Forever 21

Like every other woman on social media, I am constantly bombarded with promoted posts about losing weight. Mostly I just scroll on by; but last week I saw something which stopped me in my tracks.  Here it is in all its glory:


What caught my eye wasn’t the diet advice (which I can’t even read because the type is so small). It was those drawings of the Five Ages of Woman, which as everybody knows are ‘super hot’, ‘hot’, ‘less hot but still trying’, ‘sexless frump’ and ‘decrepit granny’. They may not be a great advertisement for the keto diet, but they’re a good example of what I want to talk about in this post: the intimate, complicated relationship between ageism and sexism.

In ageist societies, getting older, frailer and less independent entails a loss of status and  respect. Old people, of both sexes, may be addressed familiarly by total strangers, offered unwanted and patronising ‘assistance’, and generally treated as incompetent or foolish. It’s often been suggested that women, whose status is lower to begin with, are treated even more disrespectfully than men. Marie Shear, for instance, who wrote incisively on this subject, recalls struggling to board a bus and being told by the (male) driver to take ‘big girl steps’—a humiliating injunction which it’s hard to imagine being addressed to a man in the same situation (‘big boy steps’?) But the tendency to belittle and infantilise old people does not affect women exclusively.

There is, however, another kind of ageism that is sex-specific (and specifically sexist), and which reflects the way women in patriarchal societies are defined by and valued for their sexual and reproductive functions. This form of ageism kicks in earlier–long before its targets could reasonably be described as old. It affects women of all ages, and shapes their experience of sexism at every point in their lives.

Consider, for instance, the peculiar linguistic etiquette which (in my culture, at least) dictates that one should never mention or inquire about an adult woman’s age. I was taught as a child that this was unspeakably rude: ‘ladies’, people said (because it was also rude to call them ‘women’), ‘are forever 21’ (this wasn’t a reference to fast fashion: at the time 21 was the age of legal majority). When I became an adult, this rule was applied to me too. I wish I had £10 for every time someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to know my age has either apologised for asking or made some awkward joke. It took me a while to realise that what was presented as courtesy (or when men did it, chivalry) was really no such thing. By treating references to a woman’s age as what politeness theorists call ‘face-threatening acts’, requiring either avoidance or elaborate mitigation, the culture I grew up in was sending the message that ageing, for women, was shameful.

Of course, that was several decades ago; but I don’t think the basic message has changed. If anything, the endless expansion of consumerism and the advent of digital media have made us even more obsessed with youth and beauty. Just as a woman can never be too rich or too thin, so she can never be–or at least appear to be–too young. ‘She doesn’t look her age’ is a compliment; ‘she really looks her age’ is an insult. The fact that we consider it a cruel humiliation to tell a woman she looks as old as she actually is speaks volumes about what we value in women, and think that women ought to value in themselves.

To see how ageism, as I put it before, ‘shapes women’s experience of sexism at every point in their lives’, take a look at any random collection of women’s magazines, newspaper problem pages or cosmetics ads. You will soon discover that the beauty industry defines ageing as something that begins in a woman’s late 20s. That’s when she’s told she should start using products designed to delay or disguise its effects. It’s also roughly the point at which she’s expected to start worrying if she hasn’t yet found a partner and started a family: the biological clock is ticking and her time is running out. Later she will be urged not to ‘let herself go’ and give her husband a reason to trade her in for a younger model. And later still she will be instructed in the art of growing old ‘gracefully’—accepting her devalued status and behaving/dressing accordingly.

We can follow this narrative through the images reproduced above. The three younger women are sexualised: they have long, flowing locks, wear tight-fitting clothes and heels (the first two also flash some skin, though the third is more covered up), and they are depicted in a classic ‘look at me’ pose—head tilted up or to the side, one leg bent at the knee, hand on hip. They’re desirable, they know it, and they take pleasure in being admired. The two older women, by contrast, are desexualised. Their hair is pinned up or cut short; their clothes are shapeless and unfashionable. They are walking rather than posing, clutching shopping bags in their hands, and looking down or away from the viewer’s gaze.

Language tells a similar story. In English we have numerous labels for women–for instance, ‘babe’, ‘chick’, ‘MILF’, ‘yummy mummy’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘biddy’, ‘bag’, ‘hag’—which locate them on a continuum of increasing age and decreasing desirability. From a feminist perspective all these labels are sexist, but the most overtly negative ones are those referring to the oldest women. This relationship is less clear-cut in the case of men. Though there are some insults for men that imply a connection between negative qualities and advancing age (e.g. ‘old coot/git/fart’), there isn’t the same insistence on categorising and judging men by their perceived sexual attractiveness. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that old men must be sexually undesirable. As women in the acting profession have been pointing out for years, ageing male stars go on being cast as romantic leads long after their female age-peers have been relegated to supporting roles.

