without a trace of cellulite.
Actually, I hardly ever share selfies, except when someone else takes them, because then it isn't really a selfie but an “onsie", as people jokingly call it in Afrikaans. And if I must pose for this contemporary phenomenon, I pout mockingly or do something silly with my face to hide my discomfort. I'm simply not part of the self-conscious selfie generation; I don't consider myself an influencer; I use my Instagram account with my Afrikaans tongue firmly in my non-French cheek. I call myself @fakingfrench, and I mostly share photos of places I travel to, food I eat, books I read, moments of joy that brighten life.
Until that Sunday morning.
Perhaps I was just in the mood to protest like Amy Winehouse: “But I said no, no, no." No to all the falsehood surrounding women's appearances with which we are bombarded daily on social media, in movies and TV series, glossy magazines and advertisements. I've endured it for decades, I see the damage inflicted on women's self-esteem, and as we age, the pressure to fight against nature becomes worse. To conceal the wrinkles and the saggy and flabby parts of our bodies, to enhance lips and have firmer breasts, to look younger than we are.
Fuck it, I thought, for once I'll put my foot down. Tomorrow, I'll probably lift this craven foot again; tomorrow, I'll probably apply some lipstick and put on my broadest smile; tomorrow, I'll hide behind a funky pair of sunglasses again. But for now, I want to say: this is what I look like at 65 when I wake up in the morning. Take it or leave it.
Or perhaps there was a trigger after all. I've been observing it from afar for a while, especially older female Hollywood stars posting makeup-free selfies on Instagram. And while it's always comforting to see that even the most beautiful women have bags under their eyes or sunspots on their skin (misery seeks company, right?), I'm still somewhat sceptical of most of those selfies. If you've had who knows how many aesthetic surgeries or fillers for your cheeks or injections to paralyse your facial muscles, it doesn't require that much courage to pose without makeup. Even with no help, your face will still look years younger than it is.
And then Michelle Pfeiffer's (@michellepfeifferofficial) makeup-free “Selfie at 65" pops up while I'm sitting in bed drinking my coffee, and I accidentally see my own 65-year-old morning face in the mirror on the wardrobe, and I think, oh well, the playing field was never level, right? I don't know how much restoration to her face the beautiful Michelle underwent, because any possible nips and tucks were subtle enough not to turn her into a Madonna-like scarecrow, but even without makeup, she looks unfairly good. As a young woman, she was already more beautiful than most of her contemporaries, and at 65, she still is.
And from this slightly resentful admiration for a Hollywood star, my thoughts turn to Polish model Paulina Porizkova, whom I admire with no resentment because in her 50s, she has become a vocal advocate for positive ageing. Granted, she was unfairly stunning since she emerged as a supermodel at the age of 15 — which is why it's even more remarkable that she refuses to yield to the pressure to colour her grey hair or artificially rejuvenate her face.
When a plastic surgeon told her on social media last year what she could do to “restore" her face, her outraged response resonated with women worldwide, making them nod and cheer: This is what an older woman in the public eye gets to deal with. I'm told my face needs “fixing". It has somehow gone “wrong" by ageing. Is it any wonder that most of us who have the means will resort to some forms of fixing what we're told is broken? Read here what Paulina further writes about the shaming of older women and how we can support each other.
But in reality, the lovely Paulina is still a lambkin. She hasn't crossed the psychological and symbolic milestone of 60. Sixty is when the lambs are separated from the old ewes, when society officially labels you as “elderly", when you're entitled to cheaper train tickets and sometimes, if lucky, you pay less for a movie or a museum visit. (Just ask me, I use every single advantage that comes with my age. There are quite enough disadvantages I can't do anything about.)
And speaking of ewes, the 71-year-old Isabella Rossellini (@isabellarossellini) is one of the few famous Beautiful People I officially follow on Instagram, possibly because her selfies and videos often include the sheep on her farm. She doesn't need hashtags like #nomakeup, she usually captures herself makeup-free, spontaneous and unselfconscious near the lens, yet always irresistibly charming. The beauty house Lancôme fired her at the age of 45 because she became “too old" to be its face, but by 2016 it felt the winds of change blowing (or perhaps it could no longer ignore the purchasing power of older women) and at almost 64, Isabella was asked to become one of its models again.
Seven years later, Isabella is still a proud model — and role model for millions — sometimes with elegantly applied makeup on red carpets or posing with other supermodels, but she apparently feels stronger than ever about positive ageing. On August 19, she wrote on Instagram, after Vogue's latest issue dedicated to the supermodels of a few decades ago, that she is still looking for a “visual model" for people her age. Not a “still beautiful" example. Not looking back but forward… something to thrive for, to desire. What comes to mind are images of Georgia O'Keeffe as an old lady.
