Women over 50 make up the largest demographic segment in America and we are almost entirely invisible in the media.
His hair is always gray. Hers is usually blonde, or any other color but gray. He’s got some road behind him—you can tell by a few telltale wrinkles. She looks like a slim, youthful 35.
If these stock photos were used for generic articles about sex and relationships, I’d think, Yeah yeah yeah…older man, younger woman…blah blah blah. But when they are used as the lead image within the article or on social media for essays about marriage, dating, or sex during middle age, I object. And oh do I cringe.
You don’t just see it with blog posts. You see it in the movies, and on every single Viagra and Cialis commercial on television. Some gray-headed guy wants to be ready when the moment is right with his life partner who looks like a model from the Talbots catalog. She doesn’t look 18 or like she weighs 92 pounds, but she does look like she could almost be his very attractive daughter. She does not look menopausal, that’s for sure.
Let me be clear. I am not objecting to photographs and television commercials depicting older men with younger women per se, although I am sick of that if you really want to know.
Right now, in this post, I am objecting to media creators making an infuriating choice. That choice is to represent middle-aged heterosexual couples using an obviously middle-aged male model/actor, but not using an obviously middle-aged female model/actor. Apparently middle-aged women can neither look their age nor represent other women their age. It would be so icky!
This should make all women angry, not just the ones who are no longer young, because almost all of us end up here, right where I am.
There is not enough writing about ageism among the enormous groundswell of feminist writing about beauty and body image. We talk a lot about how the media bombards us with imagery of emaciated and sexualized female bodies, and a lot of that writing is being done by talented and inspiring women of all ages. It is greatly needed and I have no complaints about it.
Funny thing, though. I think it’s a toss-up as to whether media shows us that the worst thing that can happen to a woman in our culture is to get fat or to get old. Not that it’s a contest—it’s not. But we will all get old, those of us who don’t die first. Women over 50 make up the largest demographic segment in America and we are almost entirely invisible in the media. What an outrage that we have even gone missing from photography and other visual media that claims to be specifically about middle-aged women. That hypocrisy leaves me in despair.
I also blog for The Huffington Post, and one of the most egregious offenders when it comes to using stock photography that subs in younger women for middle-aged ones is Huff/Post50. Seriously! I have written to them asking that they reevaluate what they are doing—but I’m not holding my breath for a response.
I’ve got to be honest. When I was in my 20s, 30s and even into my 40s, this issue was invisible to me too. I engaged in the same thought pattern that is so typical of youth—that it would be a long time before I was middle-aged and eventually old, so it really didn’t bear thinking about. There were so many other crucial issues for feminism to take up that applied to me directly in those years, and the intersection of misogyny and ageism just wasn’t on my radar. What a difference a decade makes.
To young women: I know it seems impossibly far off, but this will happen to you too, if you’re lucky. In fact, it will happen so quickly it will be like blinking your eyes and suddenly finding yourself stranded on the Island of Irrelevance, wondering why you got shipwrecked there and how to read a map of this new stage of life you must navigate.
I’ll share a secret. Middle age is awesome. I’ve never felt more confident, more settled, more creative, or wiser. I’m even rocking the salt and pepper look. I wish media would present this reality, and show it without Botox, and without younger women portraying older ones. We can hold our own just as we are—you know, like men do—and the rest of society would benefit from seeing us do so.
And before anyone admonishes me for wanting to see images of middle-aged women who look middle-aged, pulling out that tired “50 is the new 30” trope and defending a woman’s choice to do whatever she wants with her face and her body, suggesting that some of the “younger women” I notice in photos and ads might actually be in their 50s and have simply kept themselves up or gotten a little work done, which is their right…I just want to say:
Yes. Women do look better than ever these days as they age. Many of us look much younger than our mothers and grandmothers did at similar ages, thanks to healthier diets, more exercise, advances in medical treatment, and a colossal and predatory beauty industrial complex. As women we can make whatever choices we like about our appearance. I might question the definition of “choice,” given the effects of today’s marketing and media culture on females, but do we get to choose? Yes.
Still, something is bothering me that can’t be intellectualized away.
What is the message to women (and impressionable girls…and men and boys) when media erases middle-aged women who simply look their age and choose not to do anything about it? Because they are being erased while men who age naturally are not.
I suppose as a woman you can choose to fight aging, or to fight being made to feel like you should fight aging. Either way, it’s unfair, it’s tiring, and it’s patriarchy. No thank you.
This piece was originally published in rolereboot.org. Lori Day is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More.