Ageing gracefully: how women steer the line between inauthentic and old 38



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By Rachel Thorpe, La Trobe University; Bianca Fileborn, La Trobe University; Gail Hawkes, La Trobe University; Marian Pitts, La Trobe University, and Victor Minichiello, University of New England

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.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


What do you think it means to age appropriately? What stereotypes do you want to dispel about ageing women? What are your thoughts on the above responses? Tell us below.

Rachel Thorpe, Bianca Fileborn, Gail Hawkes, Marian Pitts and Victor Minichello

Rachel Thorpe Research Fellow, PhD candidate at La Trobe University Bianca Fileborn Research Officer at the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University Gail Hawkes Adjunct Associate Professor, Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University Marian Pitts Emeritus Professor, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University Victor Minichiello Emeritus Professor at University of New England

  1. Actually listening to my 43 year old talking about how her slightly younger sister dresses.
    , gave me an unusual pause moment before I went out the other day in a knee length fashionable dress. A quick selfie in the mirror with the comment ‘mutton,hogget,lamb,? to daughter and the quick reply ‘Perfect’ gave me confidence and the amount of both friends and strangers who complimented me made my day and also a wake a call not to dress appropriately for my age but to dress to feel ageless and confident.

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  2. There’s that pretty model that we all so don’t look like and she just makes you feel worse about those ten new wrinkles you just woke up with. Oh well!

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    • Don’t know what you see but to me se looks like the average over 60 woman who takes care of herself.

    • Genetically blessed. Typical over sixties looking woman, you would say, have to disagree but that’s nice, or we would all be the same.

  3. I still try to be well-groomed and I choose to dress in classic styles. Keep it simple works well for me!

  4. We all have a particular style when we dress. As we age, we simply modify that style to suit. I no longer go sleeveless as my arms are a little wrinkly. But my legs still look good, so I wear knee length dresses to emphasise the positives. My hair hasn’t turned grey yet, although there are more grey hairs every year. I sometimes use a natural semi permanent natural colour to please my husband, who likes my hair a darker shade.
    It is said that when we are young, beauty is seen on the outside and, when we age, we are given the opportunity to reveal our inner beauty.

  5. I think that women that have been in the workplace for a good number of years and into their 50s and 60s maybe even, tend to want to be more up with the fashion, due to being “out there”. There is still a lot of competing goes on with a few women as they get older.. Luckily I never felt the urge to be embroiled in that… As a tall well developed lady with longish blonde hair and looking, well younger than my years (genetics play a part too there)… I tend to not listen to what it is I am supposed to do with my hair, my clothes etc.. I don’t agree with older women in short skirts and I do mean really short, low cut tops, etc. or those sill extra high, high heels… the just look so silly….. and I have seen a few I can tell you…… Just be yourself, choose clothes that suit your colouring, style etc, accessories become very important too, just don’t go the gaudy, sparkly kind, but more elegant I would say… Clothes are so much cheaper now I reckon and mixing and matching is my thing… I have put on a lot of weight since giving up smoking 8 yrs ago, and well, menopause and the whole deal.. I go with it,, don’t try and wear things I did when a whole lot slimmer and still manage to look good… I wear my hair up mostly but in different styles.

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    • I love to see women with their hair up, it usually looks so elegant or at times funky and it’s all good. There’s nothing sadder than seeing women with no make-up and no effort made when dressing-up. So sad.

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