With these words, she posted a photo of the iconic O'Keeffe with wrinkles deeply etched into her characterful face. She is still searching for examples in the fashion industry, wrote Rossellini, not about how to fight ageing and look younger than she is, but how to embrace her future as an older woman.
Many of us were proud when we read it. The post quickly got almost 60,000 likes and sparked more than a thousand comments. Can you hear the mighty roar, I want to sing, tongue in cheek, or as the historical (non-PC) Afrikaans song goes, En hoor jy die magtige dreuning… It's the song of the older woman's awakening — and she's fed up with society's lies and myths. I almost wrote “the patriarchal society", but I don't want to dilute my grouchy outcry with a quote that sounds like it's coming from Stereotype Barbie's mouth.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad about the Barbie movie, and it's quite something to repeatedly hear the word “patriarchy" in the biggest box office hit of the year, but it's not necessary to spell it out for us grouchy older women. That loathsome p-word has had an effect on our bodies for decades. It lives in our heads and even contaminates our dreams.
Underneath all the possible and impossible Barbies in the movie, from chubby Barbie to weird Barbie to wheelchair Barbie, I haven't seen a single Barbie with wrinkles. Barbie was born on March 9, 1959, making her roughly my contemporary, but no one in Barbie Land looks remotely like a woman of 64 or 65. There is that little scene where Barbie tells an elderly woman “in real life", “You are beautiful", and the wrinkled tannie replies, “I know." I read somewhere that the director, Greta Gerwig, had to battle with the producers to keep those few seconds.
One probably shouldn't believe everything one reads, but it seems Elderly Barbie is the ultimate taboo. The last one to fall, because no little girl is raised to want to grow old. Barbie shows you can become an astronaut or a brain surgeon — as long as you look forever young. You can even get old if you really must, but if you look old, it's over for you. There's no place for wrinkles or wobbly arms in Barbie Land.
It was probably this tangled web of resistant thoughts that led to that selfie. I didn't get thousands of likes, because I'm not Isabella Rossellini. I have about 2,000 “followers", and most of my posts hardly get 100 likes. But this one generated more response within hours than anything I've posted on Instagram.
There's a reason for makeup, someone remarked with a winking emoji. That is why I want to add that I'm certainly not against makeup. I rarely leave my house without putting on lipstick. And every time I have to perform in public, I'm grateful for a layer of makeup that can give my wavering self-confidence a boost. But I've lived hard, worked hard and played even harder to earn every wrinkle on my body. Laughed a lot to increase the wrinkles around my eyes and pondered deeply to justify the frown between my eyebrows. That's me — and I no longer want to be shamed for it.
I don't want to denounce my sisters who have had work done on their faces either. Older women should support each other, not criticise. There are enough people out there constantly criticising us. Who knows, if I were wealthy enough, maybe I would have yielded to the temptation too. I prefer to spend the money left at the end of the month, if there is any, on travels and experiences rather than on futile attempts to turn back the clock. In one of my first media interviews 30 years ago, I said travel does more for my soul than the most expensive face cream ever could — and I still believe that.
What I want to say to my sisters (old and young) is: do what you want with your body, it's yours. But let's think a bit differently about wrinkles and other signs of ageing. It annoys me that the wrinkles of attractive men over 40 are often considered sexy, but women over 40 must start concealing their wrinkles. In selfies, on social media, in glossy magazines and advertisements, everywhere you look, those lines that we've lived so hard for are “softened", blurred, sometimes completely erased, so that a 70-year-old actress on the cover of a glossy magazine sometimes has fewer wrinkles than a 30-year-old in real life.
As long as we believe this fallacy about women's wrinkles, we're digging a hole for ourselves. I almost wrote “phallusy", which means to mistake something for a penis when it's actually something entirely different.
I have a dream, like Martin Luther King and other dreamers, of a more just future for everyone. My dream includes older women with wrinkles, that those wrinkles will one day be valued, seen as lovely rather than something to be hidden. Like the 78-year-old Helen Mirren, who recently took everyone's breath away on the cover of DuJour magazine, with deep wrinkles and a kick-ass attitude. “This is not a portrayal of old age we are used to," writes Farrah Storr, editor of Elle UK. “This is an elegant older woman who might flash you a bit of beautifully collapsed side boob if you're lucky."
Look here at the sensational photos of positive ageing.
My wildest dream of the future even includes a scene where my future grandchild (whether a girl or a boy) will one day play with an Elderly Barbie. She will be a super-cool, strong and confident role model, beautiful and wrinkled, just like Helen Mirren.
♦ VWB ♦
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