But we shouldn’t overlook the point I was hinting at when I said that all the labels on my list were sexist. The hierarchy of value in which young women are worth more than old ones exists within a larger system of male dominance and female subordination. The objectification of babes and chicks is as much a part of that system as the contemptuous dismissal of old hags; they are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. Though ‘hag’ may be considered more insulting than ‘babe’, it’s really no great privilege to be a babe.

That’s why I’m not a fan of one now-common way of pushing back against sexist ageism —by insisting that older women can also be beautiful and desirable; or put another way, that women should maintain their status as sexual objects into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically by the beauty industry, which sells it as a way of ‘empowering’ older women. Some companies have modified their branding to project a more positive attitude: instead of advertising ‘anti-ageing’ products which will make women ‘look x years younger’, they now promote ‘pro-age’ products which will ‘repair the damage’ or ‘reduce the signs of ageing’.

In her book about modern beauty norms, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows is critical of this approach. She points out that what’s presented as a personal choice (‘getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your looks’) can easily turn into a moral obligation (‘getting older is no excuse for losing your looks’). Today, a woman who ‘lets herself go’ after having children, or after menopause, risks being shamed not only for her unattractive appearance, but also for her failure to ‘make the effort’. Far from pushing back against ageism, Widdows suggests, this message actually intensifies it.

But surely, you may be thinking, women are capable of seeing through this, and of resisting the pressure if they so choose? Clare Anderson, who has studied both the beauty industry’s discourse and women’s own talk about getting older, thinks it’s complicated. Many of the women she interviewed were indeed critical of the beauty industry, saying they knew it exploited their insecurities to sell them products. But they also said they bought the products anyway; and when they talked about their own experiences they often reproduced the industry’s ageist/sexist narratives (e.g. ‘ageing is decline’ and ‘it’s important not to let yourself go’). Whereas the men Anderson interviewed often said they felt more at ease with their bodies in their 50s than they had in their 20s, most women reported the opposite. Being aware of ageism, and in principle opposed to it, did not mean that in practice they could simply rise above it.

That’s also how I would interpret the responses I saw on social media to the ‘What to eat on keto’ image. Many critical comments were made by older women who objected to the stereotyping of their age-group as unattractive, shapeless frumps. Often they drew attention to the inaccuracy of these representations: ‘I’m over 50/over 60 and I don’t look anything like the woman in that drawing!’ And I’m sure they don’t (for the record, at 61 I don’t favour perms and shapeless slacks myself); but this line of criticism misses the point. It fails to acknowledge that the devaluation of women who do look old is fundamentally unjust; it also fails to connect the unjust treatment of visibly older women with another injustice that affects women in general, namely our culture’s insistence on judging them, at every age, far more by their looks than their achievements.

These responses underscore the point that attitudes which are damaging to women may be internalised by women themselves. And feminist women are not exempt. Having a feminist analysis of sexist ageism does not, on its own, destroy its power to wound you. And at the other end of the age-spectrum, as Claire Heuchan (aka the blogger Sister Outrider) recently reminded her followers on Twitter, a commitment to feminism may not prevent young women from weaponizing ageism in political conflicts with older ones.

What prompted Heuchan’s thread on this subject was noticing how much of the criticism recently directed to JK Rowling made use of ageist/sexist language. Rowling, now in her 50s, was called (among other things) a ‘dried up prune’, a ‘dried up old tart’, a ‘tired old bitch’ and ‘a bitter old hag who’s pissy because she doesn’t get as much attention anymore’. Noting that some of the people who used this language were women, Heuchan commented:

It can be difficult to unlearn ageist misogyny. In particular when there is a social reward (male approval) attached, and the opportunity to exceptionalise yourself through making demeaning comments about older women. It is patriarchal conditioning. But that doesn’t excuse it.

It’s not hard to understand young women’s desire to ‘exceptionalise themselves’. The trouble is that ageism makes no exceptions. Every young woman will—barring catastrophe—grow old; at some point her ‘youth privilege’, such as it is, will be revoked, and she too will become a target for ageist and sexist insults.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken. We can’t change the fact that people get older, but we can change the conditions–the attitudes and practices and social structures–that make ageing a source of fear and shame. Rejecting the kind of language I’ve discussed in this post–language that age-shames through avoidance, condescension  or outright contempt–would be a modest step in the right direction.


Postscript: the day after this was published a reader sent me a screenshot of another diet ad which uses the same format as the ‘What to eat on keto’ one–but this one targets men. The difference is instructive (and so obvious I don’t think I need to comment further):

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Many thanks to Brittney O’Neill for this example.